We live in a time and place that is unusually charitable, tolerant, egalitarian, and free. We rightly pride ourselves in these virtues. But at the same time, our society is unusually materialistic, undisciplined, disrespectful, and irreligious. And since these sins are committed so flagrantly and universally, and are often mistaken for our virtues, we have become blind to them. It's like being in a noisy classroom all day. You begin to think that all happy children are this noisy, and that other classrooms are too boring to stand. Not until you've actually experienced a quiet, happy classroom do you come to realize what you're missing, what is possible.
This is what reading Jane Austen does for me. It's a way to lose myself in a different way of being, one that is quieter, more respectful, more disciplined, and ultimately more spiritual. I would not argue that the English aristocracy of the early 1800's comprised the perfect society, or anything close to the perfect society. It had many flaws, as all actual societies do. But its flaws were distinct from ours. And when you have a writer like Jane Austen who so clearly understands her own society and its flaws, by contrast with earlier societies that she has read about, can paint such a vivid picture of what hers was like, and thus allow us to finally see our own from a clear perspective, what you have is a window into a place that is only a step away from that perfect society, a place of eternal verity that can exist only in the imagination, where all these images can be brought synoptically together.
Austen's work stands, I will argue, as a testament to how mere fiction can touch on immortal truth.
Jane Austen published four novels in her lifetime: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma. I would class all four of these as classics, and I believe I could make my point discussing any one of them. Recently I've finished reading Mansfield Park, which is probably the most serious of the four, in the sense that it deals with the most serious problems, and even has some tragedy at the end.
Don't be alarmed. It's still, for the most part, a happy ending. There is nothing wrong with tragic endings, but I would say that Jane Austen's style tends more toward comedy, and this is what we've come to expect from her. We expect her characters to be flawed, and amusingly so, yet to somehow find their way to a better place.
Now Jane Austen is commonly mistaken for a Victorian writer. As a matter of fact, she died two decades before Victoria was even crowned. And I've heard it claimed that, though popular in her lifetime, Austen's work wasn't tragic or dramatic enough for the Victorians, and that her writings were neglected for half a century for that reason. There is something very plausible about this, especially if you've ever read the Victorians' favorite philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, who was constantly lamenting how quiet, weak, and cowardly their age had become. The Victorians didn't believe that Jane Austen was the medicine they needed, and maybe they were right.
It's tempting to apply similar logic to our own age, and argue that we too have become too squeamish and need something more potent than Austen to wake us from our apathetic torpor. Jane Austen, you might say, is the last thing we need. But I would argue otherwise. In physical terms, yes, we are weak, quiet, and lazy. We spend too much time indoors and with our entertainment. And like 19th-century English society we do indeed need a medicine of courage and adventure like you get from Homer or Plutarch. In spiritual terms, however, we've diverged from 19th-century England. In place of the hot-headed Thomas Carlyle we've enthroned the complacent utilitarianism of Peter Singer. In place of Alfred Lord Tennyson's warlike King Arthur we prefer Vladamir Nabokov's pedophilic Humbert Humbert. We call James Joyce the greatest writer who ever lived, when his most famous narrative dwelt solely in the boring mind of a dull protagonist, and we forget to put J.R.R. Tolkien on our lists of great literature at all, whose Lord of the Rings is infinitely more alive with the spirit of Homer than Joyce's Ulysses, and who I'm sure the Victorians would have adored. But we don't think much of Homer anymore and we hate the Old Testament. We've lost the ability to see anything heroic in the Middle Ages.
Our spiritual torpor is much more serious than our physical torpor. It's really a compounding of the disease, a numbness. It started in our limbs and is working its way toward our heart. At this point it will do little good to repair our limbs, because without the heart the rest of the body dies. And Jane Austen is medicine for the heart.
It's fashionable to say that the BBC's Jane Austen is never the real Jane Austen. But I disagree. Yes, you will get a lot more out of the books, but the BBC's adaptations, at least the mini-series, are faithful enough that it will still do you good to watch them.
As for film adaptations of Austen's work, I think these do usually miss the mark. Most of the story has to be cut out, which means more interpretation must be done, and this interpretation can't help but be more modern. Add to this the commercial factor, that movies are more expensive to make and thus often pander to the "market" and what is popular, and it's a surprise that that they are ever as good as they sometimes are.
