In Remembrance of The Complete Jane Austen

“This present from the Campbells,” said she — “This pianoforté is very kindly given.” 

“Yes,” he replied, and without the smallest apparent embarrassment. “But they would have done better had they given her notice of it. Surprizes are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable. I should have expected better judgment in Colonel Campbell.” Emma Woodhouse & Mr. Knightley, Emma, Chapter 26 

Gone, but not forgotten, The Complete Jane Austen series on PBS ended last Sunday with the final episode of Sense and Sensibility. It was a bittersweet moment for me, kind of an anti-climatic ‘day after the wedding’ kind of funk. And now, I feel a deep malaise setting in! Whatever shall we all talk and ruminate over?

Like Emma Woodhouse’s comment about Jane Fairfax’s mysterious gift pianoforte, I also felt that the new adaptations were well-intended and kindly given, but I must agree with Mr. Knightley, who as we all know is the voice of reason in the Highbury community, that surprises are foolish things. Janeites like their Austen authentic, and expect it, so when the writers and directors of the new movies added to or changed the plot and characters, it was disconcerting.

Why do they do that? Why take Austen’s acclaimed and revered novels and recreate them with added scenes, dialogue, and sex? Good question, which I have seen liberally debated by the Austen community online, and discussed within curious non-Janeite friends. This is a puzzling conundrum, but to put it in a nutshell, the re-creators claim interest and improvement as their motivation, but I say the almighty dollar is the driving force; because we all know that 18th-century Jane Austen is big business in the 21st-century, and sex sells!

And so my Austen friends, as The Complete Jane Austen concludes, Mrs. Bennet will share her lace hankies with us (honk) while we have a moment of silence for the almighty dollar, but only a moment mind you, and then rejoice in the pleasure of seeing all six of Miss Austen’s novels presented consecutively for the first time on US television, and reflect on the best, the worst and wittiest moments.

         

The outstanding fop of the year: Winner, Anthony Head as Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion. Hand over your mirrors ladies, because vanity has a new goddess and his name is Sir Walter. Runner-up goes to Leo Bill as Robert Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, whose Regency love geek was tongue-in-cheek, literally, and we could not be more delighted!

                   

Worst imitation of a dashing hero: Winner, Dominic Cooper as John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. What a downer to discover that Willoughby is Satan’s spawn. No way could a young lady of Marianne’s caliber fall for that demon. Runner-up goes to David Morrissey as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. Sorry Mr. Morrissey, but you scowled so often that I mistook you for Sam the Eagle.

         

Best all-out crying jag: Winner, Charity Wakefield as Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Granted she had the best material to start with, but it is hard not to forget her despondent sobbing after Willoughby’s dear Madame letter. Runner-up goes to Allison Steadman as Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Never before has one adult wailed and screeched so operatically over a daughter’s scandalous elopement, or has anyone surpassed her high C since.

         

Helen Keller creative communications award: Winner, Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliott in Persuasion, who with her silent stares and blank looks forced the audience into a crash course in American Sign Language. Runner-up goes to Mark Strong as an unusually angry Mr. Knightley in Emma, who claimed if he loved Emma less, he might be able to talk about it more nicely, – but we doubt it.

         

 

Most officious matriarch: Winner, Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice still reigns supreme as the bossiest rich old bag in the parish, hands down! Runner-up goes to Jean Marsh as Mrs. Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility who really knows how to crack a nut efficiently!

         

Busted but not guilty award: Winner, Carey Mulligan as Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, whose bodices were so deeply cut that we were quite anxious for Miss Mulligan. One deep breath or a sharp twist could have released a cleavage spill on national television. Oh my! Runner-up goes to Michelle Ryan as Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park whose Bionic figure might just reach into another galaxy.

