Mansfield Park Revisited

tt0178737This past weekend I joined several Washington Romance Writer (WRW) friends at the home of Kathleen Gilles Seidel to watch two film versions of Mansfield Park: The 1999 version with Frances O’Connor and Johnny Lee Miller; and the 2007 TV version with Billie Piper and Blake Ritson. Kathy had invited us to watch the movies with her, because she is scheduled to give a talk about Mansfield Park at WRW’s January meeting next Saturday. Also in preparation for Kathy’s talk, I am rereading Mansfield Park and am about halfway through.

Kathy Seidel’s annual Jane Austen-related talk is a WRW highlight for me. Kathy is an Austen scholar, having written her Ph.D. dissertation on Austen, but she is also hugely entertaining and her talks are always intelligent, stimulating and useful for writers. More on her Mansfield Park talk next week.

tt0847182We’ve discussed the Mansfield Park movies here at Risky Regencies before, most recently after the 2007 TV version was released, and most of us have generally thought the movies pretty dreadful. The WRW group was no different. The 1999 version was particularly abysmal, having very little to do with the book and having almost none of Austen’s sensibilities included. The 2007 version did not change the story quite as drastically, but when it did, it changed it in incomprehensible ways that made no sense at all. In both versions, the main characters were changed very drastically–except for Mary and Henry Crawford, the worldly brother and sister who come for an extended visit. The Crawfords are often described as the most interesting characters in the book.

The Fanny and Edmund of the book are very unlike the heroine and hero we would expect in a book of romantic fiction today.

Fanny is timid, self-effacing, and long-suffering, but she is the moral compass of the book, the one character who consistently acts in a principled manner. In other words, she doesn’t change in the book. She stands firm, no matter what happens to her. This was obviously Austen’s vision for Fanny, but I think today’s reader wants heroines who strive actively to reach their goals, not ones who merely endure what happens to them.

Edmund shares Fanny’s view of morality, but he is very easily swayed by the manipulations and allure of Mary Crawford. That is not the sort of hero who interests me. I want my hero to be strong enough and wise enough to see through the clever manipulations of others, and I do not want him to be tempted to fall in love with a character who is not the heroine.

At the end of the book (or the movies) you are glad Fanny and Edmund wind up together, but it was hard to feel strongly enough about either of them to actually root for them to wind up together.

I was thinking that today’s romance novelist would probably choose Mary and Henry Crawford as more likely candidates to be hero or heroine. Now those are two characters who could do with a strong character arc. Do you know if anyone has written such a version?

What do you think are the most important elements in a hero or heroine?

I also watched the first episode of season three of Downton Abbey. It occurred to me that one of the reasons that the series is so successful is that all of the characters are interesting and all have ways they can change, ways we can root for them.


About diane

Diane Gaston is the RITA award-winning author of Historical Romance for Harlequin Historical and Mills and Boon, with books that feature the darker side of the Regency. Formerly a mental health social worker, she is happiest now when deep in the psyches of soldiers, rakes and women who don’t always act like ladies.
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16 Responses to Mansfield Park Revisited

  1. So, where to start … first of all, I’m one of those weird people who loved the 1999 Mansfield Park precisely because it took such major liberties with the book and picked up on the abolitionist subtext (which is all over Austen if you know where to look for it). It was brilliantly cast and acted. I also love the novel, which I consider Austen’s sexiest and smartest books (pity about the heroine… and the hero). The 2007 version was dumbed down and bizarrely cast.

    I think it’s always a mistake to evaluate Austen in terms of modern romance. It’s not a good fit for so many reasons, the main one of which is she does not write HEA endings. She lets her characters drift to the altar and, having depicted mostly sad, worn out and failed marriages in the novel, lets you draw your own conclusion. Fanny isn’t a kickass heroine by any means but she’s all about steadfastness, endurance, and moral choices. But so is Ann Eliot in Persuasion who’s regarded as some sort of iconic heroine for the ages. Realistically the women of Austen’s class and times had few choices: they could be conflicted but what sort of goals could they reach for?

    The Crawfords are extremely attractive (particularly in the 1999 film) and I’m sure someone has let them rip somewhere. But they’re just the sort of characters–sexy, charming, unprincipled–that Austen didn’t want us to like, ultimately, along with Wickham and Willoughby.

    Rant over.

    • diane says:

      I think I would have liked this movie better if it had not pretended to have any connection with Austen. I agree that some of the actors were well-cast, but the actress who played Mary Crawford looked about twice the age of a very young Johnny Lee Miller. James Purefoy was a pleasure to watch, though.

