2017 Jane Austen Society of North America
Topic: Adapting a Jane Austen Novel
Imagine that you are adapting an Austen novel for stage or film. What elements might you be tempted to change—especially for a modern audience—and what should not be tampered with if the integrity of the work is to be preserved? These elements could be scenes, characters, dialogue or something else. Explain why they are so crucial to the novel. How does what can and cannot be changed shed light on Austen’s popularity and influence?
Mansfield Park: The Musical
By Micah D. Long
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s masterpiece about Fanny Price’s life and relationships with her upper-class English relatives and their connections, is a work especially suited to adaptation for the stage. The richly developed characters and their complex relationships would make for engaging and vibrant theater as the staged production of the work sheds new light on Austen’s vision and work. Of course, with the translation from a novel to the theater, there are changes and compromises that arise, but the important, key focus of an adapter should be to deliver the soul of the work—to convey what makes Austen’s work engaging and important. What is the best way to do this? Mansfield Park should be a musical. This may seem like an offbeat or radical proposition, but Mansfield Park has everything needed to create a musical production: a vibrant cast of characters, a story driven by people’s authentic actions and not by plot conventions, and moments of brilliant emotional tension. Austen created true art in Mansfield Park, and a musical version of the story has the potential to be entertaining and engaging while shedding new light on the story. The adaptation of this story into a musical would be the best way to deliver the complicated internal life of Fanny Price, the emotions and tensions of the ensemble of characters within the book, the overarching tone of the work, and (most importantly) Austen’s vision for her story and characters, while applying Austen’s brilliant ideas to a new medium in a new era, heightening and complementing her great legacy.
At the heart of Mansfield Park is the intriguing, quiet, and subtly captivating character of Fanny Price. Fanny is one of the most difficult parts about adapting Mansfield Park to a musical. She is described initially as “quiet” (Austen 8) and “passive” (8), and remains that way for much of the story, only confiding to Edmund regularly and “speaking only when she [can] not help it” (159). The overall impression of Fanny is built up subtly throughout the story, through Austen’s omniscient narration and the regular conversations between Fanny and Edmund, as well as Fanny’s bursts of passion at the rejection of Crawford’s proposal (162) or when she avoids joining the performance of Lovers’ Vows (78). Fanny’s moments in the spotlights are brief for a protagonist, and she often slides into the background as an observer of the action instead of a participant. The temptation (especially in a musical) is to turn Fanny into an extroverted, impassioned heroine whose character is delivered directly to the audience through musical soliloquies. This would be a stylistic alteration similar to the 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park, where Fanny is constantly running around, smiling and laughing, a direct contradiction to her reserved nature in the book. To bend Fanny Price into a boisterous, charismatic figure is to destroy her journey from an insecure and miserable young girl into a woman capable of handling herself in the society she has been prepared for. No longer would the subtle, character-based journey Austen creates be the emotional through line for the audience. Instead, Fanny’s journey needs to be rendered with respect.
A musical adaptation could deliver Fanny’s character as Austen intended in three ways that would avoid the trap of eliminating the heart of Mansfield Park. The first is in the evolution of Fanny’s singing. As this is a musical, the characters are expected to render their emotions and thoughts through song. Fanny’s singing would often take place when she is alone onstage, away from the overbearing eyes of her relatives. Her thoughts could leak out, initially as small and sweet melodies that provide a glimpse into her mind that evolve throughout the performance into beautiful ballads that show her growing strength as a character. The music and songs would replace Austen’s narration as the primary insight into Fanny’s journey from quiet and meek to triumphant and confident. Maybe, at first, Fanny doesn’t sing, unable to do anything but sob, overcome by tears and needing to “finish her sorrows in bed” instead of interacting with her relatives (Austen 7). Another song could come midway through her character journey, as she muses on her affection for Edmund and conflicts between emotion and principles relating to Henry as she notices his growing attention, as described in Chapters 24-26. She could have a final song late in the show as she responds to the revelation of Henry and Maria’s affair and realizes she has stuck to her principles and beliefs and how she wishes Edmund would do the same. There’s no need for the direct and clunky exposition of character exhibited in the 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park (McDonald, Mansfield Park) as Fanny describes her affections for Edmund as coming “to love him as more than a cousin.” Songs could delve into the richness and subtleties of this love, using musical themes and tunes of sweet romance to accompany words that only need to gracefully point to the affection.
The second way a staged musical could deliver Fanny’s character relies on another aspect of musical theater: dance. While it’s hard to imagine kick-lines and tap dancing in the uptight world of English gentry, there are two balls described by Austen in the narrative of Mansfield Park. The first is a spontaneous ball put on during the summer visit of the Crawfords (Austen 63), where Fanny is briefly shown to be “waiting and wishing” for it to be over or to join in (and briefly does join with her cousin Tom), and the second is the one put on by Sir Thomas for Fanny and her “growing up into a pretty woman” (103). The contrast between these two scenes, rendered on the stage, would show Fanny’s growth in character and beauty as she begins to step into the limelight and her romance with Edmund is kindled. Similar musical themes could accompany both scenes, as they parallel each other in everything but one essential way: Fanny dancing. In the first ball, we could see Fanny’s disappointment and limited engagement with Tom and his selfish use of Fanny as a way to avoid a card game (64), while in the second she would be more open, dancing with Henry gracefully and demonstrating her maturity as a young woman (another important theme Austen explores).