         

Weirdest inflection of an English accent: Winner, Lucy Robinson as Augusta Elton in Emma. We shall try to not take offense of her attempt at a Bristol accent, which ended up sounding like an American New England nasal drawl because there might be New Englanders that came from Bristol in the first place, but it was just weird. Runner-up goes to Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane, who was born in New England but didn’t do a Bristol accent either, nor Hampshire for that matter. Oops, not part of the series, sorry!

                   

Big, messy, Muppet hair is so Regency Award: Winner, Billie Piper as Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, who looked liked she rolled out of bed after a night out chasing aliens with Dr. Who. Shall we blame it all on her hair designer whose past gig was The Muppet Show? She might have mistaken Miss Piper, for Miss P…y, – oh my, I can’t be that cruel, can I? Runner-up goes to Joseph Beattie as Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park who elevated the Regency rake stereotype yet one notch higher with uncontrollably messy hair and flouncy shirts! For what else do we live for but poofy, prissy rakes, right?

                   

Best classic Jane Austen adaptation: Winner, Pride and Prejudice 1995. (Classic in this instance means not a new production or previously broadcast on PBS) No contest really! Pride and Prejudice might just hold this honor for more years than we can imagine before a new production de-thrones it. I just wish that producers and screenwriters would understand why it is so successful, and take notes or something! Ahem.

                   

Runner-up goes to Emma 1996 because since it was the only other ‘classic’ production to air in the series, it had to win! It does have its charms though, and an honorable mention goes to Samantha Morton for her sensitive portrayal of the much misunderstood Harriet Smith and Prunella Scales as garrulous Miss Bates. So very obliging indeed!

                   

Best new Jane Austen adaptation: Winner, Sense and Sensibility, purely predicated upon the performance of Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood, and not the sexed up and sloppy script by Andrew Davies. Comedic kudos goes to Daisy Haggard as Anne Steele, who was happily all “vulgar freedom and folly”, restoring the humor to a Jane Austen adaptation that had so shockingly been sadly lacking before her entrance.

                   

Runner-up goes to Northanger Abbey, whose two young protagonists Felicty Jones as Catherine Morland, and JJ Feild as Henry Tilney reminded us of the joys and anguish of an adventurous teenage life, and the perils of reading too much Gothic fiction. La!

Fairweather and fine roads The Complete Jane Austen, until we meet again!

Mansfield Park (2007) on Masterpiece Classic – A Review: No Hope of a Cure

Image from Mansfield Park 2007 Billie Piper and cast © 2007 Masterpiece PBS

“My dear Miss Price,” said Miss Crawford, as soon as she was at all within hearing, “I am come to make my own apologies for keeping you waiting; but I have nothing in the world to say for myself-I knew it was very late, and that I was behaving extremely ill; and therefore, if you please, you must forgive me. Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope of a cure.” Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park, Chapter 7

Today I am feeling much like that supercilious Mary Crawford in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park; selfish, greedy and smug. I want my Jane Austen adaptations served up to me according to my wishes. Right now!

Three weeks into The Complete Jane Austen presentation on PBS and I’m still waiting to be wowed. Was the 1995-97 adaptation spree a fluke? Has Colin Firth’s performance as Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice spoiled me from ever enjoying any other adaptation? As singer Peggy Lee crooned, “Is that all there is?”

This brings me squarely to the latest installment, Mansfield Park, which if I may be so bold is not an easy novel to understand and even more of a challenge to adapt to the screen. The misunderstanding of the novel is certainly not from lack of effort. Of Jane Austen’s entire canon, Mansfield Park has erupted more heated discussion than any of her other novels, resulting in the infamous ‘Fanny wars‘ among academics and amateurs alike. In defense of our Jane Austen, we happily trample gently and wield a big cluebat.

