Mansfield Park has been called a “problem novel”, especially when it comes to adapting it for television. Fanny, it is said, is too quiet and retiring to make a compelling heroine in a movie. The bulk of adaptions (and there are not many), have simply changed the heroine—think of Frances O’Connor’s and Billie Piper’s take on the modest and subdued Fanny Price (in the 1999 and 2007 versions respectively). Not everyone, however, agrees with this point of view. They point out that shy, under-appreciated girls have become succesful heroines in movies before—consider Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell Martin, Bleak House, 2005), Amy Dorrit (Claire Foy, Little Dorrit, 2008), and Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell, Wives and Daughters, 1999). Molly Gibson, the heroine of Wives and Daughters, a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, is a shy, retiring young woman, comparable to Jane Austen’s Fanny Price.
Fanny and Molly are both quiet, retiring, gentle, kind, loyal, and steadfastly moral. They both get bullied. Molly’s step-mother, though often kindly intentioned, sometimes seems to be around solely to thwart her step-daughter. Fanny has to deal with much more serious bullying from her Aunt Norris and her cousins, but both Molly and Fanny bear their trials patiently and submissively—at least usually.
Their similarities of character and temperment are not the only points in which Fanny Price and Molly Gibson resemble each other. Their stories have several points of likeness. We are introduced to both Molly and Fanny when, as children, they are brought to a great house—Molly to Cumnor Towers and Fanny to Mansfield Park. Molly, of course, is only at the Towers for a short time, but it was long enough for her to feel when she left that she was “never so unhappy” in all her life as she was all that “long afternoon” (W&D, Ch. II).
… all the girl thought of was, how little they wanted her in this grand house; how she must seem like a careless intruder who had no business there. …
She followed the ladies out of the dining-room, almost hoping that no one would see her. But that was impossible, and she immediately became the subject of conversation between the awful Lady Cumnor and her kind neighbour at dinner. …
So Molly sate on, turning over pictures which she did not see; her heart growing heavier and heavier in the desolation of all this grandeur. (W&D, Ch. II)
Molly, in fact, continues to have “a dislike to the house” ever “since that unlucky day in her childhood” until, towards the end of the story, she is forced to stay there again, and finds it “rather pleasant than otherwise” (W&D, Ch. LVII). “When Molly went to bed she . . . tried to reconcile old impressions with new ones, until she fell asleep.” (W&D, Ch. LVII).
The next day Molly went home; she was astonished at herself for being so sorry to leave the Towers; and found it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the long-fixed idea of the house as a place wherein to suffer all a child’s tortures of dismay and forlornness with her new and fresh conception. She had gained health, she had had pleasure, the faint fragrance of a new and unacknowledged hope had stolen into her life. (W&D, Ch. LVIII)
Fanny is to stay at Mansfield, away from everybody she had been used to, astonished, but not consoled by the grandeur of her new home.
Sir Thomas, seeing how much she needed encouragement, tried to be all that was conciliating: but he had to work against a most untoward gravity of deportment; and Lady Bertram, without taking half so much trouble, or speaking one word where he spoke ten, by the mere aid of a good-humoured smile, became immediately the less awful character of the two. …
It required a longer time, however, than Mrs. Norris was inclined to allow, to reconcile Fanny to the novelty of Mansfield Park, and the separation from everybody she had been used to. Her feelings were very acute, and too little understood to be properly attended to. Nobody meant to be unkind, but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort. …
The grandeur of the house astonished, but could not console her. The rooms were too large for her to move in with ease: whatever she touched she expected to injure, and she crept about in constant terror of something or other; often retreating towards her own chamber to cry; and the little girl who was spoken of in the drawing-room when she left it at night as seeming so desirably sensible of her peculiar good fortune, ended every day’s sorrows by sobbing herself to sleep. (MP, Ch. II)
But Fanny becomes reconciled to the place, and comes to love it. When she is sent to Portsmouth, she looks forward to her return to Mansfield with “intense desire” (MP, Ch. XLV), and she is overjoyed when she is finally sent for.
To-morrow! to leave Portsmouth to-morrow! She was . . . exquisitely happy . . . . To be going so soon, sent for so kindly, sent for as a comfort, and with leave to take Susan, was altogether such a combination of blessings as set her heart in a glow . . . (MP, Ch. XLVI)
Both Molly and Fanny fall in love with a man who regards them with sisterly affection. Roger Hamley even says to Molly, after his mother’s death,
“I suppose it would never do now for you to come and stay at the Hall, would it? It would give my father so much pleasure: he looks upon you as a daughter, and I’m sure both Osborne and I shall always consider you are like a sister to us, after all my mother’s love for you, and your tender care of her at last. But I suppose it wouldn’t do.” (W&D, Ch. XXI).