The third important aspect of Fanny’s character has to be rendered through the performance by the actress. She has to handle the character in a way that makes the audience care about Fanny and understand her morally uptight and emotionally uptight nature, while rendering the scenes that require more emotion, such as Fanny’s sadness after Sir Thomas’s rant (165) and her growing affection for Edmund throughout the story. Without the audience able to access Austen’s narration, Fanny must be rendered convincingly through every action and line by her actress. So, adding deeply developed acting to the dancing and singing of Fanny Price provides a key core to the story of Mansfield Park.
While Fanny is the center of Austen’s novel, Mansfield Park is truly an ensemble piece, with a large group of characters that are developed individually and relationally. It could even be argued that the novel is more about the interactions that take place in and around Mansfield as opposed to a particular character. Fanny is the character that requires the most development, as she is the heart of the story that the audience connects to, but the other members of the cast also have to be developed thoroughly in order to create the complicated world and relationships that make Mansfield Park engaging and authentic. It is rare that a character is alone in this story, and often, many characters are present and interacting all in the same place, such as the visit to Sotherton (45), Sir Thomas’s return during the play rehearsal (91), and Fanny’s ball (141).
The most fundamental way to convey characters and their relationships comes through their interactions. Not much has to be changed from prose to play in terms of dialogue, but the burden is on the actors rather than the author to provide reactions. “When Julia looked back, it was with a countenance of delight,” is changed to Julia acting delighted. Through interactions and reactions, the audience is able to absorb much about the various relationships between the characters.
These interactions set the stage for deeper looks into the various characters. Just as Fanny needs songs and solos throughout the musical that keep the audience updated on her internal state, so do the rest of the characters. Maria and Julia could sing of their competing love for Henry. Henry and Mary could have a short duet about their romantic pursuits and plots, mirroring their first conversation after meeting the Bertrams, and showing the audience their scheming and not-quite-trustworthy nature (23). Sir Thomas could have a song ranting against Fanny for refusing Henry, including the intertwining feelings of “astonishment” (162), “stone coldness” (164), and the anger displayed through his lecture of Fanny (165). These songs add a second layer to the foundation established by the simple interactions between characters, adding emotional richness and engagement at specific times throughout the show in order to convey story beats and character moments.
However, the final level of ensemble characterization is the most difficult. Representing interactions, conflicts, emotions, and thoughts that exist with stagnant characters at particular times is easy, but Mansfield Park is a story that details the personal growth of various characters. Fanny grows from a shy, looked-down-upon child to a capable and respected woman throughout the story. Edmund deals with the struggle of managing a household and preparing for his transition into clergy and marriage. Sir Thomas gains understanding of what it really means to instill character in his children. The problem that a two-hour production faces in adapting Mansfield Park is that the goal of hitting the major plot points can override the development of the characters, leaving the audience with only shallow impressions of growth and with a lack of connection to the characters. This can be circumvented, however, by the nature of musical theater. Placing songs in the correct places throughout the story can serve the double purpose of keeping the plot intact while also developing characters. For example, a song detailing Edmund’s assistance in helping Fanny become accustomed to life at Mansfield and helping her grow (as described in chapter 2) would carry Fanny from childhood to adulthood and set up Edmund as a responsible, caring teacher and friend. Another song could take place with duets and solos between Edmund, Fanny, Mary, and Henry about their various relationships and affections for one another, progressing the plot towards the marriage of Edmund and Fanny and the rejections by Mary and of Henry. Through song, we get the feelings and thoughts of characters, the progression of the plot, and the interaction and conflict required for development. Songs in musicals, like Shakespearean monologues, can accomplish multiple layers of storytelling simultaneously. A finale song could mirror Austen’s chapter-long conclusion where she “restore[s] everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest” (236), with a duet for Fanny and Edmund to show their kindling love, and a reflective piece for Sir Thomas reflecting on his faults as a father and putting Mansfield back in order, ending like a classic comedy should—with a wedding. And so, in a way that a movie or a play could not, a musical can progress many different elements simultaneously, preserving the audience’s connection to both the logical structure of the story and the emotional progression of the characters.
