I’ve had Jane on my mind again. Jane Austen and the way
people still get her wrong. Jane Austen and a promise I made to you.
It started again when I discovered a piece of unfinished
business from my past: that promise, a promise I made in a column three years
ago, which I haven’t fulfilled. I’d been sifting through boxes of past Observer columns trying to select which
ones to include in a collection of my work Random House is bringing out next
year (under the title The Secret Parts of
Fortune ). One of my favorites, one I was sure I wanted to include, was my
theory of Jane Austen personality types, or Austenology: how you could classify
people, anyway how some people
revealed their true selves through their choice of a favorite Jane Austen
It had begun with an assertion about my favorite Jane Austen novel, Persuasion ,
an assertion that Persuasion people
were different from all other Austenites and proceeded in a lighthearted way to
mildly diss the other types of Austenites: Emma
people were witty control freaks, Pride
and Prejudice people conventional romantics, Mansfield Park people tormented souls with pleasure-principle
issues, etc. So I’m reading through the column which appeared June 26, 1995,
when I come to the end and realized I hadn’t spelled out exactly what the essence of a Persuasion person’s psyche is. I end the
column by promising to return to the subject in a future column, but in fact I
So, I think, O.K., now’s the time to keep the promise I
made, to explain what it is that sets this novel apart not just from other Jane
Austen novels but from almost all other romantic novels, and I realize after
rereading a few chapters what the problem is: Persuasion is just too friggin’ emotional ,
too unbearably intense, it calls up too many memories. Writing about Persuasion takes me back to the years
when I first came to New York and the circumstance under which I first read Persuasion and the woman who introduced
me to it, Rebecca, a Texas girl from the little town of Canyon in the panhandle
just outside Amarillo (which she pronounced in a heartbreakingly lovely way as
Ama rill -uh). She grew up reading Jane
Austen out on the prairie, and I should have married her but I was an idiot , and she ended up marrying a
British investment banker and moving to the very place on the Cornwall coast
that was the scene of the most intensely romantic moments in Persuasion , so every time I reread it
I’d have to re-experience my terrible mistake, one that it was too late for
persuasion or Persuasion to remedy.
You know the story of Persuasion ,
right? It’s about a romantic mistake and the attempt to remedy it: Anne Elliot
rejects the naval captain who was her suitor on the advice and persuasion of
well-meaning friends who tell her he’s not suitable to her class position. He
goes off to sea, she realizes she’s made a terrible mistake, but seven years
later when he returns, he seems to have lost his interest in her, she thinks
she’s grown too old to appeal to him, that she’s thrown away her one chance for
happiness in life, with no chance to persuade him to change his mind.
It’s Jane Austen’s most nakedly emotional novel, a novel
that has given hope to hopeless romantics over the centuries, but one that is
doubly, hopelessly, emotional for me, an ordeal to read, an exhausting but
beautiful ordeal nonetheless.
One that was interrupted this time by Mansfield Park , my least
favorite Jane Austen novel, the most anti-romantic Jane Austen novel, one that
nonetheless began pushing its way into the forefront of my consciousness,
shouldering aside Persuasion . It
began with my PEN book group. You know, I’m not a book group type, but I now
intermittently play one on stage at the New School with three more articulate
and witty fellow PEN writers, Meg Wolitzer, Kathryn Harrison and Dale Peck. The
next one is coming up in December, and we’ve been trying to figure out what
books to discuss (last time we did Hanif Kureishi and
Sue Miller), and I made the perverse suggestion that we make Mansfield Park one of them. Not because
I like it so much as that it irritates
me in an interesting way. I find people who do like it irritating because I
think they like it for the wrong reasons, but I must admit I’ve gotten into
some really good arguments over it, usually with people who I feel really don’t
like Jane Austen but who claim to like Mansfield
Park because they’ve been misled by Lionel Trilling’s famous defense of it.
And then there was the Mansfield
Park film, a joint Miramax-British Arts Council Production, which is to be
released next month and which I just saw and which compels me to interrupt my
romantic effusions about Persuasion with
a last-minute desperate attempt at a different kind of persuasion: I want to persuade Miramax to change the
title of the film . There’s nothing really wrong with their film that a
title change won’t fix. So go ahead and release the movie, but don’t call it Mansfield Park . Call it Mansfield Park Lite , call it Mansfield Park Nice , call it Mansfield Park (Not) , call it Mansfield (Theme) Park , call it A Meditation on Mansfield Park , call it Mansfield Park!: The Makeover , call it Mansfield Park: This Time It’s Personal .