This adaptation presents a large and handsome cast of the usual Regency lineup; the poor relation and waif heroine Fanny Price (Billie Piper), who has been conscripted as a child into the household of her wealthy and privileged aunt and uncle, Lady (Jemma Redgrave) and Sir Thomas Betram (Douglas Hodge) to the family country manor Mansfield Park (Newby Hall). Fanny’s indolent cousins rule her world; heir apparent and gambling boozer Tom (James D’Arcy), and spoiled sisters Maria (Michelle Ryan) and Julia Bertram (Catherine Steadman). The only one on the straight and narrow among this tribe is our pious hero, and Fanny’s only friend Edmund Bertram (Blake Ritson).

Enter into the neighborhood two scheming siblings; acerbic Mary (Hayley Atwell) trolling for a rich husband, and hedonistic Henry Crawford (Joseph Beattie) determined to make Fanny fall in love with him to “make a small whole in her heart”, and you have all the ingredients for an interesting story. Unfortunately, the majority of the original nuances and wit in the novel ends up in the round file. In defense of screen writer MaggieWadley, she was hired for a fool’s errand. The only person qualified to pare down this 473 page intricately detailed work (Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen) into ninety minutes of screen time would be Jane Austen herself, and unfortunately she was not available.

So much of the original plot has been eliminated, that after the first fifteen minutes, I put aside my expectations of re-visiting my memories of Jane Austen’s prose, and attempted to enjoy the essence of the plot and characters. Given the restriction of time, this adaptation directed by Ian B. MacDonald whips along at a frenetic pace, touching on themes and condensing all of it’s action to one beautiful location, the house and grounds of Mansfield Park. Gone are the neighboring homes of the Rectory of Mrs. Grant where the Crawford’s reside, the cottage of Mrs. Norris, the estate of Mr. Rushworth, Sotherton Court, and the Price family residence in Portsmouth. One can only assume that these deletions were agreeable to the budget, and not meant as a slight to the viewer! Ack! I felt like I was on a Jane Austen restricted diet.

The majority of actors were well cast with a few exceptions and standouts. I tried to like Billie Piper as Fanny, but she had so little to say, that I am not sure if I should blame it on her acting or the script which had her stone faced in the sidelines, dutifully fetching and carrying for her cousins, and simpering on cue. When she finally opposes her uncle Sir Thomas wishes for her to accept the proposal of Henry Crawford, I was not convinced by her actions or words that she could have been capable of pleading her case against such a strong patriarch. Our hero Edmund Bertram’s best scenes were unfortunately not with our heroine, but played out with his love interest Mary Crawford. I was relieved that he was allowed to actually have more than a few lines with her, and their final scene together ending his infatuation of her was his best. My favorite performance was by Michelle Ryan as willful Maria Bertram. When she is on screen, her presence was so compelling that it demands your complete attention. Other actresses with this same quality from the golden age of Hollywood such as Vivian Leigh or Ava Gardner learned to develop their acting beyond their striking beauty to command recognition. Miss Ryan is well on her way to stardom, and I hope to see her in a more expanded capacity.

I would like to conclude my review of Mansfield Park with a brief costume and hair roundup. Since so much of the script did not reflect the original novel, I was resolved to focus my review entirely on the costumes in the film until I learned that the majority of the frocks here designed by others, and appropriated from previous Jane Austen adaptations. For shame producers. You can get the complete runway rundown here. I must interject that the costume designer did give us the requisite cleavage for the nasty female antagonist, and the big messy hair for the male cad. Thank you very much. I’m not sure that I would have been able to identify them otherwise. I was also amused to learn that the hair designer Mary Southgate had in addition to her many credits in grand Opera, worked as the hair designer on The Muppet Show. This may allow for the un-Regency like mop top do of Miss Piper.

And, I would like to extend my sincere congratulations and thanks to Holly the Pug, for timing her barks, snorts and growls with such precise conviction and emotion. Besides Miss Piper’s bleached bimbo hurricane hair, she was the funniest part of this adaptation.