With Fanny intact as a character, and the rest of the ensemble well-developed, the themes of Mansfield Park can begin to shine through. In the novel, Austen explores themes slowly, allowing characters and their actions to exemplify the ideas she wants to bring forth. The themes Austen develops can be used as fundamental parts of songs. For example, much of Mansfield Park is concerned with the idea of growing up. We see Fanny’s maturing from girl to woman in the middle of the novel, as she is seen as more beautiful and able to leave the shadow of her cousins. A song about growing up would make a fantastic Act 1 finale, just after Sir Thomas returns and shuts down the Lovers’ Vows productions and William is brought to stay at Mansfield. The people around Fanny (and Fanny herself) c ould remark on her growth and developing beauty. Another theme Austen spends a lot of time on throughout Mansfield Park is internally held principles in contrast with external appearance. The attractive and charismatic Crawford siblings turn out to lack moral principles, while Fanny’s self-described “foolishness and awkwardness” (14) is only an external covering on deeply held beliefs about morality. Almost everyone is enamored by the appearance and charisma of the Crawfords, but Fanny holds to her principles and knows that Henry and Mary will never live up to them. Edmund and Sir Thomas eventually realize Fanny was right, which creates the conclusion to the story. A few songs could arise from this theme. A song for the young characters called “Putting on a Show” (or something similar) could set up the Lovers’ Vows production, with a double meaning relating to how the Crawfords are beguiling the Bertram family. Another song could end the show, perhaps titled “Not Who I Thought She Was,” beginning with Sir Thomas’s recognition that he didn’t raise his daughters with internal principles, only external projections (as shown by Maria’s affair with Henry). Then Edmund could end his relationship with Mary, as he realizes she doesn’t hold the same beliefs as him. Both Sir Thomas and Edmund could then realize Fanny’s virtue and steadfastness, as well as her growth, leading to the marriage between Edmund and Fanny. In this manner, the themes of Mansfield Park are exhibited naturally through the conventions of musical theater.
The final element required in order to make Mansfield Park into a musical is the spirit of Jane Austen. Her themes and ideas, as well as witty authorial tone and accurate observations, are really what set Mansfield Park apart as a great work of literature. Yes, the characters are engaging and the plot is intriguing, but all of it is elevated through Austen’s narration. Obviously, a musical adaptation can’t have the words of Jane Austen as a running commentary throughout the story in the same way the novel can. Largely, Austen’s wit and commentary has to disappear and become implied. Song lyrics can echo thoughts of Austen, poetically rendering some of her ideas. The characters like Lady Bertram (who becomes a bit of joke in Austen’s satire) can be brought out through humorous treatment within the script. Even the voices of the actors can reflect Austen’s vision, giving Sir Thomas a powerful baritone and Fanny a sweet, quiet soprano voice.
This may not be enough for those who feel like they lost something in translation from novel to stage. But the nature of an adaptation is losing some artistic conventions to show the story in a new light. A musical would provide deep insight into the characters, making them living, breathing human beings who you empathize with through their human performers. A novel has the limitation of existing in the mind of the reader. A musical is a visual art form that gives the best of both worlds of characterization (internal and external) in full detail. For this adaptation to work, Austen’s well-crafted story and characters need to be respected, because an adaptation of Austen’s work should live up to her reputation. It would be a shame to see the work of a great artist vanish and be replaced by a production resembling Mansfield Park in nothing but name. Austen’s original novel and the musical adaptation would share the same soul, although the bodies may look different. A musical version of Mansfield Park is the best way to keep intact this artistically crafted story.
A Biracial Fanny Price
By Sarah C. Richman
Certain challenges will always arise in the adaptation of any book to a film medium. Many of those challenges center around two central questions. First, what is necessary to convey the meaning, or the director’s interpretation, of the work? Second, what would make a good movie for the intended audience? Sometimes it seems that sacrifices of unjustifiable magnitude are made for the preservation of one question’s answer.
In Mansfield Park Fanny Price’s personality is one such sacrifice. Her personality may be one of the most important things to retain in adaptation yet the essence of Miss Price is often sacrificed for the sake of a more relatable, or interesting, protagonist. In the 2007 version, for example, she bounces around and even spends time playing sports, something quite out of character for the girl that “every sort of exercise fatigues” (Austen 97). Still, with nothing at all changed, the plot of Mansfield Park is not inherently suited to the screen. If I were to adapt Mansfield Park to screen, my version would, in fact, differ from the details of the book. Yet I hope it would stay true to the novel’s essence and the essential elements of Fanny Price’s character.
I would race-switch Fanny Price to be biracial. Fanny is never actually described as white, after all; the only descriptions provided of her physical appearance are “light eyes” (476) neat hair (300), and “soft skin” (231). In order to maintain familial relationships and the Bertrams as white, in my version Fanny’s father is black and her mother is white. This unexpected twist should be carefully scripted to heighten the effect on the audience. As the movie opens there could be a montage of portraits in the beginning with a narrator quoting from Austen’s opening descriptions of the Ward sisters’ marriages. This montage would end with the shock of a marriage meant to “disoblige” (1) and Mr. Price being black.