      I did not dislike the Fanny of the book. I “got” her. I understood that this book was about remaining morally steadfast in the face of incredible pressures. It wasn’t a romance. Jane Austen didn’t have to try to meet Romance reader expectations!

      And I agree that Austen was showing us the dangers of exciting characters such as the Crawfords, Willoughby, and Wickham. (I liked Willoughby, actually, except for his treatment of Col Brandon’s ward. )

      I also agree that the 2007 version was dumbed-down. And the hair was ALL WRONG, both Fanny’s and Tom’s and Henry’s.

      Great points, Janet!!

  2. I haven’t watched either movie.

    Like you, Diane, I don’t like a wishy-washy hero.

    I can answer what I find most important in a hero and heroine: Honor. Somewhere along the way they choose honor.

    • diane says:

      Me, too, Laurel! Honor is HUGE with me. My heroes must be honorable. They can be “bad boys” but deep inside their honor is unflappable.

  3. Kathleen says:

    I am not a fan of Fanny Price. Her self- effacing, model of moral integrity character makes my teeth grind whenever I peruse Mansfield Park. However, I am realizing this has a lot to do with my own character flaws. It is just tedious to read a heroine that lacks the self-confidence to stand up for ones self when criticized unduly but at the same time has a backbone of steel to stand behind her true convictions. I give Austen credit that she can write a character with such juxtapositions. I guess I want my characters flawed but fun!

    • diane says:

      I just think Fanny is so different than what we idealize in a heroine today. But for a young woman in her position, in her time period, the ability to stand by her convictions is very admirable!

  4. Elena Greene says:

    Well, count me in with Janet in that I liked the 1999 version of Mansfield Park, especially once I let go of it as being an adaptation of the book and just enjoyed it for its own sake.

    Somehow I missed most of the 2007 version but based on what people said, it’s low on my To Be Viewed list. Fanny looks like a sullen lingerie model on that movie cover, which doesn’t ring at all true to the character in the story.

    MP is not my favorite Austen for the same reasons Diane mentioned. I’d still like to see someone attempt to portray it accurately on film, but so much goes on inside (versus overt action and dialogue) that would be tricky to do.

    • diane says:

      Elena, according to Kathy Seidel, the 1983 BBC version is the closest to the book, but since that would have taken us 8 hours to watch, we didn’t see that one.

  5. I didn’t like either version. The 1997 movie because it was so far away from Austen’s novel, it might have been written by someone else. The TV version starring Billie Piper (who was wonderful as Rose, Dr. Who’s companion) was too modern, and incredibly unkempt for Fanny. The best version is the eighties version with Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Touzel. Frankly, I fall into the category that finds Henry and Mary Crawford far more interesting than Fanny & Edmund. But I also think Fanny & Edmund are perfect for each other because who else could stand them?

    • diane says:

      There you go! You agree with Kathy Seidel, Elizabeth! She showed us the first scene with Aunt Norris. That Aunt Norris was certainly more like the wonderfully drawn character in the book.

  6. Susan/DC says:

    One of the differences between Jane Austen’s literary world and today is that a 21st C publisher would demand a trilogy, one with Henry Crawford as the hero and one for Mary. Each would be reformed after meeting their True Loves, of course.

    While it is a comment on the movie casting rather than the underlying literary work, I found Alessandro Nivola, who played Henry, devastatingly attractive, and as a result I was disappointed when Fanny chose Edmund over Henry — didn’t the girl have eyes? Of course Fanny was far more dignified than I and chose her hero for moral reasons.

    • diane says:

      But…but…perhaps choosing Alessandro would have resulted in more fun.

      I was pretty willing to nurse James Purefoy back to health, though!

  7. I wish i could have come to that meeting, Diane!! I really do like MP the book–it has so much to say about human nature. I really hated the Piper version, and would have like the ’99 version better if they had just been honest and admitted it was NOT MP in any way, just a story the director thought would be more palatable to a modern audience than the book. Sigh. I would love to see it get the full 6-hour P&P treatment, which would give enough room for the whole story and plethora of fascinating characters. Casting would be important too…

  8. Ruth says:

    I actually rather like Manfield Park precisely because it doesn’t conform to modern ideals of what a romance should be, and found both films quite disappointing as a result (and why I LOVE the 1995 Persuasion film and not the 2007 TV version).

    I do find it frustrating that romance movies can’t seem to handle the variety of stories, characters etc that romance books can, and there is something which I find really refreshing about a romance which points out that the most attractive people are not necessarily good long-term bets, and that being true to yourself is worth something.

    I must go back and check out that 1980s adaptation..

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