These adaptations all turn Austen’s novels into what we recognize as romantic comedies, with their witty heroines, diffident men, clueless parents, and various plot complications that lead inevitably to marriage to a handsome, charming man of immense wealth. That approach fits some novels better than others — Pride and Prejudice seems like the quintessential Austen novel precisely because it fits our pre-existing ideas of the rom-com structure so neatly — and much of the criticism of the recent Persuasion film boils down to the idea that it ignores that novel’s brooding quality and tries to pretend Anne Elliot is another Elizabeth Bennet.
It’s too late for Persuasion now — we’ll have to wait another ten years for a film to do it justice. But Austen has another bleak masterpiece, maybe more intractable to adapt than Persuasion because it departs even more sharply from what we think of as the Austen template, and one that’s about due for a new screen adaptation: Mansfield Park.
In her infamously titled essay “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argued that Austen novels were structured around the spectacle of “the girl being taught a lesson” and that the lesson was generally taught by a man. Sedgwick’s argument works well in some cases: it fits Henry Tilney’s reprimand of Catherine Morland’s Gothic fantasies in Northanger Abbey, and Knightley’s harsh rebuke of Emma’s behavior after the Box Hill picnic in Emma.
It’s less convincing for Austen’s other novels, where male characters who can be trusted to guide a young woman are notably absent. In those books, Austen structures her narratives so that the events of her characters’ lives teach them the lessons they need to learn. But if we alter Sedgwick’s terminology slightly and say the novels center on a young lady learning a lesson and changing her mind, then we hit the heart of Austen’s rom-com appeal. It’s the transformation of the heroine’s thinking that gives these books their unique frisson: Elizabeth’s recognition of Darcy’s true character, Emma’s sudden realization that she loves Knightley, Marianne’s maturing to the point where she can appreciate a man like Colonel Brandon. Even the “second chance at love” plot in Persuasion offers a similarly satisfying turnaround, with Anne finally getting the man she thought she had lost. As a culture, we love these spectacles of a young woman being massively, often humiliatingly wrong, and then correcting her error just in time to secure a happy ending.
Mansfield Park is nothing like this. The third novel Jane Austen published, after Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, its central difference from her earlier work can be found in its central character: Fanny Price is never wrong. This, unfortunately, makes her a very dour, unappealing figure after the sparkling wit of Elizabeth Bennett, who may have been misguided but was always the most outspoken and fun character in any room. In Fanny, Austen seems to have set out to create an ideal of female goodness. The problem is, female goodness turns out to be a largely negative quality. There are two major instances where Fanny displays her superior moral judgment, and both are refusals: she refuses to act in the play Lovers’ Vows, and she refuses to marry the rakish Henry Crawford. This second refusal infuriates her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram.
It’s as if Sir Thomas has read Austen’s earlier novels and shares Sedgwick’s interpretation of them. He looks at his stubborn niece, moping by the fire and refusing to marry an eligible young man who claims to love her, and he thinks, “Ah-ha—here is a girl who needs to be taught a lesson!” And who better to teach her that lesson than himself? When Fanny won’t yield to persuasion, Sir Thomas sends her away from Mansfield to live in squalor with her drunken father, overwhelmed mother and innumerable siblings in Portsmouth, a proceeding he thinks of as “a medicinal project upon his niece’s understanding.” (It’s reasonable to read Sir Thomas’s cruel treatment of Fanny here through the lens of his recent trip to his slaveholding plantation in Antigua — as many scholars have done.)
But Sir Thomas misreads the novel he is in. Mansfield Park is Austen’s attempt to avoid the spectacle of the girl being taught a lesson, and the plot continually justifies Fanny’s choices. She is right that Henry Crawford is an untrustworthy rake — he proves it by seducing her cousin Maria away from her husband and then abandoning her. The character who needs to be taught a lesson is Sir Thomas himself, and he learns it at the cost of his family’s reputation. In the end all he can do is welcome Fanny back to Mansfield, confess to her that she was right and he was wrong, and let her marry his younger son Edmund, which is what she has wanted all along.
This is the dark irony of the novel, which no one has so far dared to put onscreen: all the men recognize that Fanny is superior to them in every way, but this superiority does her no good. She can’t go into the military, or practice law, or enter Parliament — the professions that Mary Crawford lists to Edmund as opportunities for a man to distinguish himself — because they are just that: opportunities for a man. With no scope to exercise her superior qualities in the world and time she lives in, she becomes the wife of a country clergyman, and that, we are told, is her happy ending.
It’s a grim vision, not amenable to easy adaptation. Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film expands on the novel’s brief references to slavery, which darkens the tone, but also turns Fanny into a budding writer by attributing some of Austen’s own juvenilia to her. The end implies that Fanny will become a great novelist, which takes all the bite out of Austen’s vision and turns a quiet tragedy into a ringing success story by giving Fanny precisely what the novel denies her: a plausible way to exercise her superiority in the society of her times. The 2007 TV movie starring Billie Piper misses the point completely and treats the book as another frothy rom-com in period dress.
Mansfield Park needs a filmmaker willing to take the measure of its breadth and depth and bring all aspects of the book to the screen, not simply lop off the ones that don’t fit the template. Surely a contemporary audience could handle that?
Perversely, the largely negative reaction to the Netflix Persuasion may be cause for hope if it suggests audiences are wearying of the standard approach to Austen as the genteel great-grandmother of the modern romantic comedy. Fanny Price and Anne Elliot aren’t failed attempts to re-create Elizabeth Bennet, who just need to be made a little brighter and bubblier for film audiences; they’re different characters who have been shaped by Austen’s changing view of society and developing artistic approach. Turning all her novels into Pride and Prejudice does an injustice to Austen’s greatness, flattening her work and robbing her vision of its complexity. Let’s hope that if we do get a new film of Mansfield Park, it puts the novel’s dark, difficult elements onscreen rather than erasing them.
Brooke Clark is the author of the poetry collection Urbanities, book reviews editor at Able Muse, and the editor of the online epigrams journal The Asses of Parnassus. Twitter: @thatbrookeclark