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Costume Drama Thursday: Mansfield Park

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I have a theory about the Janeite world: Either you like Fanny Price or you like Emma. I’ve never run into anyone who likes both.

Mansfield Park is the longest of Austen’s novels. It’s not my favorite (that would be Persuasion) nor my least favorite (that would be Emma), but there are parts of MP that I truly love—and parts I’m more than happy to skip over.

Fanny Price is plucked from poverty as a child and taken to live with relatives at stately Mansfield Park. Surrounded by entitled and vain cousins, Fanny forges a connection with one—Edmund Bertram. Years later, two neighbors fresh from a life in high society descend on Mansfield Park, sparking a labyrinth of intrigue and affairs. Fanny finds herself being pursued, but not by the longstanding love of her life. Can Fanny listen to her own heart and wait for her true love to notice her?

Despite the 1999 film version which turns MP into a “fun and sexy comedy” that “tells a timelessly entertaining story where wealth, secret passions, and mischievous women put love to the test . . . with delightfully surprising results,” Mansfield Park is Austen’s most serious novel with her most serious characters and situations. At the age of nine, after having been forced to grow up too quickly in her own home, where she’s had to take care of the house and her younger siblings all her life, Fanny Price is sent to live with her mother’s sister, who married a wealthy baronet, at Mansfield Park (introducing one of Austen’s favorite themes right off the top: wealth and social status). At MP, Fanny is basically left to raise herself based on the ideals and morals instilled in her as a child—and because of constantly being berated by her aunt Mrs. Norris, Fanny does her best to become someone who gains no notice for herself, who feels gratitude toward those around her who’ve done so much for her, and to live up to the unrealistic expectations set on her by Mrs. Norris.

Fanny Price has been called the “moral compass” of all the characters in Mansfield Park, as she has a childlike view of right and wrong, good and evil. She does not see in shades of gray (not only is she still very young when the main action of the story takes place, but she’s lived an extremely sheltered—shall we call it cloistered?—life). However, in the end, it is this naivety, this childlike approach to morality, that saves her when she sticks firmly to her beliefs and effectively removes herself—by way of banishment from Mansfield Park and everyone she has come to love there—from the taint of the bad things brought about by others not living to those same standards.

And without a full exploration of the events that happen in the novel that show us Fanny’s innate goodness and her wonderful simplicity in thought, the viewer of a film adaptation of this novel will never understand exactly how emotionally complex Mansfield Park and Fanny Price are. In addition to exploring that favorite theme of wealth and social status, Austen takes on deeper issues here, such as nature vs. nurture (why did Fanny, raised in the same household as Maria Bertram, turn out to have such strong morals while Maria did not?). As Austen’s third published novel, MP explored an area of life only hinted at in S&S and P&P—sexual promiscuity and sexual attraction vs. love. Fanny is against the theatrical the rest of the young people wish to put on in Sir Thomas’s absence because of its sexual themes and overtures—because those are inappropriate for a group of unmarried young people to be acting out. Would the affair that happens at the end of the novel have taken place without the theatrical? Possibly. But Austen uses the theatrical to introduce the idea that encouraging temptation in a seemingly fun/innocuous way opens the door for a world of sin and pain later.

And this is why the 1983 version of MP will be my favorite until someone does another faithful miniseries adaptation of the novel. No, the acting isn’t great. Yes, it has that old style “inside looks like it’s a theater stage not a real house” style cinematography, but it’s the only version I’ve ever seen that actually stays true to the character of Fanny Price and the complex themes Austen explored in the novel. (And a little piece of trivia for Ruth: Jonny Lee Miller, who would go on to star as Edmund Bertram in the 1999 “romantic comedy” version of MP played Fanny Price’s younger brother Charles Price in the 1983 version!)

There are three main adaptations of MP—the 1983 BBC version (the one I like), the 1999 “romantic comedy” version (starring Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller), and the absolutely botched 2007 version starring Billie Piper and Blake Ritson, which aired during the 2008 PBS Complete Jane Austen Series (read my review here).

What about you? Have you seen MP? Do you like it? hate it? Which version do you like?

  1. Sylvia M. permalink
    Thursday, September 23, 2010 11:12 am


    I love the 1983 version of MP! The only thing missing is a kiss between the hero and heroine at the end and the lack of a courtship between Edmund and Fanny. They certainly could have cut out a few things and added it in. The ending was terribly rushed. It made one feel like Edmund married her to get back at Miss Crawford instead of actually falling in love with Fanny.

    This is one of the best Austen adaptations period. The script writers and directors got it. They seem to have understood Austen’s writing and meaning.

    One of my favorite scenes that is almost exact according to the novel is the trip to Southerton. I love the whole chapel and garden gate scenes. Those scenes alone forshadow what will happen in the rest of the novel.

    Another favorite scene is where Edmund and Fanny are standing on the stair landing before the ball. I just wanted him to shut up about Mary Crawford and kiss Fanny senseless! She must have been dying inside. The camera work as well as the acting was excellently done in that scene imo. A beautiful shot I also admire is in the scene where Edmund tells Fanny about his last conversation with Mary. They are in the library and it’s raining outside. I love the way that scene ends with the heroine in profile like those Regency sillouettes one sees.

    Actually, I don’t think it’s as “stagey” as the rest of the Austen adaptations of the 1970’s and early 1980’s. In some ways it reminds me of P&P 1995 with the nice closeups of faces and visual flash-backs when a letter is being read.

    MP 2007 was quite laughable. I’ve seen it more than once, but it’s certainly not Austen. I’ve never seen MP 1999. I’ve read enough about it that I have decided against it for moral/spiritual reasons.


  2. Sylvia M. permalink
    Thursday, September 23, 2010 11:14 am

    Oh, I’m glad you are feeling better. Fevers and sinus headaches can be most miserable! 😦


  3. Audry permalink
    Thursday, September 23, 2010 11:49 am

    Now I’m going to have to read Mansfield Park AND Emma, to see which one I like. I’ve never read either.


    • Sylvia M. permalink
      Thursday, September 23, 2010 12:18 pm

      I like Emma a little better than MP , but MP is still good imo. It’s fourth on the list in my Austen book lineup. I started MP a couple of times and didn’t finish it. Finally, I sat down and got past the place that I always stopped at and didn’t take long to finish it that time. Since then I’ve read it several times. If you can ever get ahold of the Naxos audio unabridged editions of the six JA novels you are in for a treat. Juliet Stevenson reads all of them except P&P and The Watsons and Sanditon. P&P is read by Emilia Fox with the latter two being read by Anna Bentinck. I own this audio version of MP and Juliet Stevenson does a fantastic job on it. She does all the different character voices and it feels like one is really in the book.


  4. Sarah R permalink
    Tuesday, September 28, 2010 3:32 pm

    I’ve never seen the 1983 version or the 2008 version of MP but I have seen the 1999 version. My mother ordered it for me only because she knew it was a Jane Austen story. When the movie arrived, the summary on the back made us both blush and we wondered whether we should even bother watching it. For some reason we decided to try it and after watching it, it seemed like the copy editor made the movie seem much more sensual than it really was. There is only one scene in it that I can think of that might be considered a little steamy but the rest of it was pretty good. Not my favorite Jane Austen movie but way better than I was initially led to believe.


  5. Tuesday, July 26, 2011 1:10 am

    I’m not that impressed by any of the adaptations of “MANSFIELD PARK”. All of them are too flawed for my tastes. And I’m not that much of a fan of the novel or of its heroine, Fanny Price. The story itself is tainted by too much hypocrisy.


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