Please, Miramax, Don’t Call It Mansfield Park

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

novel.

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

never did.

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,

happenin’ babe.

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

protesting?

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.