Image courtesy © 2007 Masterpiece PBS; text © 2008 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Mansfield Park: The Enigma that is Fanny Price

Image of a steel engraving by Nathaniel Whittock of Newby Hall Yorkshire, circa 1831 

GENTLENESS 

The gentleness and gratitude of her disposition would secure her all your own immediately. From my soul I do not think she would marry you without love; that is, if there is a girl in the world capable of being uninfluenced by ambition, I can suppose it her;

 Mary Crawford on Fanny Price, Mansfield Park, Chapter 30  

If Pride and Prejudice is the darling of Jane Austen’s oeuvre, then Mansfield Park is the red headed step child. Even opinions of it were divided among Jane Austen’s friends and family prior and after publication, which she collected into an undated manuscript circa 1814 and 1815.

“We certainly do not think it as a whole, equal to P. & P. — but it has many & great beauties. Fanny is a delightful Character! and Aunt Norris is a great favourite of mine. The Characters are natural & well supported, & many of the Dialogues excellent. — You need not fear the publication being considered as discreditable to the talents of it’s Author.” F. W. A. (Francis William Austen)

“liked it better than P. & P. — but not so well as S. & S. — could not bear Fanny. — Delighted with Mrs. Norris, the scene at Portsmouth, & all the humourous parts.” Anna Lefroy

“owned that she thought S. & S. — and P. & P. downright nonsense, but expected to like M. P. better, & having finished the 1st vol. — flattered herself she had got through the worst.” Mrs. Augusta Bramstone

“All who think deeply & feel much will give the Preference to Mansfield Park.” Mrs. Carrick

“did not much like it — not to be compared to P. & P. — nothing interesting in the characters — Language poor. — Characters natural & well supported — Improved as it went on.” Fanny Cage

Such enlightening comments! In fact, a quick analysis of all of the collected remarks by family and friends reveals that readers today feel much the same; Mansfield Park is not equal to Pride & Prejudice and Fanny Price is annoying and insipid. What is it about this novel that is so unsatisfying in comparison to Pride & Prejudice? Why do readers dislike Fanny?

To answer completely would require more time and space then I can impart at this moment, but I can give you a quick response. The themes and characters in Mansfield Park make us uneasy. They introduce the reader to some of the dark aspects of human nature, and more disturbingly, how we treat each other. That is unsettling. Fanny Price as a heroine is picked upon, belittled and degraded. She has been so un-empowered by her circumstances that she chooses not to oppose them. This angers and frustrates us. We want her to speak up for herself like Lizzy Bennet or tell others what to do like Emma Woodhouse, but that does not happen. Instead, Fanny is silent, patient and dutiful. Why?

The answers are eventually revealed by Jane Austen. The ending does reach a satisfying conclusion, rewarding the patient and dutiful reader who like Fanny must wait for the happy ending in Mansfield Park. Understanding the enigma that is Fanny Price, – – well, I fear that will remain one of the mysteries of the ages.

Image of Billie Piper as Fanny Price, Mansfield Park, PBS (2007)Be sure to mark your calendars and set you watches for the premiere of Masterpiece Classics’s Mansfield Park, starring Billie Piper as saintly Fanny Price, Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram her friend and saviour, and Hayley Atwell and Joseph Beattie as twisted siblings Mary & Henry Crawford on Sunday, January 27th. at 9:00 pm on PBS. It should be a enigmatic and elightening evening.

*Steel engraving of Newby Hall, Yorkshire by Nathaniel Whittock, from A New and Complete History of the County of York by Thomas Allen (1831). Newby Hall stared as Mansfield Park in the ITV production that will air on The Complete Jane Austen presented by PBS this week. On a very weird side note to anyone who knows how family history can connect serendipitously, Newby Hall was originally owned by the Blackett family who built the present manor designed by Christopher Wren circa 1690. The Blackett family made their fortune in lead ore mines in Yorkshire and Northumberland. My ancestors were miners working for the Blackett-Beamont family for centuries in Allendale, NBL. So, you could say in a round-about way, that my family helped pay for the hall.