This race switch of Fanny Price will make her struggles easier to for a modern audience to understand. A major contributing factor to Fanny Price’s character is her social position. She has moved up to live with a Baronet, but she has no idea of “classing” (177) herself with the Bertram children. Even before the Fanny’s introduction at the Park, Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris are discussing the “distinction proper” to exist between herself and the “Miss Bertrams” (9). In our day and age there isn’t such a clearly defined class system; while we can understand the implications it is hard to feel them. We are, however, familiar with racism. If Fanny is black, events driven by class will be more apparent due in part to the audience’s awareness of race struggles. Under this adaptation class distinctions will be made clear, and Fanny’s race will heighten the audience’s discomfort with unjust class barriers. In a sense this race switch is like Andrew Davies’ inclusion of the “Darcy’s shirt” scene in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice; it is an obvious manifestation of what is felt more subtly. The awkwardness of the meeting there might have been slightly lost to a modern audience, but we are capable of recognizing half-dressed-and-dripping as awkward, attractive, and romantic (On Story).
Fanny’s silence is a key part of her personality but one of the most awkward parts of the Mansfield Park story to bring to film. It is the piece of Fanny’s personality that could be the single most often mangled in movie versions. It is simply harder to adapt an introverted character into one who is relatable on screen because they don’t show or tell loudly. Fanny is described as “too silent” (Austen 199). Silence is her favorite indulgence (225). A “quarter of an hour’s silent consideration” (289) leads to better appreciation of Fanny by other characters. The reason for her silence, in my version, is highlighted for modern audiences by her race. She is the disadvantaged and therefore more silent minority. In Fanny’s disadvantaged position she may feel that she must be even more careful than otherwise in order to avoid unfair condemnation.
We know that Fanny is otherwise “well principled and religious” (298) which could gain greater gradations of meaning from the race-switch as throughout the 19th century religion was associated with abolitionism; this puts an interesting twist on Mary’s opposition to the clergy. Most movie versions of Mansfield Park that have been made to date do not stress religion, but it should certainly be kept. Perhaps the growing-up montage, often used as a way of pulling Edmund and Fanny closer, could be of Fanny attending church with Edmund.
Mansfield Park is sometimes interpreted as being about slavery, and this race switch could bring out those themes of slavery and repression that seem to underscore the novel, especially as they contribute to Fanny’s character. There are actually only two mentions of the word “slave” in Mansfield Park, which is behind even Emma’s five mentions. Slavery plays an important, though subverted, role in the novel. After all, Mansfield Park is maintained by money from Sir Thomas’s plantations in Antigua (29).
Some, like Anne Mellor and Alex Milsom, have forwarded the idea that Fanny Price is herself in Mansfield Park as an allegory for slavery. At a young age she was taken from her home to live at the foreign Mansfield Park, and Sir Thomas almost attempts to marry Fanny off for money. Mellor and Milsom argue Fanny is Cesar, the titular character of Maria Edgeworth’s The Grateful Negro. Edmund, Fanny’s mentor and the font of her opinions, has brought her up like the rest of Mansfield Park to believe that “ungrateful is a strong word” (69) and that she must be eternally grateful (Mellor and Milsom). The Bertrams have, in this train of logic, brought her out of her poor uncivilized squalor with “not half-cleaned knives” (419) and the young Price boys “tumbling about and hallooing” (387) like “untamable” (397) wild things, and to the civilized world (Ferguson). Now she must be grateful like Cesar. Indeed Fanny is almost defined by her gratitude to others (Mellor and Milsom). She is surrounded by people who are “trying to depress” (Austen 335) her, and who keep her out in the hot sun without care for her health (73). It is a “very ill-managed business” (74) but a business all the same.
The master of this business is then Sir Thomas, the “master at Mansfield Park” (375) and abroad. He “repress[es]” the spirits of his children when they are around him, and keeps a tight moral hand “from his plantation to his dressing-room” (219). Even Sir Thomas’s property at home is often referred to as a “plantation.” The real Lord Mansfield was an abolitionist, which puts an ironic twist on Sir Thomas’s ownership of slaves. He is the wise slave-owner like the one presented in The Grateful Negro. He was benevolently “resolved to be the real . . . patron” (6) of Fanny Price, unlike the stereotypical master-slave relationship. Mrs. Norris is then the cruel overseer for Fanny, to whom Sir Thomas delegates control. She even lives in the “White House” (24) and banishes Fanny to only a small “white” (153) attic. There is also a general sense of being trapped felt throughout the novel, as in Maria’s “I cannot get out” reference (101).
The name Norris calls to mind John Norris, the Liverpool slaver’s agent who seemed to switch sides from abolitionism to anti-abolitionism as recounted by Thomas Clarkson (Ferguson). This could be seen in the way that Mrs. Norris wanted to bring Fanny into the Mansfield community, but then turns turncoat and doesn’t want Fanny in her own house after all. Then there’s Fanny Price, Mr. Rushworth. Their names both seem to be involved in the cost of matrimony.