The 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park is especially bad. The movie's poster is like a quieter, earthy-tone version of that for Amelie, as if Fanny Price were another quirky introverted protagonist desperate for a way to break out and let the world know just how quirky she is. This is the exact opposite of the what the novel is about, and unfortunately the movie is, on the whole, more faithful to the poster. And where it isn't faithful at least to this vision, it is even worse.
The reason I want to compare the novel and this bad adaption of it, is to give us a clearer picture of just where we are most prone to misunderstand Austen, which is, for this very reason, the place we have most to learn from her. (In case you're concerned about spoilers, I won't give away any major plot points that occur past the midpoint of the novel.)
Mansfield Park is not about a shy girl learning to show her spunk. It's quite the reverse. It's about a virtuous girl who resists every possible effort the world makes to get her to "come out." This is the term the character Mary Crawford uses. And there is a running debate in the book whether "coming out" is a good thing for a young woman to do. By the end of the story, Jane Austen has made it very clear where she stands on the question, and to make this very clear is the whole reason she wrote the novel.
It might be that Mansfield Park fails to clearly illustrate its point, at least for the modern reader. Since many movies like the 1999 one exist, evidently it has. But I would not fault Jane Austen for this. I don't doubt that, for her 19th century audience, her meaning was very plain. And I have met several other modern readers who understood it well the first time. But that so many film critics, including Roger Ebert, gave the movie glowing reviews and called it faithful to Austen, it is clear that there is a problem. I want to argue that for many of us there are some powerful ideological obstacles to understanding Austen properly.
Mansfield Park is an interesting case, because Jane Austen's difficulties in expressing herself to a modern audience are exactly Fanny Price's difficulties in expressing herself to the increasingly spunky world she finds herself in. All the ways in which her friends and family misinterpret her words, her actions, and her silence, are the same as the ways that we tend to misinterpret them. And the main reason that Jane Austen's contemporaries understood her and we do not, is that many of the flaws she portrays in her antagonists, indicating that they are antagonists, we no longer recognize as flaws. But after a sufficiently careful and thoughtful read to the end of the novel, I think a modern reader can understand, thanks to Jane Austen's careful realism, why these flaws--materialism, disrespect, lack of discipline, lack of religion--are in fact evils.
In defense of Fanny Price's spunkiness in the movie, Ebert writes, "We are so accustomed to the notion of Austen's wit and perception that we lose sight of the fact that for her to write at all was a radical break with the role society assigned her."
Nonsense. By the age of 11 Jane Austen had starting writing and sharing her work with her family and friends. During adolescence she wrote stories, plays, poetry, and fragments of essays. Her father supplied her with writing materials and it was usual for her to read or perform her pieces before a private group. Many of her works were very satirical. She was given glowing praise for many of her youthful writings; they were well loved by her close relations, and have even been preserved to this day. (Google "Jane Austen's juvenilia.") By the age of 18 she had seriously begun writing novels.
For a woman to write novels was nowhere near unheard of. Both Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth were famous female novelists at the time. I find it hard to imagine that Jane Austen, who had received so much encouragement for so many years, had any difficulty in choosing to write.
Ebert concluded his review, "Anyone who thinks it is not faithful to Austen doesn't know the author but only her plots."
I beg to differ, sir. Calling the 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park faithful to the novel is to understand neither the author nor her plots.
So let us finally turn from the author and consider her plots.
When the novel begins, the wealthy Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram of Mansfield charitably (if somewhat arrogantly) offer to take in their niece, Fanny Price. Lady Bertram's sister is very poor and has many children, and agrees to this arrangement because it will give her some financial relief. So the ten-year-old Fanny Price, homesick, painfully shy, and a little frightened of her rich, imposing relatives, must get used to her new home. And the picture that is painted of the rich family there, her aunt, uncle, and four cousins, is not entirely flattering. The father is strict, but distant and cold. The mother is nice but lazy and unread, doting on her pug. The two daughters have been spoiled and are flighty and arrogant. They are cruel to Fanny and treat her as a lesser being. The oldest of the four children, a son just reaching adulthood, is already starting to lead a life of drinking and gambling. The only one of them that is generally humble, kind, intelligent, and disciplined is the younger son, Edmund. He takes Fanny under his wing and helps educate her, which means introducing her to both ancient and modern classics, which she reads and loves discussing with him. Edmund wants to become a priest, and not just for the money, but because he loves learning about virtue and teaching it to others.