While his mother is dying Roger asks Molly, “Have you ever noticed that she [Mrs. Hamley] sometimes calls you “Fanny”? It was the name of a little sister of ours who died.” (W&D, Ch. XVIII). Later,
“’I am his sister,’ she [Molly] would say to herself. ‘That old bond is not done away with, though he is too much absorbed by Cynthia to speak about it just now. His mother called me “Fanny;” it was almost like an adoption. I must wait and watch, and see if I can do anything for my brother.’” (W&D, Ch. XXXII)
And Edmund, after his two sisters, Maria and Julia, run away, calls Fanny, “My Fanny, my only sister; my only comfort now!” (MP, Ch. XLVI). The men, however, fall for the heroines’ more sparkling, but flawed, foils. Edmund Bertram falls for Fanny’s “friend”, Mary Crawford, while Roger Hamley is smitten by Molly’s lovely step-sister, Cynthia Kirkpatrick. A difference here is that while Molly loves her step-sister, Fanny does not think well of Miss Crawford. Also, Cynthia, though not as good as Molly, has not Miss Crawford’s “blunted delicacy” and “corrupted, vitiated mind” (MP, Ch. XLVII).
The heroine’s real aquaintance with the hero begins when he finds her crying—they have met before, but their interest in one another begins from that time. Fanny is unhappy in her new home, and
the little girl who was spoken of in the drawing-room when she left it at night as seeming so desirably sensible of her peculiar good fortune, ended every day’s sorrows by sobbing herself to sleep. A week had passed in this way, and no suspicion of it conveyed by her quiet passive manner, when she was found one morning by her cousin Edmund, the youngest of the sons, sitting crying on the attic stairs.
“My dear little cousin,” said he, with all the gentleness of an excellent nature, “what can be the matter?” And sitting down by her, he was at great pains to overcome her shame in being so surprised, and persuade her to speak openly. Was she ill? or was anybody angry with her? or had she quarrelled with Maria and Julia? or was she puzzled about anything in her lesson that he could explain? Did she, in short, want anything he could possibly get her, or do for her? For a long while no answer could be obtained beyond a “no, no—not at all—no, thank you”; but he still persevered; and no sooner had he begun to revert to her own home, than her increased sobs explained to him where the grievance lay. He tried to console her. …
Fanny’s feelings on the occasion were such as she believed herself incapable of expressing; but her countenance and a few artless words fully conveyed all their gratitude and delight, and her cousin began to find her an interesting object. He talked to her more, and, from all that she said, was convinced of her having an affectionate heart, and a strong desire of doing right; and he could perceive her to be farther entitled to attention by great sensibility of her situation, and great timidity. He had never knowingly given her pain, but he now felt that she required more positive kindness ….
From this day Fanny grew more comfortable. (MP, Ch. II)
Molly, on the other, had just found out that her father was going to remarry.
When she had once got to the seat she broke out with a suppressed passion of grief; she did not care to analyze the sources of her tears and sobs—her father was going to be married again—her father was angry with her; she had done very wrong—he had gone away displeased; she had lost his love, he was going to be married—away from her—away from his child—his little daughter—forgetting her own dear, dear mother. So she thought in a tumultuous kind of way, sobbing till she was wearied out, and had to gain strength by being quiet for a time, to break forth into her passion of tears afresh. She had cast herself on the ground—that natural throne for violent sorrow—and leant up against the old moss-grown seat; sometimes burying her face in her hands; sometimes clasping them together, as if by the tight painful grasp of her fingers she could deaden mental suffering.
She did not see Roger Hamley returning from the meadows, nor hear the click of the little white gate. He had been out dredging in ponds and ditches, and had his wet sling-net, with its imprisoned treasures of nastiness, over his shoulder. … He stopped; he saw a light-coloured dress on the ground—somebody half-lying on the seat, so still just then, he wondered if the person, whoever it was, had fallen ill or fainted. He paused to watch. In a minute or two the sobs broke out again—the words. It was Miss Gibson crying out in a broken voice,—
‘Oh, papa, papa! if you would but come back!’
For a minute or two he thought it would be kinder to leave her believing herself unobserved; he had even made a retrograde step or two, on tip-toe; but then he heard the miserable sobbing again. It was farther than his mother could walk, or else, be the sorrow what it would, she was the natural comforter of this girl, her visitor. However, whether it was right or wrong, delicate or obtrusive, when he heard the sad voice talking again, in such tones of uncomforted, lonely misery, he turned back, and went to the green tent under the ash-tree. She started up when he came thus close to her; she tried to check her sobs, and instinctively smoothed her wet tangled hair back with her hands.