Following Sir Thomas’s return from the Antiguan voyage he begins to notice Fanny’s appearance for the first time (only her appearance). He plans the ball, in part, to show her off. The ball given in Fanny’s honor is associated with the balls of Antigua where slaves were sold and shown off (Austen 254; Mellor and Milsom). After the ball Henry Crawford really begins to show interest in Fanny. As Ferguson points out, Fanny’s choice leading up to the ball is literally what chain she should wear. Fanny’s chains are not the cruel chains of total oppression, though; they are also chains of affection. Each is a “token of . . . love” (264).
Thus, as seen through the chains of affection, Fanny’s oppression should not be entirely taken for granted. She does have power in the novel, though of an extremely limited sort. While Fanny’s silence could even be a physical manifestation of her powerlessness, that’s not all there is to it. One of the significant objects from The Grateful Negro is a knife given to Caesar that symbolizes “the way in which slaves become accustomed to doing without the necessities of life” (Mellor and Milsom). Mansfield Park also includes the gift of a knife, which could be seen to symbolize the same things for the Price family. However, Fanny is not on the receiving end. Instead she is able to buy the knife for her sister, thus highlighting both her lack of place and the small amount of power she does enjoy holding over Susan.
One of the pieces of the novel that can offer confusion is the Crawfords’ relationship with Fanny. They seem to be the only characters in the book who really appreciate Fanny, who see that she is not “treated as she ought to be” and undertake to be the ones “to give the consequence so justly her due” (301). Race switching Fanny Price could provide a way into understanding this. The Crawfords are modern townspeople with modern ideas. They have ideas that are, perhaps, especially modern on race relations. They could see Fanny without the blinders on because of this. Yet the quality of their attachments is questionable. Mr. Crawford says he loves Fanny, but then turns around and has an affair with Maria when he gets tired of waiting. Meanwhile Fanny rejects his charming perfection, because of his past actions, which tempts the audience to label her as prudish. Through the use of strategic casting, the race-switch could also be used to clarify this part as well. I would cast Maria as the blonde-haired blue-eyed archetypal beauty. She would be a clear contrast with Fanny’s mode of beauty and, in my version, Julia’s as well. I would use the casting to establish Henry’s “taste” in women as being different from Fanny’s appearance, thus making it more surprising to the viewer when he shows interest in her. Yet again, it makes the class divide clearer, as she doesn’t know how to “class” (306) Mr. Crawford’s proposal.
This race switch is not simply built on a whim either. A clue could be derived from the title Mansfield Park itself, or rather, Lord Mansfield the anti-slavery judge and Member of Parliament. As others have noted before me (Jones; Bryne), the inspiration for Fanny Price could have been a real person: Lord Mansfield’s niece, Miss Dido Belle Lindsay. What is important about her here is that she was biracial. Dido’s father, a sailor like Mr. Price, brought her back to be raised by Lord Mansfield. Dido was the poor little girl sent to live with rich relations, just like Fanny Price was. Dido and Fanny both have an indistinct place in the house once they arrive. They also both have a more privileged cousin with a place in society who was at the house first; Fanny has the Miss Bertrams and Dido her cousin Elizabeth. They are part of the family in that they are related to it, but made to feel their lower station clearly. Fanny must remember that she is not a “Miss Bertram” (Austen 9). She must “remember, wherever [she is], [she] must be the lowest at last” (223). Outsiders to the households of both Fanny and Dido remark on their not dining out (Austen 51; Jones). Dido and Fanny both run little errands and perform duties related to the running of their homes. Fanny is often running errands that she should not be, prompting Edmund to ask if “nobody [could] be employed on such an errand but Fanny?” (Austen 74). Dido was, according to visitor Thomas Hutchinson, “called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that.”
Dido was exotic, as seen through the most prominent piece of surviving evidence that relates to her; the painting of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth. In this painting Dido appears in a feathered Turban and wearing large pearls that accentuate the exoticism of her skin tone (Byrne 3). She was different and that could give her a sort of fascination (Jones). Henry almost feels this exotic appeal with Fanny, though in a different way. Quite contrary to Dido, Fanny dresses rather plainly. Much is made of “the new dress” (Austen 224) Sir Thomas gives her, even though there is “no finery” (224) in it. For Henry, however, she is a breath of fresh air after the city values that even he himself possesses. Fanny is “new and animating” (329).
Not only did Lord Mansfield have a biracial niece with similarities to Fanny Price, but Austen would have known about Dido’s story. Austen became acquainted with Dido’s cousin Lady Elizabeth later in that lady’s life. This provides a connection with the family of her inspiration (Byrne 224). (Austen found Lady Elizabeth incredibly dull.) Dido’s story was told in the 2013 movie Belle, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the titular role. I would want to cast Gugu as Fanny Price in my movie to allow for Meta bleeding of the sort found in Bridget Jones’s Diary where Colin Firth plays Mark Darcy.