Edmund's religiousness aside, this is, commercially, the best opening for a movie you could ask for. Modern audiences love seeing how arrogant rich people are, especially arrogant rich people with traditional values. Fanny's cold, stern uncle is the perfect fatherly villain, great for rebelling against and showing spunk to. The modern imagination will just go to town on a rich, stupid, lazy woman who loves her pug, or on two spoiled rich girls who don't like books. Add to it a hero that puts a book in your oppressed heroine's hand and you have pure Oscar-worthy gold. It really is too bad, in terms of the bottom line of Miramax Films, that the rest of the story only lends itself to a rather clumsy, slipshod adaptation that so lacked punch they had to add in a whole ugly subplot about slavery that in the end didn't quite give their audiences that warm glow they had probably hoped for from Jane's latest adaptation. (If you're curious about Jane Austen's attitude toward slavery, this is a pretty good analysis.)
But lets come back to the point. The weakness of the way the film introduces all these characters is that it is actually much more black and white than the novel. Sir Thomas is a great example. In the novel he's a well-meaning father. His strictness is not the problem; his coldness is. This is a subtle thing to portray, but Austen pulls it off beautifully. You don't end the novel hating him, the way you do the movie. Instead, you see him growing and learning to show more warmth toward his family. There is never an instance when he tries to impose a rule that Fanny disagrees with and must rebel against. Rather, it is his failure to reach his flighty daughters and son that causes much of the conflict of the story. And where his distant sternness fails, Fanny's warm quietness often succeeds.
The novel is not, to put more it bluntly, a critique of the authority of fathers. On the contrary, it shows what happens when fathers fail in their duty. It's because Sir Thomas failed that his daughters have become spoiled. And the fault is not only his, but his lazy, inattentive wife's. The novel is not about setting children free, but about disciplining them properly.
When Edmund finally comes to Fanny and introduces her to books, the point isn't that now she can now make a "radical break with the role society has assigned to her." The point is to educate her in virtue and introduce her to society, a job that her uncle and aunt, in their arrogance, are failing to do.
And all of this sets up the rest of Jane Austen's novel very nicely. It's a tightly woven tale, and every strand has the fineness and strength of silk. No character is neglected. Every one is consistent in their virtues, and suffers realistic consequences of their flaws. The father and mother are flawed disciplinarians, and as you would expect, they have mixed results in educating their children. And what is brilliant about the story as it unfolds is its elegant detailing of the logical evolution of each child's life as they pass into adulthood.
But none of this is clear from the movie because all it conveys is what your typically modern eye likes to see: rich, tradition-minded people being stupid and oppressive.
It's not that rich people don't sometimes oppress in the novel. As a matter of fact, the evils of greed are one of Jane Austen's major themes, not only in this novel, but in the rest. But she is also very careful to argue that wealth is not in itself evil. Many of her wealthiest characters are also some of her most virtuous. What is dangerous is not wealth, but an overpowering love of wealth.
Let's turn to the second quarter of the novel. It is here that Mary Crawford and her brother Henry come into their own as antagonists, taking full advantage of all the Bertrams' weaknesses we've just learned about.
The main event of this part is the play put on by most of the young, unmarried adults at Mansfield Park: the siblings Maria, Julia, and Tom Bertram; their two friends, the brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford; Maria's fiance, Mr. Rushworth; and the visiting actor whose idea it was, Mr. Yates.
The movie has already stumbled in introducing all these characters, failing to establish that they are anything more interesting than rich and spoiled. And it is here, during the debate over whether they should even put on a play while the master, Sir Bertram, is out of the house, that the film simply falls flat on its face. It never recovers.
In the book, there is a prolonged and lively debate over the propriety of putting on a play. Much is revealed about each character's sense of morality, especially when it comes to Fanny, Edmund (the good son who befriended and educated Fanny), and Tom (the wayward older son). It is made very clear through Jane Austen's mouthpieces, Edmund and Fanny, the reasons why it is a bad idea for them to put on a play. And these reasons should fascinate us moderns, for whom putting on a play is generally considered a very proper and edifying thing to do.
The reasons a play is a bad idea are this: (1) acting is an immodest profession, so is not a proper pastime for adult unmarried people of their social standing, (2) it would be taking liberties that their father, now absent, would probably disapprove of, and (3) since Maria and Mr. Rushworth are engaged, any romantic plotlines could cause confused feelings, and it would be hard to get around this because discussing the matter around the newly engaged couple would be indelicate.
In spelling these objections out, I've put a few words in Jane Austen's mouth. The reason for this is that Edmund hardly needs to explain any of them to Tom. He can merely mention them and Tom knows what he's talking about. That's because Jane Austen's contemporary readers were familiar with all the usual objections to the theater. Actors and actresses were flirtatious on stage, they often had to deliver bold, impudent lines. Someone had to play the villain, and portray attitudes that are evil. At a time in European history when entertainment was not seen as for its own sake but solely as a source of edification, all of these things were important considerations. Above all, a play should educate the morals of its audience. Plays which did not were considered dangerous to the moral fabric of society.
Today, we have almost forgotten that people once thought this way. People who express these opinions are either laughed at or dismissed as critics of free speech. Today we consider any hindrance to freedom of expression as a form of totalitarianism.
And this is exactly how the issue is dealt with in the movie. Nothing at all is mentioned about the delicacy of the fact that Maria and Mr. Rushworth are engaged. Nothing is mentioned about the immodesty of acting. In the movie, the only argument that Edmund brings to bear against Tom's plan to stage a play is that "father would disapprove." And Edmund delivers this line pale-faced and looking a little scared, as if their father might come home and beat them senseless for it any minute. All Tom has to say in the movie is, "Manage your own concerns Edmund, and let me take care of the rest of the family." He does nothing but pull the Patriarchy card himself, in a desperate attempt to make him less sympathetic to the viewers. Poor Edmund just scampers off with his tail between his legs to confess his fears to Fanny. To sum up, the movie sets up little more than a conflict between a Patriarch and ... well Edmund's cowardice. When I watched the movie (which was before reading the book) I hardly noticed the conflict at all, and went away surprised--since I knew 19th-century attitudes toward the theater--that Austen wrote a novel where everyone just put on a stage play for fun.
This whole part of the story makes infinitely more sense in the book. When the idea of putting on a play is brought up, the two immature Bertram sisters become eager and insistent. They are hard to reason with because they lack refinement, and too easily give in to their own whims and passions. The Crawford siblings, Henry and Mary, have been corrupted by their womanizing father and their time in London ("the city"), so are also quick to give in to their fascination with acting. Mr. Rushworth, it turns out, is not very intelligent, and simply follows the crowd. And in the novel it is Tom that is the coward, not Edmund. Though Tom is intelligent enough to understand the objections, and has the capacity for self-control, he lacks the courage needed to stand up to his friends. He does what he can to trivialize the matter "We mean nothing but a little amusement among ourselves, just to vary the scene." He weakness is that he's become a socialite, and as someone who has a weakness for drinking and gambling, this is no surprise. In the first discussion between Edmund and Tom, it is Edmund that has the last word and Tom that impatiently retreats to join his friends. There is nothing frightened about Edmund, only concerned: "Edmund was left to sit down and stir the fire in thoughtful vexation." It is, as in the movie, a problem that he is the younger brother and lacks authority to put a halt to it, but it is not the only problem here. It is no mere issue of "Don't tell Dad," but rather of what the consequences will be for Maria, her new engagement, and the other impressionable young people.
What happens next in the novel is exquisite to read. Eventually we will see Edmund weaken and finally give in, and Fanny come to the foreground as the last remaining hero. She courageously sticks to her principles while every other character in the book gives in to the crowd.
Here's how it happens. Though Edmund and Fanny are initially sitting out because of their principled objections, poor Edmund is put in a bind by the intrigues of the group. To begin with, their selfish inability to agree on what play to choose lands them with probably the most controversial choice they could have made, a play called "Lovers' Vows," which deals with sex outside marriage and illegitimate birth. But things are further complicated by everyone's selfish desire to be a lead actor. Maria ends up playing not opposite of her fiance Mr. Rushworth (who is too stupid for the lead role), but opposite of the seductive Henry Crawford, who was supposed to be wooing her younger sister Julia. We've learned that Henry likes to make young women fall in love with him for sport. But at the same time he makes 4,000 pounds a year, and the somewhat materialistic Bertrams have been encouraging his attentions to their daughters for some time. This is already an explosive situation, and is troubling the sleep of both Fanny and Edmund, as Edmund tries every possible means to stop the production, and Fanny puts up every possible defense against being recruited into the play. (Not wanting to criticize their morals openly, she is forced to insist, "I can't act.") Then they run into a situation where they need one more male actor, someone to play opposite of Mary Crawford. Edmund initially refuses. At this point Mary slyly suggests they find a neighbor willing to take the part. Finally, not wanting to make the production public in this way, Edmund agrees to take the part.
Fanny is (internally) shocked, as she should be. Here is the one person she admires, Edmund, the only one who, through the entire story, has been standing up for principles, and he's suddenly flip-flopped. He tries to explain that he has no choice, that the play will become public otherwise. Fanny correctly stands by the position that this is inconsistent, that he cannot let their intrigues pull him in, that he must stay aloof. Edmund does what he can to get Fanny's blessing -- it's clear that he respects her opinion more than anyone else's -- but she (heroically, I would say, since she's falling in love with him) refuses to condone his choice, and he is left doing what he can to rationalize his choice to himself and the others. Even after Edmund has joined the production, and they continue to press Fanny to be a part of it, she sticks to her guns and refuses to act. She only goes as far as to help them with some lines, largely because the production is taking up the entire house and she can't help being within earshot.
But how is Edmund's weakness explained? We already know that he is falling in love with Mary Crawford, and these feelings cloud his judgment more and more as the novel proceeds. She often expresses anti-religious and mercenary sentiments (for example asking him why he wants to become a priest, and not do something more lucrative), but he excuses her transgressions to himself and others, believing he can, over time, educate her himself.
Speaking of Mary Crawford, she is cast all wrong in the movie. She doesn't come across as young or innocent enough. She is played by sexy middle-aged woman with a daring, alluring stare. As she seeks someone to act opposite her she stands boldly at the head of the room and declares: "What gentleman among you am I to have the pleasure of making love to?" They all turn their heads and gulp, their eyes saying "Pick me!"
Yes, Mary Crawford has dark eyes in the novel. Yes, she has a seductive charm, and an urbane manner. And in fact, she does deliver this line, if a little more by-the-by. (Of course, the term "make love" was just another term for "woo" back then.) But she should not seem so frank about being around the block a few times. It is completely implausible that a would-be clergyman would try to educate an older woman who is so blatantly worldly-wise.
What makes Mary work in the book is that she is young and impressionable. She brings her London ways to the country naively, not deliberately. At least this is what Edmund must think. In terms of modern tropes, she's the sweet girl with a dark side. When Fanny realizes that Mary's the one responsible for Edmund taking a part in the play, she's alone in her insight, with no way to explain it to anyone without betraying her friendship to either of them. In the movie, Mary Crawford is plain as day: she's pure evil. It's modern entertainment that tends to be black and white.
The entire plotline I've explained above takes three very short scenes in the movie, almost devoid of content. The first is the empty discussion I described between Edmund and Tom. "Father wouldn't like it," is all it amounts to. The second is the five second one where Mary Crawford audaciously asks the crowd of young men who's going to "make love" to her.
The third is ... bizarre. Edmund is up in Fanny's room saying he's worried that they're going to make their play public by going to the neighbors for a man to play opposite of Mary. Fanny just quietly stares at him as if all this is above her head. Enter Mary. She asks Fanny to practice some lines with her in front of Edmund and Fanny only manages to murmur two objections: (1) "To be truthful I have a dread of audiences," and (2, with an opaque smile) "Oh, no, no."
So Fanny's principled stand become a demure, silent shyness.
And then of course Mary and Fanny practice the lines together, and as these are supposed to be lines between lovers, you may infer where modern cinema might go with it. And it does. And this is the argument that convinces Edmund to join, though I believe he does mumble something about not wanting the neighbors to know about it. It's absurd.
It's here, as I said, that the movie falls flat on its face. There is no anticipation of any harm the play may cause, aside from angering Dear Old Dad. And that's what the rest of the story is supposed to be about, all the long-term problems that the imprudence of these undisciplined young people causes. I promised no spoilers, so I'm not going to go into what they specifically are, but the play has major negative repercussions in the lives of every one of the young people that takes part it in.
Jane Austen may be accused of a lack of realism here, but I would argue that it's more a lack a probability than plausibility. That acting can have these sorts of long-term effects on your life is well-known. I am sure you can name several famous actors and actresses who have married their lead partners in a movie, even ones who obtained a divorce to do it. I don't think anything that follows in the novel is implausible. Maybe certain probabilities have been exaggerated. But the point stands: entertainment is not merely entertainment. It affects how we see the world; it affects our values; it affects our relationships; it affects how our children's minds are formed. And most of us moderns, it seems, are blind to this. It is no surprise that Hollywood would miss this point entirely, even adapting a well-crafted novel dedicated to elaborating on it. We've entirely forgotten the principle that fun is learning, that entertainment is education, as the young people at Mansfield Park did when they put on the play, and this has been part of the cultural cycle of decline of American culture for more than a century. It's something we would do well to remember again. Maybe we need a Sir Bertram to come home and tell us that enough is enough. Or maybe we've reached the same point that they did in the novel before he finally did return: the point where his cold strictness would do us more harm.
No, it is not another Sir Bertram that is needed now. What is needed is for us to finally kick out Mary Crawford and start listening to the shy advice of the poor, modest Fanny Price.
The immortal question Jane Austen touches on here is the question of education. How does one preserve a culture? More importantly, how does one raise children who choose good and not evil? These questions have been puzzled over by philosophers no less capable than Plato, who himself presented a picture in the Republic of a society where all entertainment was strictly regulated to ensure that no moral decay could occur. Of course, this picture was unrealistic, and Plato knew it was. He meant it as a picture of what the perfect education would look like, a formal definition of what the essence of education is. In reality, as he admitted, souls are diverse and they are supposed to be diverse, and to shape each one in an identical, unvarying mould, would be tyranny of the most radical kind.
In our imperfect world we need love and understanding. The root cause of all the strife portrayed in Mansfield Park was the arrogance of the two parents, Sir and Lady Bertram. On the father's side there was too much distance and authority, and not enough love. He wasn't the foaming, irredeemable tyrant he was in the movie, but more of the capable yet distant father. He just needed to spend more time with his children and develop real relationships with them, so that he could be a part of their amusements and make them edifying without making them dull. On the mother's side there was simply too much sloth: she lacked education herself.
And it is to the parents that the story ultimately returns, and the climax occurs when they see the consequences of their failure to educate.
To educate, they finally realize (and it doesn't give away too much to reveal this), means to instill self-control. As Sir Bertram grieves at the end, "They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments, the authorised object of their youth, could have no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them."
Self-denial and humility. Here we have the main lessons of the entire book, the unshakable virtues of Fanny Price herself, the very things lacking in those characters who fall. These are the first lessons of every perennial philosophy, every flourishing religion. Jane Austen wrote this book to help show why they are so important.
We live in an age of unbridled entertainment. And entertainment for entertainment's sake is the opposite of self-denial. It is the vanity of doing what you like for no reason at all. It is a blindness to reason, a blindness to principle. Every principle must contradict some selfish desire--whether money, fun, or sensuality--or it is not a principle. Every principle requires self-denial. Thus self-denial, the forgoing of entertainment for its own sake, is the most important lesson of every education.
Fiction unbridled, fiction without principle, as it tends to be in modern times, is fiction that from truth immortal wanders blind. But fiction of self-denial, fiction with principle, as you find in Jane Austen, is fiction that may glimpse truth immortal.
And may sometimes truth immortal touch.