Austen Films Underestimate Her Heroines

Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price

Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price

Film Friday

I’ve been amazed at the success of the Jane Austen industry in recent years. Fan though I am, I never could have predicted the hunger for movie and television versions of her novels, movie biographies of the author, sequels to Pride and Prejudice, horror versions of her novels, novels where characters from different novels interact, a novel and movie about a Jane Austen book club, Jane Austen conduct manuals, and on and on.

Although, as a cultural historian, I’m fascinated by the phenomenon, I’m disappointed that no one seems to properly appreciate the historical situations of the novels. The quandaries faced by Austen’s heroines are far more complex, and far more foreign to us, than these modern adaptations realize. If we were just to watch the movies of Austen’s novels, we would underestimate just how heroic her young women are.

Patricia Rozema sells Fanny Price short in Mansfield Park (1999) and Ang Lee does the same with Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1994). As I’m teaching Mansfield Park at the moment, I’ll discuss it today and save Lee’s Sense and Sensibility for a future Film Friday.

Jane Austen takes a real chance in Mansfield Park: she creates a heroine that seems rather dull. Fanny is no Elizabeth Bennett, no Elinor or Marianne Dashwood. Rather, she is a poor relation who, at ten, is thrust into the Bertram household and then all but ignored. In contrast to her cousins Maria and Julia, who are beautiful and accomplished, Fanny comes across as a bit of a mouse and a bit of a prude. Everyone around her is so absorbed in his or her own affairs that only her cousin Edmund pays attention to her, and even he at times forgets about her. The only one who never forgets her is her dreadful aunt Norris, herself in an insecure position, who bullies her whenever the opportunity arises.

And yet Fanny proves to be one of Austen’s most remarkable heroines. While (not surprisingly) she has little self-confidence and no reason to believe her opinions should be respected, she refuses a marriage proposal from the engaging rake Henry Crawford. By the standards of the time and in the view of all around her, the proposal is a spectacular accomplishment. Despite having no money of her own, she attracts the book’s most eligible bachelor, the man that Maria and Julia both want. But she has seen him toy with her cousins and has no faith in his character.


The pressure to accept Henry’s proposal is intense, especially from Sir Thomas, the grim patriarch who has always terrified Fanny. Nor is she helped by her beloved cousin Edmund, who is determined that she fit into his fantasy of a double marriage with the Crawfords (he is in love with Henry’s sister). Sir Thomas even tries to soften her up by sending her home to her impoverished family, and the tactic almost works. Yet she sticks to her guns

So how does Rozema handle her? Hollywood today, just like Austen’s society, wants a glamorous heroine and won’t settle for anything less. The Fanny that Jane Austen depicts would be too moralistic and uninteresting to attract a mass audience. One has to be attuned to subtlety of character to appreciate her. Rozema therefore turns her into a woman far more like Elizabeth Bennett and has her played by the vivacious actor Frances O’Connor.

The plot, as a result, becomes a modern feminist drama about a quasi-orphan who rebels against the oppressive circumstances and rigid social conventions in which she has been placed. (In this respect  the movie reminds me of the Australian film My Brilliant Career.) This creates problems towards the end of the movie since, when propriety is violated, the previously unconventional Fanny appears to suddenly become conventional.  Mary Crawford, by contrast, seems the real rebel.  Movie viewers who do not know the book leave the theater confused.

What Rozema misses is that Austen is not against social conventions. In fact, she’s fairly conservative. But she’s conservative in the deepest and best way. We need social conventions, she feels, because, without them, unscrupulous people victimize others. While Henry and Mary Crawford, with their charm and money, seem to be free spirits, they are actually shallow and narcissistic. All the others, and the director as well, seem taken in.

Fanny is an admirable character because she is the only one who can see through them. Her stand in favor of propriety is a stand, not in favor of mere conformity, but of integrity.  She maintains that stand even when all the world is against her.  This takes tremendous courage, and the fact that Austen makes her quiet and shy causes us to admire her all the more.  This dynamic is missing in the movie.

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  • Amanda Graham

    The 1983 BBC version of Mansfield Park directed by David Giles, starring Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny Price, Nicholas Farrell as Edmund Bertram and Anna Massey as Mrs Norris is very true to the book.

    Fanny is a little mouse, and when she has to refuse the marriage proposal, you can SEE how difficult it is for her. When cousin Edmund realizes that Mary Crawford does not disapprove of her brother’s morals, just that he was foolish to sin so publicly – he’s shocked and saddened. When he comes back to Mansfield Park he realizes that Fanny saw what none of the rest of them wanted to know.

    I have all the versions of the Austin movies that the BBC made back in the 1980s, and they stick much closer to the book

  • Robin Bates

    This is very useful to know, Amanda. I wonder if television can be truer to the books because it doesn’t face the box office pressures of big budget films. My one problem with television versions is that they don’t have the scale of movies so that Austen books come out feeling smaller than they feel. (You probably know the old dictum: “the movies are bigger than life, television is smaller than life.”) How does the 1983 version fare in that instance?

    The mini-series format might address some of these issues. The A&E Pride and Prejudice, which I (and many others) consider to be maybe the greatest version of any Austen novel, seems to be both grand and faithful.

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  • Karen Marie

    These and many other issues about Mansfield Park (and it’s many adaptions) can be going at http://www.pemberley.com. My favourite forum for Janeties:-)

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks, Karen. I love that website and have it on my blogroll. I probably have written about Austen more than any other author (with Shakespeare and the Beowulf poet as close seconds). – Robin

  • Vic

    In subsequent interviews Patricia Rozema attempts to justify her decision to make Fanny “more lively.” But by doing so she also narrowed the divide between Mary Crawford and Fanny, making the viewer wonder why Edmund failed to see Fanny’s charms earlier. The film also totally missed the point that despite Mrs. Norris’s bullying of Fanny, the young girl was able to withstand years of abuse and hold true to her principles.

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  • Rosie

    I’ve never liked Fanny Price. My dislike of her has nothing to do with her shy and retiring personality. I dislike Fanny, due to her hypocritical nature and her inability to face her own personal flaws and admit that “dear Cousin Edmund” had a good number of his own. The ironic thing is that Patricia Rozema’s portrayal of Fanny maintained the character’s hypocrisy . . . so she didn’t change the character that much.

  • Robin Bates

    I don’t see this, Rosie, but I’m willing to keep an open mind. Now, I do see Fanny as having low self-esteem and therefore not able to speak up as forcefully as she might for her positions. But she does manage to hold her own against unbelievable pressure. (Rozema’s Fanny, by contrast, is shown as very forceful.) But I don’t see Austen’s Fanny as being hypocritical (or Rozema’s either, for that matter). To be hypocritical, she would affirm one thing and do something else–where do you see that happening?

    Now, I can see Edmund as being hypocritical (when, because of his infatuation with Mary, he bends his principles and joins the play actors). But he’s not self-righteous about it, which is how I see hypocrites. Just in love. But I’m open to counter arguments.

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