As a break from end-of-term grading, I re-watched the Rozema Mansfield Park, which recently became available at Hulu. I'm inclined to think that of all the Austen adaptations I have seen that it is the one that works best as a movie; but it very strikingly manages to do so by taking some very un-Austen-like directions. (And I think that when those divergences are considered it perhaps says something about us: for arguably what makes it more like a typical movie and less like an Austen novel is that in it women's bodies are an almost purely social artifice. But that is too complex an issue for an aside.)
In any case, it has started me thinking about the novel. While I think Pride and Prejudice will likely never be dethroned as the consummate novel, the novel that does most exquisitely what novels do most exquisitely, every time I go back to Mansfield Park I get a stronger conviction that it is really Austen's masterwork. It is not so perfectly a novel as some of her other works; but it has perfections of its own that are perhaps better than the perfections we look for in novels. This, of course, is an idiosyncratic view: Mansfield Park is famously the least liked of all Austen novels, and Fanny Price is famously the least liked of all Austen heroines. But I think this is all of a piece. What annoys people about Fanny is how unlike an Austen heroine she is. Were Mansfield Park written to the taste of most readers, Fanny Price would be a much stronger, much more charming, much wittier person than she is: her disadvantage with respect to Mary Crawford would not be due to any features of her personality but solely due to some feature of her social situation hiding her real superiority from the view of other characters (but not the readers). But Fanny foils all such expectations over and over again. She is not more charming than Mary; she is more amiable, but not even in the same league as Mary when it comes to charm. She is not wittier than Mary; she is just as intelligent, but no more so, and too quiet to be witty. And, remarkably, she is not stronger than Mary: Mary ends up shooting herself in the foot, so to speak, in the novel, but other than that she is largely in control of whatever situation it is in which she finds herself. Fanny is virtually never in control of the situation in which she finds herself, and she is clearly, and I think quite deliberately, a much weaker person, if we measure strength by forcefulness; a more constant person, certainly, but also a much weaker one. Mary Crawford is remarkable in that she is an Austen heroine, with the single all-important exception that she continually subordinates conscience and sympathy -- and I think it is clear enough that she is not wholly lacking in these -- to her own interest. And thus the contrast is almost complete: Mary is charming, intelligently witty, and forceful; Fanny is amiable, intelligently serious, and constant. The difference is that all of Mary's good qualities are in how she strikes you. All of Fanny's good qualities are in how she lives.
Thus I think Fanny calls up exactly the kind of sympathy people don't want to feel toward an Austen heroine: she is not at all the sort of woman someone could imagine being, or could imagine falling in love with, or, indeed, could easily imagine living happily ever after. She cries, and cries, and cries again. While she's not quite as silent and quiet as some of her detractors treat her, even when she speaks up she does so quietly. And her worst sin of all is that she is in no way fun; she is, if anything, far too serious. I do not think, contrary to a common view, that Austen writes her as always right; she spends much of the novel needlessly confused and part of her misery is her own doing. She does nothing but muddle through; but she muddles through with amiability, seriousness, and constancy.
And who wants that? That's what we think of as a good sidekick; it's what we want in a friend who will never outshine us, not in ourselves. And I think readers are over and over again annoyed by the fact that in Mansfield Park Austen shows, almost inexorably, that their own tastes are flawed. For our tastes are flawed; they are something to laugh at. We get so caught up in the obviously almost that we miss the subtly so. Mary Crawford had every potential to be an Austen heroine; Henry Crawford shows more than once that he has the potential to be an Austen hero. One of the reasons they are so likable is that they are not creatures of unadulterated selfishness, and more than once sincerely do something right. They have every obvious advantage. But they both fail miserably. None of the things Fanny has are immediately obvious; there are so many subtle complexities to her character that if you did not have the whole course of the story, you might well have overlooked or even misinterpreted them entirely. When she asserts herself at all she comes across as passive-aggressive. But reading her as such is itself a moral failing: it shows an inability to look beyond the superficial, the immediate context. For love and virtue and happiness simply are not a matter of immediate context; they require, as MacIntyre might put it, the narrative order of a life.