Friday, February 23, 2007

Jane Austen in Los Angeles

Once upon a time I used to watch TV at night to relax but after I got Netflix, no more. Now I watch films, particularly film versions of Janet Austen's novels: Emma, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and last night, Mansfield Park, the 1999 version.

I like Austen so much because we're at war right now, and she writes about love. She also wrote during wartime--the Napleonic Wars--but focuses not on war but on romance back home. Watching Mansfield Park last night I was thinking how much the novel is like a Shakespearean comedy where seven young people--four women and three men--constantly fall in love to the wrong people, but at the end most have realized their folly and finally paired up with the one they really love or really deserve. Austen's world is very reassuring: love matters during wartime.

In the Mansfield Park film I saw, the heroine, Fanny Price, is born into a poor, large family in Portsmouth, England, but is sent away when she is around ten to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Betram, who live in the huge mansion of Mansifled Park. For the first half of the novel Fanny is snubbed by most of the family because she is poor while they are rich--only her cousin Edmund is kind to her. Her other aunt, Mrs. Norris, lives in the nearby parsonage off Sir Thomas; Aunt Norris always spoils Fanny's two wealthy girl cousins Maria and Julia while she delivers a cruel class snobbery toward Fanny, verbally abusing her. This story 's focusing on class makes it fitting for Los Angeles which is deeply divided into wealthy and poor neighborhoods. How would a poor girl from South Central L.A. be treated growing up in Beverly Hills?

Fanny seems to withstand this class cruelty well, growing up writing stories to her far-off sister Susan; she has a sense of herself, her own values, and is spunky. Actually she's the spunkiest character of all. Her Aunt Norris is petty class snob while her other Aunt spends her life sitting in a chair with a lapdog and taking opium. Fanny's cousin Tom, the oldest son, devotes his time to dissipation, gambling and partying in London, while her two female cousins Maria and Julia are spoiled, vain rich girls. Only cousin Edmund, the second son who wants to be clergyman, has any sense of ethics.

The patriarch, Sir Thomas, tries to be both stern and kind but is distracted by problems with plantation in Antigua. Edmund says to Fanny once that all this wealth comes from black slavery. Fanny is the only one who begins to question slavery to Sir Thomas, the only one to articulate an abolitionist position. Again, the film puts Fanny as the only one who has clear sight, recognizing that the family's luxury is based on violence and horror. Again, this seems a good film for L.A. with it's long history of racial segregation.

While Sir Thomas is away, a young wealthy brother and sister--Henry and Mary Crawford--move nearby, befriending the people at Mansfield Park. Fanny, who is in love with Edmund, silently watches pretty and elegant Mary Crawford flirting with Edmund. Fanny watches Henry Crawford flirt with both her cousins Julia and then Maria, who is engaged to a wealthy boor Mr. Rushworth. Fanny is always the poor outsider. but she keeps her cool. The young people decide to put on a risque play Lover's Vows, but Sir Thomas's unexpected arrival puts a stop to the play, ending Maria's budding romance with Mr. Crawford.

Maria suddenly marries Mr. Rushworth to escape from her detested father while Henry Crawford decides to court Fanny Price, falling in love with her and asking her to marry him, but she refuses him, not trusting his character. Sir Thomas, on hearing this, orders Fanny Price to marry Henry Crawford, saying this is her only chance to have a good marriage, but she bravely stands up Sir Thomas, saying she won't. I really admired Fanny at this point. To punish her, Sir Thomas sends her back to her poor family, as if she was some trinket that displeased him so he could return it. Fanny returns to live in her family's overcrowded tenement. It's as if our heroine was dispatched back from the Beverly Hills mansion to live in the ghetto.

Fanny hears that Edmund has announced his engagement to Mary Crawford; Henry Crawford follows Fanny back to Portsmouth, asking her to marry again, but she refuses. She just doesn't trust him, telling her sister she thinks he's a rake. Fanny is a heroine, refusing the easy way out of poverty, sticking to her conscience. Well, would you trust a Beverly Hills playboy courting a poor girl living in a South LA neighborhood?

At this point, the eldest son grows very ill from dissipation, and is near death at Mansfield Park, so Fanny is summoned back to the mansion to nurse him. At Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford seduces Maria, and they both run away. This produces a terrible scandal in 1806--adultery, a broken marriage, divorce. The family is horrified--the oldest son Tom is near death while the daughter Maria is utterly disgraced. Mary Crawford can't help but show her pleasure that Tom may die, leaving her fiance Edmund a wealthy heir. Edmund is horrified about her money-grubbing attitude, careless of his elder brother's life or death, and renounces her.

Tom does recover. Edmund discovers he loves Fanny, proposes, and accepts. He's going to be a poor clergyman, probably living in a poor cottage, not a grand mansion, but he and Fanny totally love each other. Aunt Norris is sent to live with the disgraced Maria in a cottage: it is fitting that the two snobs get to spend their life together. Austen seems to be saying that Fanny Price is made a better person because of the hard times she had to undergo. For Los Angeles, 2007, that's a pretty good idea: hard times can build character, and in the end we can find people who love us.

At film's end a character said that Sir Thomas ended his plantation in Antigua and found other business ventures, so the film seems to be saying the English are better off without slavery and class snobbery. Los Angeles like England would be better off without racism and class snobbery and with more true love, so Mansfield Park is the novel and film we need now.

  • 1999: Mansfield Park, film directed by Patricia Rozema, starring Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram (interestingly, he also featured in the 1983 version, playing one of Fanny's brothers). This film alters several major elements of the story and depicts Fanny as author of some of Austen's actual letters as well as her children's history of England.

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