Both Fanny and Dido lack a place in the family; being biracial makes it easier for the modern audience to understand the divide and placelessness more readily. The women are between the classes and, as I add, between the races without a major group to fit in with. Fanny Price doesn’t quite have a place in the Bertram “family in which she . . . [is] so humble” (Austen 206). When she is at Mansfield she is too low to fit in, but when she is at Portsmouth she is too high. The ”young ladies” in Portsmouth notice her “airs,” and develop just as much desire to get to know her as she has for them: next to none (401). Being biracial means that one doesn’t quite “fit” into either race, not black and not white, therefore its inclusion plays up the placelessness that is so important to Fanny’s character.
Ultimately, I believe this race change of Fanny Price offers an improvement to the work by highlighting major ideas for the screen medium. It is also not an entirely unjustifiable change to make, given the existence of, and possible inspiration from, Dido Belle. And my biracial Fanny Price, I hope, serves to firmly extend Austen’s influence into our modern day. She is not there for mere “political correctness,” a token person of color present in the work for no reason but so that there may be one. Nor is she an attempt to pander to modern audience simply through the appeal of a black protagonist. I hope she is not a product of revisionism. Rather, Fanny Price should be biracial because it allows Austen’s text to shine through. Miss Price’s biracial identity acts as an amplifier for the ideas that Austen has always spoken to including class, repression, merit, and even race. Austen’s voice and Fanny’s character just need a speaker to be understood on the silver screen.
“Extensive and Unaffected Pleasure”: Affectionate Satire in Northanger Abbey Reimagined for the Modern Day
As can be expected from the woman who quite literally invented the modern romance novel, Jane Austen’s works have been reimagined, rejuvenated, remodeled, and refreshed countless times. It is no surprise that the timeless and universal themes of Austen’s novels, such as love, duty, and family, continue to appeal to creative minds around the world. Some of these adaptations, however, have been more successful than others. If I were to try my hand at reworking one of these masterpieces for the silver screen or the stage, it would be imperative to first examine what makes other such attempts successful or unsuccessful. In essence, what is the essence of the work that cannot be compromised lest the irresistible magnetism of Austen be lost? In my observations of a number of these modern versions of Austen’s works, I have concluded that in every successful Austen adaptation, from Clueless to Bridget Jones’s Diary, the most crucial element is retaining the main themes, the original intentions of the author, and hearts of the characters. In the case of the novel I would choose to rework for the screen, Northanger Abbey, the most vital, unalterable feature of the work is its satirical nature and the surprisingly affectionate tone that Austen employs in mocking Gothic novels.
In this present age of numberless spoofs, satires, and mocking caricatures, what better Austen work to reintroduce to the modern world than Northanger Abbey? In fact, the most important thing to keep in mind about Austen’s first novel is that it is, at its heart, a satire of the melodramatic, dread-infused, glamor-glazed Gothic novels of her time. These novels, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe and Camilla by Fanny Burney, were all the rage when Austen first began writing Northanger Abbey in the 1790s, especially with girls in their teens and twenties. Their basic formula consisted of a stunningly beautiful, wonderfully talented, melodramatic heroine who stumbles on some sort of mystery, which builds and builds, along with the characters’ and the readers’ dread and anxiety, until some horrid secret is uncovered, and the young lady lives happily ever after. A modern equivalent of these novels, matching them in popularity and in macabre, could easily be found in today’s young adult vampire romance novels such as the Twilight series and The Vampire Diaries. Austen pokes fun at the Gothic genre in several ways. In any modern-day adaptation of this novel, necessity would demand that these multifarious methods of satire be kept intact.
First, Austen appears to sarcastically rebut and contradict every stereotype present in Gothic novels with her characters and plot. For example, in the very beginning of the novel, Austen helpfully assures readers that her “heroine,” Catherine Morland, is by no means a standard Gothic protagonist. Her childhood is not, as most tragically-beautiful/beautifully-tragic leading ladies’ commonly are, marred by any tragedy or economic disadvantage (Austen 917). Neither is she blessed by virtue of her beauty or talent, described as “plain as any,” and “often inattentive, and occasionally stupid” (Austen 917). She is also decidedly middle-class—well-off in her own village, but when compared with the affluent Tilneys, her dowry definitely falls short (Austen 917, 1037). Thus Austen creates a perfect comedic star, one that continues to be timelessly amusing and universally relatable—an unremarkable, yet likable, teenage girl, with the perfect mixture of kindhearted guilelessness and unbridled imagination to land her in endless communication mishaps.