He looked down upon her with grave, kind sympathy, but he did not know exactly what to say. …
‘Papa is going to be married again,’ said she, at length. …
‘You are sorry for it?’ (W&D, Ch. X)
Roger does his best to comfort her, and then brings her in to his mother.
As soon as he was gone, Molly lifted up her poor swelled eyes, and, looking at Mrs Hamley, she said,—’He was so good to me. I mean to try and remember all he said.’
‘I’m glad to hear it, love; very glad. From what he told me, I was afraid he had been giving you a little lecture. He has a good heart, but he isn’t so tender in his manner as Osborne. Roger is a little rough sometimes.’
‘Then I like roughness. It did me good.’ …
If Roger was not tender in words, he was in deeds. Unreasonable and possibly exaggerated as Molly’s grief had appeared to him, it was real suffering to her; and he took some pains to lighten it, in his own way, which was characteristic enough. That evening he adjusted his microscope, and put the treasures he had collected in his morning’s ramble on a little table; and then he asked his mother to come and admire. Of course Molly came too, and this was what he had intended. He tried to interest her in his pursuit, cherished her first little morsel of curiosity, and nursed it into a very proper desire for further information. Then he brought out books on the subject, and translated the slightly pompous and technical language into homely every-day speech. Molly had come down to dinner, wondering how the long hours till bedtime would ever pass away: hours during which she must not speak on the one thing that would be occupying her mind to the exclusion of all others; for she was afraid that already she had wearied Mrs. Hamley with it during their afternoon tete-a-tete. But prayers and bedtime came long before she had expected; she had been refreshed by a new current of thought, and she was very thankful to Roger. (W&D, Ch. X)
To make matters worse for the heroines, they are supposed to be grateful for what has happened.
Mrs. Norris had been talking to her [Fanny] the whole way from Northampton of her wonderful good fortune, and the extraordinary degree of gratitude and good behaviour which it ought to produce, and her consciousness of misery was therefore increased by the idea of its being a wicked thing for her not to be happy. … (MP, Ch. II)
Says Mr. Gibson, ‘I must tell Molly about it [his engagement]: dear little woman, I wonder how she’ll take it! It’s done, in a great measure, for her good.’ (W&D, Ch. X). Says Roger to Molly,
‘Still he must have thought it for the best, or he wouldn’t have done it. He may have thought it the best for your sake even more than for his own.’
‘That is what he tried to convince me of.’
Roger began kicking the pebble again. He had not got hold of the right end of the clue. (W&D, Ch. X)
Edmund and Roger help to educate Fanny and Molly.
Kept back as she [Fanny] was by everybody else, his [Edmund’s] single support could not bring her forward; but his attentions were otherwise of the highest importance in assisting the improvement of her mind, and extending its pleasures. He knew her to be clever, to have a quick apprehension as well as good sense, and a fondness for reading, which, properly directed, must be an education in itself. Miss Lee taught her French, and heard her read the daily portion of history; but he recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment: he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise. In return for such services she loved him better than anybody in the world except William: her heart was divided between the two. (MP, Ch. II)
And Roger missed her [Molly] too. Sometimes her remarks had probed into his mind, and excited him to the deep thought in which he delighted; at other times he had felt himself of real help to her in her hours of need, and in making her take an interest in books, which treated of higher things than the continual fiction and poetry which she had hitherto read. He felt something like an affectionate tutor who was suddenly deprived of his most promising pupil; he wondered how she would go on without him; whether she would be puzzled and disheartened by the books he had lent her to read; how she and her stepmother would get along together? (W&D, Ch. XIII)
On top of having to watch the man they love falling in love with someone else, both Fanny and Molly must listen to his raptures. Edmund tells Fanny,
“There is not a shadow of either [ill-humour or roughness] in the countenance or manner of Miss Crawford: nothing sharp, or loud, or coarse. She is perfectly feminine, except in the instances we have been speaking of. There she cannot be justified. I am glad you saw it all as I did.”
Having formed her [Fanny’s] mind and gained her affections, he [Edmund] had a good chance of her thinking like him; though at this period, and on this subject, there began now to be some danger of dissimilarity, for he was in a line of admiration of Miss Crawford, which might lead him where Fanny could not follow. (MP, Ch. VII)
Roger confides to Molly, “I can’t tell you how much I like Miss Kirkpatrick, Molly. It must be a great pleasure to you having such a companion!” (W&D, Ch. XXI).
Both Fanny and Molly are used to confiding in their respective love interests. This is shown vividly when they are, for different reasons, prevented from doing so. Fanny will not confide in Edmund her troubles about Henry Crawford, for she believes that he blames her for refusing him (Mr. Crawford, that is).
Edmund was not unwilling to be persuaded to engage in the business [of talking to Fanny about Henry Crawford]; he wanted to know Fanny’s feelings. She had been used to consult him in every difficulty, and he loved her too well to bear to be denied her confidence now; he hoped to be of service to her, he thought he must be of service to her; whom else had she to open her heart to? If she did not need counsel, she must need the comfort of communication. Fanny estranged from him, silent and reserved, was an unnatural state of things; a state which he must break through, and which he could easily learn to think she was wanting him to break through. (MP, Ch. XXXV).
Molly cannot confide her troubles in Roger, as she used to, for he is at the heart of her difficulties.
And so it went on during all the time of her [Molly’s] visit. If sometimes she forgot and let herself go into all her old naturalness, by-and-by she checked herself, and became comparatively cold and reserved. Roger was pained at all this–more pained day after day; more anxious to discover the cause. ….
He saw in an instant that something had distressed Molly; and he longed to have the old friendly right of asking her what it was. But she had effectually kept him at too great a distance during the last few days for him to feel at liberty to speak to her in the old straightforward brotherly way; ….
His voice was so kind and true,—his manner so winning yet wistful, that Molly would have been thankful to tell him all; she believed that he could have helped her more than any one to understand how she ought to behave rightly; he would have disentangled her fancies,–if only he himself had not lain at the very core and centre of all her perplexity and dismay. How could she tell him of Mrs. Goodenough’s words troubling her maiden modesty? How could she ever repeat what his father had said that morning, and assure him that she, no more than he, wished that their old friendliness should be troubled by the thought of a nearer relationship? (W&D, Ch. LIX)
The love interests of Molly and Fanny are both younger sons. Their fathers, Squire Hamley and Sir Thomas Bertram, both start out by being against either of their sons marrying the poor girl (Fanny, Molly), but by the end actually wish for it. When Sir Thomas considers undertaking the care of Fanny, he “debated and hesitated;—it was a serious charge;—a girl so brought up must be adequately provided for, or there would be cruelty instead of kindness in taking her from her family. He thought of his own four children, of his two sons, of cousins in love, etc.” (MP, Ch. I). But by the time Fanny and Edmund become engaged it is related:
Their own inclinations ascertained, there were no difficulties behind, no drawback of poverty or parent. It was a match which Sir Thomas’s wishes had even forestalled. Sick of ambitious and mercenary connexions, prizing more and more the sterling good of principle and temper, and chiefly anxious to bind by the strongest securities all that remained to him of domestic felicity, he had pondered with genuine satisfaction on the more than possibility of the two young friends finding their natural consolation in each other for all that had occurred of disappointment to either; and the joyful consent which met Edmund’s application, the high sense of having realised a great acquisition in the promise of Fanny for a daughter, formed just such a contrast with his early opinion on the subject when the poor little girl’s coming had been first agitated, as time is for ever producing between the plans and decisions of mortals, for their own instruction, and their neighbours’ entertainment.
Fanny was indeed the daughter that he wanted. His charitable kindness had been rearing a prime comfort for himself. His liberality had a rich repayment, and the general goodness of his intentions by her deserved it. He might have made her childhood happier; but it had been an error of judgment only which had given him the appearance of harshness, and deprived him of her early love; and now, on really knowing each other, their mutual attachment became very strong. After settling her at Thornton Lacey with every kind attention to her comfort, the object of almost every day was to see her there, or to get her away from it. (MP, Ch. XLVIII)
The Squire confesses his change of opinion to Roger:
“And to think that when you two lads flew right in your father’s face, and picked out girls below you in rank and family, you should neither of you have set your fancies on my little Molly there. I daresay I should ha’ been angry enough at the time, but the lassie would ha’ found her way to my heart, as never this French lady, nor t’ other one, could ha’ done.”
Roger did not answer.
“I don’t see why you might not put up for her still. I’m humble enough now, and you’re not heir as Osborne was who married a servant-maid. Don’t you think you could turn your thoughts upon Molly Gibson, Roger.”
“No!” said Roger, shortly. “It’s too late—too late. Don’t let us talk any more of my marrying. Is not this the five-acre field?” And soon he was discussing the relative values of meadow, arable and pasture land with his father, as heartily as if he had never known Molly, or loved Cynthia. But the squire was not in such good spirits, and went but heavily into the discussion. At the end of it he said apropos de bottes,—
“But don’t you think you could like her if you tried, Roger?”
Roger knew perfectly well to what his father was alluding, but for an instant he was on the point of pretending to misunderstand. At length, however, he said, in a low voice,—
“I shall never try, father. