Shiny Shelf

Mansfield Park

By Mags L Halliday on 19 March 2007

Spoilers – if you’ve not read a novel from two centuries ago.

When a supposedly mainstream channel like ITV1 has been getting viewing figures so low a digital channel would be proud of them, they have had no option but to use the ultimate weapon: Jane Austen. The real grandmother of romance: the woman who created the template of a thousand unrequited heroines and quiet smart heroes who eventually beat the charming but caddish villains. You can’t beat an Austen. Except possibly with the brooding Northern gothica of a Bronte (although then it has to be a well-known one rather than ‘Villette’).

So we come to the story of Fanny Price, a girl generally regarded and derided as one of the wettest heroines of literature. Fanny, adopted by her rich uncle and forever reminded she is allowed into Mansfield Park on sufferance. Fanny, who spends an entire novel not being worthy and pining over bookish sensible Edmund. Fanny, who Austen’s own mother thought ‘insipid’. As played, in this adaptation, by Billie Piper. Someone not noted for playing drippy heroines mooning about over geeky boys.

The against-type casting works surprisingly well: Piper brings a pout to Fanny, emphasising the idea that she has to clamp down on feeling and emotion because of her unfortunate position. Making Fanny a secretly feisty type is not a new notion however: it was something used in the BBC adaptation of 1999. This new adaptation, by Maggie Wadey, is however a little too blunt for Austen’s sharpness. Where the novel hints that Fanny once asked at dinner about her uncle’s opinions on slavery, this adaptation dramatises it: it makes Fanny someone who dares to ask, and to be castigated as an abolitionist. Whilst the origin of Sir Thomas’s fortune is one of the questions John Sutherland asked of literature in ‘Was Heathcliffe a Murderer?’, and it is something every modern adaptation seeks to suggest, the dialogue in the dramatised scene was poor cod-Regency speak. Fanny becomes a twenty-first century interloper in her own story.

Any Austen adaptation running to 90 minutes has a struggle to cram the material in. We lose the long sequence in which Fanny is cast back to her poverty-stricken family in Portsmouth, instead seeing her left alone at Mansfield Park for a couple of weeks. The idea in the novel is that her exclusion from the life she has been accustomed to is what allows her to consider the caddish Crawford’s offer of marriage: being left alone in a stately home just doesn’t have the same effect.

The adaptation starts with a voice-over, as the adult Fanny recounts her childhood. Yet this voice over, a device which could have been used to great effect to indicate the private world of Fanny’s suppressed thoughts and desires, vanishes and never returns. In a straight steal from Russell T Davies’s ‘Casanova’, Fanny and Edmund dance the then shocking new waltz instead of a formal quadrille, as her aunt helpfully comments that in marrying for love Fanny and Edmund are ‘learning a new dance’.

By stripping the story to fit 90 minutes it becomes less of a sly social commentary and more of a semaphored standard romance: does anyone ever doubt for a moment that Fanny and Edmund will end up together? The reduction made to cram the story into works against the smart casting and curiously flattens the potential for drama.

ITV1’s return to classic adaptations, along with their “not as bad as ‘Torchwood’” return to telefantasy with ‘Primeval’, suggests that the channel is trying to recover ground by fighting BBC1 at its own game. They’ve wisely avoided the obvious Austen – any adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ has to fight the Firth effect, and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ has Thompson’s fingerprints still lingering – but it remains to be seen if Andrew Davies can bring across the pastiche of gothic romance that is ‘Northhanger Abbey’ or Wadey provide any deftness to the world-worn weight of ‘Persuasion’.

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