Interestingly enough, Austen also involves the very objects of her satire in the novel itself, reasoning that “if the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another from whom can she expect protection and regard?” (Austen 929). Catherine shows a fervent admiration, bordering on obsession, with Gothic novels (Austen 931), which frequently contributes to an overactive imagination, with humiliating yet humorous consequences. I envision Catherine’s modern counterpart as a naive, wildly imaginative, yet still somewhat dim teenage girl obsessed with the Twilight series, taken by her wealthy grandparents (the Allens’ modern counterparts) to taste the glamorous side of New York City (the contemporary equivalent to Bath). However, it must be possible to preserve the soul of Catherine while enduring some major alterations to her character. As fun as it is to simply imagine the modern versions of every event, character, and object in the novel, such as replacing John Thorpe’s beloved “gig” with a flashy sports car and Mrs. Allen’s “most harmless delight” in gowns to a preoccupation with antiques and the Food Network, it is also important to take into consideration the context in which Austen was writing along with the context of our modern world, and adjust accordingly (Austen 934, 920). For example, although preserving Catherine’s naivete, poor judgement of character, and general haplessness would be crucial, as it causes much of the chaotic hilarity in the novel (such as her obliviousness, “with all the earnestness of truth,” to John Thorpe’s affections, her conviction that General Tilney murdered his wife, and her innocent acceptance of the artificial, outrageously flirtatious, gold-digging Isabella as a friend), some aspects of her character could be compromised in order to connect the work to its modern audience (Austen 984, 1006, 927).
Above all, Catherine must be the antithesis of a heroine; and the antithesis of Bella Swan, the heroine of the Twilight novels, would be highly independent, outspoken, tomboyish, and colorful. Thus, the juxtaposition of her character with the educated, wealthy, prim Tilneys would be even more hilarious, as it would inevitably result in even more social faux pas on the part of Catherine, especially given her wild suspicions about General Tilney; in the novel, that he murdered his wife, but perhaps in the modernized version, that he is a vampire (Austen 1006). This would in turn contribute to General Tilney’s growing suspicions that Catherine is not as high-class as John Thorpe would have him think, culminating in the horrifying reveal of her middle-class status and Catherine’s subsequent eviction from Northanger Abbey—perhaps in the modern remake, the Tilneys’ vacation home in Europe, an imposing medieval castle reminiscent (to Catherine at least) of a stereotypical vampires’ dwelling (Austen 993).
A second form of satire Austen employs is the overdone cliche. Rather than disproving or making fun of cliches, Austen takes them to their extreme to demonstrate their ridiculousness. The novel’s ending is a prime example of this strategy. The endings of Gothic novels were often highly convenient, often employing deus ex machina to ensure a happy ending for the heroine, and essentially wrapped everything up with a neat little bow (such as the ending of The Mysteries of Udolpho, which culminates in a Shakespeare comedy-esque double wedding) (Radcliffe 630). The ending to Northanger Abbey is no exception, and in fact somewhat overdoes this little cliche. A nameless, faceless, previously unseen young man appears out of the blue to marry Eleanor and thus ensure that Henry and Catherine receive General Tilney’s blessing. Austen asserts that this incredibly wealthy, immensely handsome gentleman, whose “unexpected accession to title and fortune” makes his marriage, and Henry’s, possible, is “to a precision the most charming young man in the world,” humorously adding that “any further definition of his merits must be unnecessary; the most charming young man in the world is instantly before the imagination of us all” (Austen 1039). By introducing such an obviously, unapologetically contrived character, Austen gives readers a helpful reminder that this plot is not intended to be first and foremost realistic (although a major theme of the novel is Catherine’s learning to discern reality from fiction, and that her morbid, Gothic-inspired fantasies are irrelevant in the real world). In a modern ending, absurd ending of the Twilight series could likewise be grossly overdone to mock its ridiculousness. Catherine would obviously wind up with Henry, and the other characters would be conveniently paired off as well; perhaps landing Eleanor Tilney with James Morland, Isabella with Captain Tilney, and John Thorpe creepily obsessed with Catherine’s child, as Twilight’s spurned lover, Jacob Black, infamously ends up.
However, it is also crucial to remember that although Northanger Abbey is satire, it is not an empty, slapstick spoof like so many we see today. Rather, Austen manages to poke good-natured fun at Gothic novels while still retaining a genuine, although occasionally exasperated, fondness for her characters, as well as an actual plot, though chaotic and humorously turgid. This reflects the way she feels about Gothic novels themselves; although she admits that their plots are often ridiculous and their characters silly, she also considers them “only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” (Austen 929). Austen’s affection for these novels is evident in the way Henry and Catherine discuss them. Catherine adores them, and Henry is unashamedly fond of them himself, stating that “I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay it down again; I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the entire time” (Austen 966). However, being the more educated of the two, Henry also readily mocks the novels’ sensational histrionics and campy suspense, such as in his teasing banter with Catherine on the way to the Abbey in which he, aware of her eagerness to stay at a place as Udolpho-esque as an abbey, dramatically weaves a scene of the type of “horrors that a building such as ‘what one reads about’ may produce,” complete with “an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before,” “a secret subterraneous communication between your apartment and the chapel of St. Anthony,” and a candle which “suddenly expires in the socket, and leaves you in total darkness” (Austen 991-3). He is thoroughly amused by, but not patronizing or disparaging of, Catherine’s enthusiasm at his contrived story, and through his unpretentious maturity Austen’s point of view can be discerned. Like any true word enthusiast, Jane Austen loved a good story. And although the Gothic novels of her day fell far short of the timelessly relatable personalities, struggles, hopes, and dreams of Austen’s beloved characters, she still insists that they do make a good story. They serve their intended purpose—to electrify and to entertain their readers. And, in Austen’s opinion, that is nothing to be ashamed of. She laments the fact that, although novels provide readers the most “extensive and unaffected pleasure” of any other type of book, their readers are apologetic, abashed, and dismissive of their own enjoyment (Austen 929). Austen’s mindset can most certainly be applied to the young adult novels of today; their melodrama, absurd plots, and two-dimensional characters are endlessly ridiculed, but at the end of the day, they provide the most genuine pleasure and authentic entertainment of any media.
Another of Austen’s vital ideas in Northanger Abbey is portrayed in Catherine’s hilariously humiliating realization of the complete and utter absurdity of her dark suspicions, mortifyingly delivered by her crush, Henry Tilney. This is far more than a comedic moment—it reveals one of the most heartfelt messages of the novel. When Catherine comes crashing down to reality, “most grievously humbled” and “completely awakened” by the disgraceful nature of her folly, it not only represents her growing to maturity and beginning to develop discernment between fiction and reality; it is Austen’s statement of her real critique of Gothic novels: their tendency to create caricatures instead of characters (Austen 1012). In Gothic novels, there is the hero and there is the villain. The hero (or heroine) is typically delineated by physical beauty, a pure, kind heart, and wonderful talent; the villain, the polar opposite—dark, brooding, ugly, purely evil and a heartless brute. But Austen knew that these “unnatural and overdrawn” characters were, and are, virtually nonexistent in real life (Austen 1003). As Catherine soon realizes, “charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works . . . it was not in them perhaps that human nature . . . was to be looked for” (Austen 1013). People simply do not operate on a rigid dichotomy. Thus, General Tilney, though by all means “not perfectly amiable,” is not a murderer, a schemer, or an abuser; he is simply as complex as any human being is, not purely good and not purely bad (Austen 1013). And from this recognition of the world’s disappointing deficiency of pure evil, Catherine deduces that there must also be no pure good, and “she would not be surprised if even in Henry and Eleanor Tilney, some slight imperfection might hereafter appear” (Austen 1013). This comprehension is vital, not only in writing, but in living. Real people are not black-and-white Gothic caricatures of heroes and villains, but a wonderfully, annoyingly, beautifully, confusingly complicated mesh of good and bad, light and dark, agreeable and disagreeable. If one lives in expectation that every agreeable person must be absolutely flawless, and every disagreeable person must be absolutely malicious, then not only will they be continually disappointed, they will fail to understand and empathize with many of their fellow human beings. This idea is wildly popular in modern literature, cinema, and television; from Wicked to Pocahontas to High School Musical, the “revolutionary” idea that a person cannot be defined by one characteristic proliferates in modern entertainment. This is yet another example of Austen’s being far ahead of her time, and yet another reason why Northanger Abbey is an especially fitting candidate for a modern remake.
One of the primary reasons that Northanger Abbey remained unpublished for so long is that, after Austen’s publisher held onto it for some time, Austen feared it had become dated. By 1816, when Austen bought the copyright back, the Gothic craze had simmered down substantially, and many of the clever references contained in the book would be lost to her audience. Her brother Henry, however, apparently disagreed, and published it posthumously in 1817 several months after Austen’s death. The reason why Jane Austen chose not to republish it is most likely also one of the principal reasons that it is one of the few Austen novels to never receive a modern adaptation, loose or otherwise, or any other such creative attempts at reintroducing it to an audience largely ignorant of the works it was intended to criticize. However, even without being widely versed in Gothic novels, Northanger Abbey is objectively appealing and quite hilarious. Austen’s characters are so true to life, so believable, that they remain relatable even though they were intended for an audience two hundred years ago. This is true for all her novels, but is particularly impressive in Northanger Abbey, considering that not only was it intended for an 18th century audience, but much of its humor relies on a familiarity with works that I, and most of my peers, have never encountered. Characters such as the Thorpes, however, we have all encountered—painfully synthetic flirts like Isabella and tiresome, vulgar braggarts like John continue to plague us to this day. We know and love adorably absent-minded old ladies like Mrs. Allen; beloved brothers like James Morland; kind and devoted friends like Eleanor Tilney; imposing, gruff fathers like General Tilney; and dashing, dreamy, intelligent men like Henry Tilney. These characters make Northanger Abbey relevant in a way that the Gothic novels it parodies never had a chance of being. We can all relate to Catherine’s ordinariness, her awkward crushes, her humiliating social slip-ups, her “guilty pleasure” in something society mocks, and her childish romanticization of everyday life. Life for all of us often does not live up to our expectations; so we, like Catherine, are left to fill in the gaps with whatever wild fantasies we have at our disposal. Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s way gently chiding us, yet amusedly encouraging us, in our escapist endeavors. It is a reminder that many of us need—to come to terms with reality, to realize the complexity of human character, but also to be unashamed of what we enjoy.