But, dearest sister, never ever swoon.
For those who think Austen saved Eng Lit from the worst excesses of Gothic Romance, Mansfield Park must seem, at best, an aberration. A shy little girl, dumped on rich relatives, might be allowed some weepiness. But as she grows, we expect an Austen heroine to be a match for any amount of social snobbery. Instead, she remains a bit of a wimp. Worse, she adopts holier-than-thou attitudes to innocent pastimes: her friends and cousins indulge a fancy for amateur theatricals; but the plot of Lovers' Vows, is too racy for Miss Fanny Price — and for her equally pious cousin Edmund. (It's only a play, but art and life are often dangerously confused.)
Writing and directing her 1999 screen version, Patricia Rozema tends to downplay though not entirely ignore these offputting traits; yet Austen has provided her own counterbalances of which Rozema does make full use. Female readers especially have, I suspect, always appreciated the fact that Fanny is not someone likely to swoon and yield the instant a dashing — and rich — young gentleman hoves into sight. With his implied retinue of swooners and yielders, Henry Crawford is, very cleverly, introduced by Austen precisely to ease readers' problems with Fanny's starchy ideas of virtue. Keeping us on the side of the heroine, Crawford's "love" never develops beyond the disbelieving pique of a man used to sexual conquest. As one woman friend of mine put it, he remains "an arrogant twit" throughout.
Nevertheless, backed by her "guardian," Sir Thomas Bertram, Crawford becomes a serious threat to Fanny's quietly maintained hopes of independence. And here's the problem: if we swing around and feel too much for Fanny Price, we could find ourselves back in the terrifying clutches of Gothic. As if to help Austen out of this bind, and at a point deep in the story when most of her cousins except Edmund have gone totally off the rails, Rozema shows Fanny repeatedly advising younger sister Susie to: Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint.
From internet sources I learn this is a quote from Austen's Love and Friendship, written when she was all of fourteen and with its epistolary form an instantly recognizable satire, for contemporary readers at least, of Richardson's Clarissa (1748). Meanwhile, in Rozema's opening scenes, Mansfield Park does look as though we might be in for another silly tale of silly folk behaving in, well, silly ways. In fact, some critics never find anything here to alter that impression. But, helped by Rozema's early darkening of tone — led by Sheila Gish's wicked old Aunt Norris and followed by a vulpine/patrician Harold Pinter in probably his best-ever film performance — the horrors of the WTFC factor (Who the Fuck Cares?) turn out, I think, to be themselves greatly exaggerated.
The danger of turning Austen into a soulless satirist is something modern adapters do have to beware of. This is true especially, perhaps, in the case of Northanger Abbey, a more famous early work wherein another wobbly heroine comes in for special treatment. The target in this case is Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). And it's worth noting that, in her day, Radcliffe was as widely read and as intellectually influential as Rousseau and Goethe. In our own time, which is somehow still bravely pressing ahead with academic and filmic re-evaluations of Gothic and Fairy Tale, Radcliffe is — dare one say it? — probably attracting more admirers than Rousseau, Goethe, and Richardson all put together.
Even so, the staunchest Radcliffians will admit that Udolpho's heroine, Emily St. Aubert, like Clarissa before her, is no stranger to sudden bouts of unconsciousness. The difference is that in Radcliffe, as opposed to any spoof however brilliant, this is less the result of sexual desire and more that of imminent physical threat. Even Radcliffe's male characters, by the way, fall victim to disabling fits of terror.
What's more, where intellectual passions are concerned — and specifically inserted to counter criticism of her "terrorist" writings — Radcliffe's most famous heroine is warned by her beloved father against the dangers of too much aestheticising: or, in the language of the late 18th century, too much sensibility .
What Monsieur St. Aubert particularly had in mind was a too deep devotion to the Sublime — a highly charged spiritual response to natural scenery. Though less of an issue where Austen is concerned, again it's worth remembering that Radcliffe's prose writing on the Sublime was admired by most of the big names in British Romantic poetry. In Udolpho, it seems, you can never have too many sunsets.
Meanwhile back in Austen, the strongest symbolic signal we get that Fanny and Edmund are, potentially at any rate, a well-suited couple derives from moments where they gaze together at hills and skies. In Rozema's film, little is made of this; and, as suggested, Austen is in any case nowhere near as driven by the Sublime as Radcliffe. Even so, within the constraints of turning a long, densely allusive novel into a two-hour feature film, Rozema does follow Austen's typically tangential references to the Sublime. This is best realised, in novel and film, via the dim-but-rich Rushworth, a young man with a zest for having whole avenues of trees chopped down to improve the view, not of Nature, of course, but of his own rolling acres.
As already hinted, the guardian of Fanny Price, Sir Thomas Bertram is ready to fire on as many souped-up gothic cylinders as can be crammed under one throbbing hood. So, again, a problem arises for more conservative Austenites: what on earth is a Jacobean — or any other kind of — crime lord doing here? Answer: a lot more than can easily be explained. In manners, Bertram is an accomplished social manipulator seldom driven beyond the most genteel of methods. He packs such a big invisible punch there's rarely a hint of more visible menace. In fact, there are only two episodes where we genuinely fear for the safety of our heroine.
Much has been made in other adaptations of Bertram's attempts to bully Fanny into marrying Henry Crawford; and — again thanks to a magnificently louche Harold Pinter — I think a much better than serviceable job is made of it here. Entirely left out of some versions, however, is the episode where Fanny queries the link between this baronet's immense wealth and the keeping of slaves. In the book it's very quickly over, though the "dead silence" of Sir Thomas has quite an impact on readers. Again, is this stab in the direction of real-life horror really our own gentle Jane? Yes. And as a reference point it's entirely of a piece with a novel where unbreachably cruel inequalities — especially between Fanny and her rich cousins — form the background to almost all the action.
Patricia Rozema is therefore right, in my view, to introduce a series of brutal graphics on the treatment of slaves, using some "charcoal sketches" stumbled upon by Fanny and made by Edmund's brother Tom on his father's plantation in Antigua. These terrible images help Rozema, among other things, to query some pretty turgid critiques of literature — or any kind of art — where Realism and Romance (or Truth and Faithfulness, and a long list of other false dichotomies) must always have a versus sign between them, presumably so that our universe of ideas and values won't suddenly implode.
I say "our" universe; and that introduces another subtext about which the novel and this adaptation have something interesting to say. While Austen might not be as fond of sunsets as Radcliffe, she is in deep implicit sympathy with Radcliffe's idea that a sense of the Sublime cuts right through self-consciousness about Class. Whether in response to music or poetry or Nature, everybody — from the richest aristo to the poorest peasant — has feelings. In theory at least, this aspect of egalitarianism is so much a given of modernity we can no longer appreciate how radical the notion was two centuries ago. But for Austen, there's never any doubt that Fanny and Edmund, by sharing similar spiritual values, are in a position — if they so choose — to obliterate any and all problems associated with differences of status…
If this leaves Mansfield Park sounding more of a revolutionary anthem than anything intended by its author, I'd just mention that it did come out at a time of long-unresolved socioeconomic turmoil across the whole of Europe. Bells, not necessarily of gothic origin, do ring for me. It was also a time when, in the writing game at least, Sisterhood started hitting something like level par with Brotherhood. Though we could split that into Spiritual Sisterhood versus something more down to earth, I'm inclined to allow the concept to include both "meanings" in order to arrive at a bigger worldscape — something like that imagined by Jane Austen, writer of novels, and reimagined by Patricia Rozema, maker of films.