Rethinking Mansfield Park (1999)

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Content warning: Discussion of the enslavement of human beings and their rape, torture, and murder at the hands of white enslavers. Yes, we are actually talking about a Jane Austen film adaptation.

“A woman’s poverty is a slavery even more harsh than a man’s.” Hoo, boy, buckle up, this is going to be a doozy.

Sometimes re-watching a film after a couple of decades have passed reveals a gem that you didn’t appreciate at the time. Sometimes, though, it brings into sharper focus the discomfort you felt when you first watched it, as you lacked the words to describe why you were uncomfortable, only the uneasy feeling that something about it felt “off.” That’s what happened when I watched Mansfield Park (1999) for the first time in 20 years. I remembered the movie always had me feeling on edge, but as a young woman, I could never articulate why. Now that I’ve lived some life and read a lot of Feminist critical theory in the intervening years, the vague uneasiness gave way to an immediate understanding that this film was so ham-fisted in its attempt to equate slavery with Fanny Price wanting to marry someone she loves that it defied credulity.

Fanny contemplating the fact that she’s human chattel.

Some of you reading this are no doubt wondering “what about the costumes?” It feels trite to then just focus on the costumes, which are decent (particularly Maria’s), when so much of this film’s problems aren’t in the clothes but in the entire subtext of equating Fanny Price’s unhappiness at not being allowed to the same freedoms as her male counterparts are in any way equal to literal slavery.

Maria does have some of the nicest outfits in the film.

In case you missed the subtext, the film serves up a scene where Fanny contradicts Sir Thomas regarding human chattel and he slides effortlessly into appraising her physical qualities in the same manner — not too subtle equation between being female and being enslaved, which seems a tad overwrought considering how white women in Regency England were still treated better than slaves. At one point Fanny tells at Edmund, “I will not be sold off like one of your slaves!”

Rich white women are slaves, too! Get it?

Fanny only has to return to her family to be treated as an equal, even though they live in relative poverty compared to her affluent relations. Those fleeting references to slavery and enslaved people? Yeah, it strains credibility to the point of being insulting. Fanny’s suffering for love is probably a miserable place to be, but focusing on her wistful face as she recalls the singing of slaves in the belly of a ship ricocheting off the cliffs below her…? I wasn’t OK with it 20 years ago, but I didn’t know why.

Mr. Crawford invading Fanny’s personal space all the time is definitely creepy …

… But no man is as creepy towards Fanny as his sister, Mary Crawford.

This scene has always made me so uncomfortable. I could never figure out why it was included other than to pander to the male gaze by insinuating that even Mary has the hots for Fanny, even though Fanny is clearly uncomfortable with Mary’s appreciative commentary about her body. Also corsets didn’t have latching metal busks in 1806. There’s your historical accuracy commentary.

I’m sure there are also some of you reading this thinking, “It’s not fair to hold an old film to current standards,” but I disagree. This film was heralded as a tidy piece of Feminist cinema in 1999, and its reflection on slavery was considered praiseworthy, it has not weathered time well. While the all-white cast gives a passing thought here and there to the suffering of enslaved peoples in the Americas (but of course, not in England, oh no), it doesn’t exactly dwell on it. Even in the climactic scene where Fanny discovers her elder cousin Tom’s sketch book and is horrified to see his drawings of what he witnessed in Antigua (where his father’s plantations are), it’s at such a distance that the effects are quickly abandoned by the film and we are moved on to happier scenes of white prosperity.

Yes, this is exactly like slavery. Mm-hm.

I say it is OK to look back at this with better awareness precisely because I was uncomfortable with it then, but not in the way the movie wanted. It wanted me to agree that like the enslaved people on Sir Thomas’ plantation in Antigua that were subjected to rape, torture, and murder (allegedly by Sir Thomas himself), Fanny Price suffers equally as a privileged, pale-skinned ward of a wealthy uncle who has lived the past 10 years of her life in a level of luxury that even her own mother and siblings can’t dream of. It all seems incredibly tasteless, if not just plain insulting of one’s intelligence.

The family closes ranks after Maria runs off with Mr. Crawford.

The fact that we’ve just been shown a drawing of what is clearly Sir Thomas raping an enslaved woman but now he’s happily promenading around his idyllic property, arm in arm with his wife … Like, what the fuck? Talk about cognitive whiplash.

 

What did you think of this film? Tell us in the comments!

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

30 Responses

  1. Karen Anspach

    This is a good description of a LOT of films produced in the 90s that tríed to be “with it” but just didn’t “get it.” Unfortunately (perhaps fortunately in the case of the film) I have not read the book nor seen the film. How much of this is in the novel, or was this insulting trash invented whole cloth for the film?

    Reply
    • The Scrivener

      It’s in the novel; Edward Said critiques it in Culture and Imperialism as an example of the moral substructure that underlies 18th/19th century fiction. Austen doesn’t dwell on it, because it would be like Helen Fielding pausing Bridget Jones’ Diary to tell us about the sweatshop workers who made that ugly Christmas sweater.

      Fanny Price is a difficult heroine for modern audiences, because she is so introverted and passive, but this adaptation treated her like a spunky time-traveler from the 1990s!

      Reply
    • Orian Hutton

      Fanny puts one mild question to her uncle ‘about the slave trade’ in the novel. The rest of this trash is not there. Fanny, herself, was not the feisty, resentful lady in the film, but a very damaged young child/woman beautifully portrayed by Jane Austen.

      Jane Austen wrote the novel just a few years after the abolition of the slave trade by the British Parliament in 1807; may have read (as suggested in one of her letters) Thomas Clarkson’s ‘The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament’ published in 1808; and one of her naval brothers served trying to stop slave ships plying their trade in the Atlantic. But making this novel about slavery in any of its many forms was not the sort of thing Austen wrote about.

      Her interest was in her ‘little bit of ivory…on which I work with a brush so fine as to produce little effect after much labour’, not in writing allegories about larger issues.

      Reply
  2. NuitsdeYoung

    “Content warning”?
    Oh FFS… Unsubscribing.
    I hated the book, too: had to do it for A Level.
    Austen is a waste of space.

    Reply
  3. Katie O.

    I never liked this adaptation – I know it’s not popular here, but I thought the Billie Piper one was much better. Between the horrifying slavery themes and completely changing Fanny’s character to make her more “interesting” it felt like it was barely the same story.

    Reply
  4. Constance

    I think JA had tried to make some anti-slavery points in her book so filmmakers feel they have to refer back to it but they are better off leaving it out altogether, rather than comparing Fanny being expected to marry a seemingly promising young man to being a slave. In any event there was no way Fanny was going to make an impression of her uncle on the matter of slavery no matter what remarks she made so it comes off as extremely silly in the various remakes when she tries, imo.
    But yes a movie made just 20 or so years ago should be looked at critically for this type of a comparison to slavery being suggested…it comes off as ignorant and honestly did as well the first time I saw it, though I am likely older than the average reader here. (62j

    Reply
  5. Brandy

    Looking at you Titanic! The line “To me, it was a slave ship, taking me back to America in chains.” Yes, you poor little rich white girl, being forced to marry a man you don’t love is exactly like slavery! FFS!

    Reply
  6. Caroline Macafee

    Having a problem commenting – please forgive me if this appears twice. I found the film nauseatingly sleazy, but my understanding of it was that Sir Thomas had been dehumanised by his actions in Antigua, and Tom had been traumatised by witnessing them. Since Fanny is the central character, we see this reflected in their interactions with her.

    Reply
  7. Kristina

    The director is openly lesbian, so claiming that she was pandering to the male gaze is a really bad take.

    I agree with most of the rest, though. It seems to me that most Austen fans have hated this movie ever since it was released. In addition to its ignorant and insulting comparison of rich white women’s problems with slavery, it turns Fanny into a cringe-worthy 1990s “not like other girls” stereotype.

    Reply
  8. MJ

    This movie was my entry into Jane Austen, so I forgive it a lot on that score, but it is a wholesale cringefest for a ton of reasons. Have to agree with what you’re saying. I don’t ever recommend it mostly because it’s utterly unfaithful to the source, but the fact that it says nothing good about slavery or the plight of women, and conflates the two, is super gross.

    Reply
  9. Loren Dearborn

    I never liked it and like you I couldn’t quite articulate why…but it just felt icky. I think you put your finger on the reasons I felt that way.

    Reply
  10. Gretchen

    Both Austen and the feminist writer of her day, Mary Wollstonecraft, compared the situation of women in their society to slavery. I see Rozema’s version as illustration of a contemporary line of thought. And she doesn’t celebrate Sir Thomas, rather she says that after he sells out of Antigua he re-invests in another slave labor colony, Virginia, to grow tobacco. Since this is completely made up it seems to underscore his NOT having learned or changed; it’s grim. Other than Fanny getting her love match I wouldn’t call it a happy ending, rather one where people carry on in opium-induced obliviousness.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      It was common to compare women’s social disabilities with slavery in the 19th c. And IMO opinion it is both an invalid and somewhat offensive equivalency. White women had social advantages slaves didn’t. They had advantages of class and wealth and by the 19th c. The right to choose their ‘owner’.

      Reply
      • Gretchen

        Not saying it’s a valid comparison, only that it was a contemporary opinion and therefore not inappropriate in an adaptation. Also I would note that very many privileged women were not actually able to “choose their owner” nor even to choose not to marry, which is why a voluntary marriage with good prospects for safety and love is such a common part of a “happy ending.”

        Reply
        • Roxana

          There were indeed no good alternatives to marriage. But women did make marriage work for them improving their status by catching the right husband.

          Jane Austen makes it clear that mercenary marriages were a thing in the early 19th century and sometimes engineered by the woman involved. She also made it clear that she regarded this as a Bad Thing that would lead to unhappiness as surely as an imprudent marriage of passion.

          ‘Do anything rather than marry without affection,’ Jane Bennet tells Elizabeth. Jane Austen was tempted in Real Life by a marriage proposal from the well off heir to an estate who she’d known most of his life. She was understandably tempted but retracted her consent the next morning. She couldn’t go through with even a friendly marriage of convenience, perhaps especially to a young man she liked who might easily find a wife who actually loved him.

          Reply
      • Joe

        I never understand Americans who erase the centuries of rape, torture and abuse women have endured all because they wants pats for being racially progressive. You sound sexist af tbh. But of course, sexism is fine according to the yanks!

        Reply
        • Orian Hutton

          I am neither a Yank nor sexist, but slavery is not the same as what happened to women in Regency England or, indeed, England throughout the centuries. There are still men who rape, torture and abuse women, but they are not the norm. I am a historian and, perhaps surprisingly to you, many women have frequently been in positions of power over their own lives and often that of their husbands.

          Jane Austen often shows how women can run the show. Think Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh in ‘Pride and Prejudice’; Mrs Ferrars, Fanny Dashwood and Mrs Jennings in ‘Sense and Sensibility’; Emma, Mrs Goddard, Mrs Churchill and Mrs Elton in ‘Emma’; Lady Russel, Mrs Croft and Mrs Musgrove in ‘Persuasion’. And in ‘Mansfield Park’, Sir Bertram has given up London for his wife, Mrs Rushworth has obvious powers over her son and his home and Mary Crawford is hardly a shrinking violet.

          People are people and Jane Austen’s great ability as a novelist is her ability to portray human interactions in all of their complexities rather than some simplistic overview of the human condition.

          Reply
  11. Lily Lotus Rose

    Oh, God, am I going to have to watch this movie for a third time now in order to evaluate these claims? Like Sarah, I re-watched this movie last year for the first time since the 90s and wrote practically an entire essay on the FrockFlicks short review thread. (I had waaay too much time on my hands during lockdown.)

    Here’s what I’d say re the slavery angle in the 1999 version of Mansfield Park. 1. I think part of the problem is with the source material itself. The book alludes to the slave trade very slightly, but not in any substantive way. And in Austen’s Sanditon fragment, she introduces a character (that we never meet in the fragment) who is a “half-mulatto.” My point is that I think as she matured Austen wanted to broach subjects such as slavery and race which were beyond her normal topics of class, marriage, and a woman’s lot in life. But I think that her decision to write marriage-minded stories centered around the young women of the gentry hemmed her in and that she never really found a way to deal with these topics in her “genre.” Had she lived longer, I think she might’ve found a way to do so. 2. Honestly, for all its problems and off-ness, I think the 1999 version was exactly what it was meant to be. I think either the studio and/or Patricia Rozema (who was so acclaimed for her female-centered I”ve Heard the Mermaids Singing) WANTED to make an Austen movie that pushed the envelope–that dared to bring a discussion of slavery into the mix as well as lesbian desire. I think they WANTED to break the mold of all the other 90s adaptations of Austen.

    Reply
    • Orian Hutton

      Jane Austen famously wrote to James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian that she wrote ‘pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages’ and that she ‘could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem’. She meant Romance in the old fashioned sense of the word: ‘one who wrote extravagant fictions’.

      Her letters that survive show us a young woman interested in people, their relationships and their foibles. Why we need to modernise her thinking is beyond me. I just delight in how she allows me an entry into the her small world and the opportunity to see her time period through her eyes and in such an intimate way.

      Reply
  12. Mona Bayard

    Based on what you say here, I won’t make the effort to see this version. However, may I recommend Helene Kelly’s “Jane Austen the Secret Radical” for an interesting approach. It got a mixed reaction, but as a lover of the books, I found it worth reading.

    Reply
    • Sheryl Kirby

      Seconding “Jane Austen the Secret Radical”. It goes a bit off the rails when it comes to Austen’s own life but it made me go back and read (and watch) Austen’s entire ouevre again. There is SO MUCH subtext in her books that we just don’t get today. Each book had a secondary theme beyond the romance bit, and much of it is very political, presented in a way that wouldn’t get people’s hackles up about young women of the time being encouraged to know what is going on in the world.

      As for this particular version… it is not subtle in its messaging, and goes far beyond the pointed but sly insinuations Austen offers.

      Reply
  13. kathleenjowitt

    Wow, that really is a throwback! I saw this film for the first time as part of the first year of my English Lit degree; we had to read Mansfield Park and read the Said essay someone mentioned upthread as part of the module. The combination was an eye-opener for me then, but I haven’t seen it since.

    Reply
  14. 992234177

    I like the tv series with Samantha Bond. What I love about that version is that it gets the intermediate position of Fanny. She doesn’t complain about it because it makes sense to her. It shows how very odd class is.

    Reply
  15. Roxana

    Jane Austen invariably limited herself to the small world of the country gentry because that was the world she knew. For all we know she had strong opinions on slavery but she would never have ventured to write about it because it was far beyond her personal experience. Sir Thomas’s property in Antigua may have been just an excuse to get the character out of the way but it might also have been intended to imply he is not a good guy. In Emma Mrs. Elton becomes defensive when it’s implied her family is connected with the slave trade and the unfinished fragment, Sanduton included a mulatto heiress. I very much regret that we will never know what Jane had planned for that character.

    Reply
  16. Charity

    I really thought the entire thing was dreadful, and not just for the slavery inclusion — everything was so ‘in your face’ (right down to her stumbling in on Maria and what’s his face naked in bed together) that it all left a bad taste in my mouth. Austen is way funnier in her characterizations and subtle in what she suggests that it just felt in poor taste.

    Reply
  17. Kerry

    I never really liked the Fanny character because she is a sturdy rock and everyone changes around her but not her. What most miss is that she was able to marry the man she loves because the family took a reputation hit with Maria’s behavior.

    This film would have worked if it had stuck to Fanny and her unfailing morality. Especially when she is courted by Henry Crawford.

    The social commentary fails. In regards to the picture, I just took it as Tom’s mental instability. The film seems to do the same otherwise it wouldn’t have written off the picture. But it was sloppy and open to misunderstanding.

    Reply
  18. Roxana

    I’ve always suspected that Fanny Price was Jane Austen’s attempt to write a conventional heroine; pretty, passive and put upon, and was unsuccessful. Fanny makes phrases like ‘passive aggressive’ echo in my head but on the other hand I’m sympathetic to her almost pathological shyness because I suffered from the same.
    IMO the Crawford siblings had a lucky escape and I deeply pity the Rev. and Mrs. Bertram’s future parishioners.

    Reply

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