The 1999 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park has much to recommend it, with stunning cinematography, an excellent cast, and a trimmed-down storyline with a runtime of under two hours. This was accomplished by cutting out numerous characters and subplots. Not bridging those gaps they created is also the source of three of the goofs in today’s list. The defining aspect of this adaptation is the overt and recurring references to the slave-trade woven throughout, a theme barely hinted at in the text by Austen. The incorporation of this topic materially changed the characterization and motives of two significant characters in the story, accounting for one of the goofs listed below. I’ll be particularly interested to hear your thoughts on this.
10.) The light of a single candle. After the ball in Fanny’s honor, she retires to her room where a single candle is burning at her desk. Balls in this era were typically scheduled for a night with a full moon, evidenced by the shadows cast on the wall behind her from moonlight. In this scene, Fanny picks up a page of her writing and easily reads it aloud with no realistic light source. She doesn’t attempt to catch light from the window, nor does she stay close enough to the candle to illuminate the paper enough to read it. It has always seemed odd to me, so I looked it up. The reach of a single candle for reading is one square foot around the flame.
9.) Salt cellar on the sill. On the morning Fanny Price departs, she is laying in bed and talking with her sister, Susan. On the windowsill behind her is a folded paper toy that is familiar to many as a “paper fortune teller” or “chatterbox.” The writing on it hints that it was put there as an inexpensive toy that a poor child might play with, but this is an anachronistic prop. This design wasn’t known as a children’s toy until well into the 20th century, although printed diagrams for folding salt holders of this design started showing up in the 1890s.
8.) Opportunities in tobacco? During the epiloge scenes at the end of the movie, the narrator tells us:
“Sir Thomas eventually abandoned his pursuits in Antigua. He chose instead to pursue some exciting new opportunities in tobacco.”
There is insufficient information to understand what we are supposed to deduce from this statement. It would seem to imply that he moved away from slave-labor, since the sugar plantations on Antigua in 1806 used slaves. Tobacco plantations at that time also used slave-labor, however, so there wasn’t really a moral point to the invention of a change in crop for Sir Thomas.
7.) What sorcery is this? After Fanny gets drenched in the rain, Mary Crawford brings her into the parsonage and gets her to remove her wet clothing. In 1806, neither corsets nor short stays featured metal fasteners at the front as seen in the undergarment Fanny is wearing. It but would have laced in the front or back with either hand-finished or ivory grommet lacing holes. The addition of metal hardware was at least two decades away.
6.) Sir Thomas would never do this. The trip between Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire to Plymouth on the southern coast of Hampshire required two-days worth of travel. No young lady of gentle breeding would embark on a trip such as this unescorted, something that Sir Thomas would not allow, let alone dictate. In the novel, Fanny is escorted home on the post coaches by her brother William, staying at the halfway point, Newbury, overnight. This screenplay, having eliminated William from the narrative altogether, didn’t bother with an escort. Fanny is sent off in the Mansfield carriage alone with a coachman and a footman. She arrives home in the same state. When Edmund comes to Plymouth to escort her home, this illustrates the approach that would have been considered appropriate and proper.
5.) Mail Call. In an echo from the novel, where Julia Bertram elopes with Tom’s friend, Mr. Yates, Julia receives a letter from Mr. Yates, nonchalontly handed to her in this scene by Fanny’s younger sister, Susan. In reality, a young, single woman in her position would never be allowed correspondance from a single man who was not a relative. Such a letter, if Yates had even dared attempt it, would have been intercepted by her father. With scandal already hanging over the household, such an impropriety would never be allowed, and certainly not openly.
4.) Which way are we going? When Fanny Price is first sent to Mansfield, the driver stops the northbound carriage on a coastal portion of the road and young Fanny hears sounds coming from a ship in the cove beneath her. The driver explains that there are probably slaves on the ship, which is the first introduction of the slavery theme in the film. On her return six years later, she looks out of the window of the southbound carriage and sees the same cove. The perspective and angle of the coastline of her view is exactly the same, in spite of the fact that she would be facing the opposite direction in a moving coach.
3.) Sir Thomas Bertram’s behavior. Sir Thomas was written by Jane Austen as a man with a deep sense of honor who was also caught up with the entitlements of rank and wealth. What Jane Austen’s character did not deserve, however, was to be portrayed as vicious and deviant in his dealings with the plantation slaves in Antigua. The drawings that Fanny finds on Tom’s bed implicate Sir Thomas in brutal abuse, torture, rapes, and murder. In my opinion, this took the slavery narrative too far. Not that those things didn’t happen on some plantations–we know they did–but that the behavior was imposed on Sir Thomas was entirely out of character. That it was illustrated in such a graphic way made his declaration that “My son is mad,” feel like a desperate and disingenous excuse instead of a tragic explaination.
2.) Mary Crawford’s behavior. The scene where Mary Crawford plays billiards with the men has a number of issues. While it was not unheard of for a woman to play billiards, the billiard room is not the drawing-room and having everyone, including Lady Bertram and her pug gather there during the game borders on the ridiculous. A gentleman of that era would never smoke in front of a lady–even if she was his sister–let alone hand her a cigarette to puff on in front of a room full of people. If it was critical to demonstrate Mary Crawford’s sophistication by incorporating tobacco use into the scene, the period-appropriate way would have been for her to use the product of choice among the fashionable set: snuff.
The final eyebrow-raising act in this scene takes form in Mary Crawford’s question to the room full of men after they had all agreed to put on the play, “Lovers Vows”. It was a scandalous declaration, coming as it was, from a supposed maiden. She said,
“I wish to play Amelia. But what I’m keen to know is, which gentleman among you shall I have the pleasure of making love to?”
Their reaction is hilarious to be sure, but it was nothing like the words Jane Austen actually had her say.
1.) Imaginary apples. Fanny stops outside the parsonage to gather some apples that have fallen to the ground. She bends over and we see her hands drop to the grass and back to the basket six times. Only three of those times, however, are actual apples placed in the basket. The other three times, Fanny is just going through the motions of placing the fruit with nothing actually in her hand.
This being a more current adaptation, I anticipate that many of you have already seen it. Did you notice any of these goofs yourself? Did you note any other goofs to add to the list? There are several more that I didn’t include here in my top 10 list. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it is available for viewing in the current selections on Netflix, if you have a subscription to that service. In any case, I do hope you enjoyed discovering something about this Austen adaptation today. Please do leave us a comment so we know you stopped by.