But don’t call it Mansfield Park .
Believe me, I’m not saying this out of some prim horror at
movie adaptation of beloved classic novels. This is no “Oh, look what they did
with my beloved Mansfield Park ” plea.
I don’t love Mansfield Park , I don’t
even like it. But I respect it. It’s a-very deliberately-unlovable novel. It’s
not a feel-good novel. It doesn’t
have a lovable, feel-good heroine. (That’s what makes it unusual and
provocative.) But that’s what they’ve done, they’ve made a feel-good movie
about a very different heroine. Not an adaptation but a refutation. A
decapitation: They’ve cut off the head of the not-very-lovable main character
and replaced it, Frankenstein fashion, with a head from a different body, a
different identity. They’ve taken a heroine whose identity was in the integrity
of her resistance to being lovable and made her into an audience-friendly,
And they justify it with the novel doctrine of “infusion”-a
wholesale literary personality transplant. To understand the “infusion”
operation performed on Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park , it’s worth noting the problem her personality has
caused two centuries of readers. Fanny Price is the poor relation of a rich
family, the Bertrams, who comes to live with them at lovely Mansfield Park. Not
a lovely place for her: She’s neglected and scorned by the whole family, except
the dour and censorious second son, Edmund, who is preparing to be a clergyman.
Neglected until the arrival of the charming but untrustworthy
brother-and-sister act, the Crawfords, Mary and Henry, who, in their charming,
untrustworthy way, pursue the two killjoys Fanny and Edmund, who eventually
discover they were, in their own somewhat depressing way, made for each other.
The moment in the novel that unites them is their
disapproval of an amateur theatrical performance that the more fun-loving
members of the family want to put on while the father is away supervising the
family plantations in Antigua. This is an episode that has become famous in
literary history: the puritanical disdain for playing , the horror at the transposition of selves, the deployment
of false selves evinced by the killjoy pair Fanny and Edmund. A condemnation of
(what seems to us) harmless fun so harsh one wants to see it ironically or subversively: Edmund’s denunciation
of the play acting as “evil” seems ridiculous in light of the fact that the luxe life at Mansfield Park is being
financed by the true, almost unspoken evil that pays the piper: the profits
from slave labor on the family’s West Indian plantations.
But viewed ironically or earnestly, the disapprobation of
play and playing and players is at the heart of the novel-and at the heart of
Fanny Price’s identity. It’s quite possible to dislike the disapprobation, to
dislike Fanny Price, to dislike Mansfield
Park . But it’s something else again to react to that disapprobation, to
react to that unlovableness by making a film that makes it just go away. Which
is what Patricia Rozema, the director of the Miramax Mansfield Park (Not) has done.
Ms. Rozema is a talented and intelligent filmmaker, and it’s
evident that she has some of the same problems with Mansfield Park that I and many others do: She loves Jane Austen and
dislikes Fanny Price. As the Miramax production’s notes inform us, she thinks
that Fanny Price “in the novel was surprisingly restrained and passive,” that
Fanny Price lacks “dynamism,” that Fanny Price is not irreverent and life
affirming and that unlike Jane Austen, Fanny Price doesn’t have an interesting
career as a writer. So, one wants to say, make a movie about Jane Austen and
forget Fanny Price. Instead what Ms. Rozema has done is perform what can only
be called an act of character assassination: She’s killed off the real Fanny
Price character and transplanted Jane Austen’s head onto the dead body.
She calls this Frankenstein-like procedure “infusion.” “She
infused Jane Austen into a bold and witty new version of Fanny Price,” the
Miramax notes tell us. “The more I read about Jane herself,” Ms. Rozema tells
us, “the more I wanted to bring her incredible spirit into the story and give
some more of that dynamism back to Fanny.”
Poor Fanny, disdained for her lack of dynamism by the
director in the same way the rich fools at Mansfield Park disdain her. Poor
Fanny, she is just not interesting enough for Ms. Rozema, so she turned Fanny
Price into a writer, “a young woman boldly penning stories about life, love and
society … ‘I made Fanny a writer as she is in order to give her a more active
inner life,’” she tells us in the production notes.
Another diss for poor Fanny: Not only didn’t she have a cool
creative career but her inner life was “lacking.” Actually, this last is a real
slander, because one thing you can say about Fanny, like all Jane Austen
heroines, is that she doesn’t miss a trick. She sees-and exquisitely registers-everything.
Registers it in a low-key, understated but incredibly acute and eloquent way.
As a matter of fact, rereading Mansfield
Park this time I came to appreciate Fanny’s sly wit, her powerful unvoiced
but not unfelt emotionality. Ms. Rozema is like one of the cool popular girls
in high school condescendingly trying to make over a wallflower she thinks is
just a drip-because she’s too self-absorbed to tune in to Fanny’s wavelength.
I’m not sure Fanny Price’s inner life needs improvement.
What Ms. Rozema seems to be saying is that Fanny’s inner
life wasn’t like her inner life.
Fanny should have reacted to adversity like she
would have: “I kept thinking,” Ms. Rozema tells us, “if it had been me! That
would drive me berserk. I wanted to bring that anger to the material, the anger
that I have as a contemporary woman with a shocking capacity to control my own
destiny.” In other words, to make a film about a different person. Which is
fine. Just don’t call it Mansfield Park .
But she was determined to give people “the bolder, sexier side of Jane Austen,”
because, she reveals, “People have always been profoundly sexual.” Good point,
who woulda thunk it? But a little irrelevant to the issue raised by her
Frankenstein head transplant. Sure it would be more fun, bigger box office. But
it wouldn’t be Fanny Price, it wouldn’t be Mansfield
Park . And what about Jane Austen? What about her capacity as an artist and a woman to control her own destiny?
Moot because she’s dead and Ms. Rozema isn’t?
Ms. Rozema’s advocacy of the “infusion” approach to Mansfield Park raises some of the same
questions Edmund Morris’ Ronald Reagan biography does. He imports fictional
characters into nonfiction; she imports nonfiction characters (herself, Jane
Austen) into fiction. But Mr. Morris doesn’t give Mr. Reagan a personality
transplant, he doesn’t say, “I don’t like his conservatism, I’ll ‘infuse’ him
with a touch of George McGovern’s liberalism.” He lets Reagan be Reagan, for better or worse.
But Ms. Rozema won’t let Fanny Price be Fanny Price, uncool
distrust of amateur theatricals and all. All that’s totally erased in the film,
which, despite some terrific performances, becomes both incoherent and insipid
because of the transplant “infusion.” She’s turned a dark novel into a lite
film. As I said, I’d have no quarrel with Miramax or Ms. Rozema if they’d
called it Mansfield Park: The Makeover
or Mansfield Park: The Infusion .
But calling it Mansfield Park leaves Jane Austen
defenseless against this posthumous personality transplant; she can only spin
alone in her grave. But one wonders how Ms. Rozema would feel if something
similar was done to her work. If,
say, during the production process for her Mansfield
Park movie someone from Miramax told her that her version of Fanny Price hadn’t
“tested” well, and they wanted to change Fanny’s character, make her a scheming
slut, say, whose marriage to the clergyman will just be a coverup for a wild,
forbidden attraction to the charming but untrustworthy Henry. What if they
wanted her to make Fanny even “bolder and sexier” than she had? What if Miramax
had gone ahead and done it without asking her, recut the film, relooped the
dialogue to “infuse” Fanny with the personality of a Dynasty soap star? Wouldn’t she feel outraged that someone was tampering
with her work of art, “infusing” an alien personality into the character she’d
created? Would she, who did the same thing to Jane Austen, have any basis for
Still the notion of “infusion” as applied to great works of
literature does have some intriguing aspects. Think of the way so many of the
unlikable characters in literature can be improved by retroactive “infusion”:
Take Ahab, for instance, in Moby Dick . So grim, so obsessive. Why not “infuse” him with more
upbeat and sensitive character traits? So he becomes a guy who is willing to
explore his issues with a trusting
therapist and come to terms with his “inner whale.”
And how about Medea? So angry !
What if instead of murdering her children we “infuse” her with Martha Stewart
so she directs some of that self-destructive rage toward more creative things
like redoing the children’s room with seasonal accents and planning creative
play dates with some of the other Argonaut wives?
And, hey, Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth . So needy !
Why not have her start an aromatherapy practice so she could soothe her own
anxieties and give back to people?
And Gregor Samsa, in Kafka’s Metamorphosis . So tacky and icky, turning into a big beetle. What
if we had him turn into a beautiful butterfly instead? I’m sure you can think
of your own improvements to some of literature’s less lovable characters. So I
will leave you to perform your own “infusion” experiments while I return to
reading Persuasion , and, oh yes, I
guess I didn’t get around to explaining exactly what’s so unique and
exceptional about it, and why this novel is different from all other Jane
Austen novels, but I promise I’ll get to that in a forthcoming column. And this
time I mean it. This time it’s personal.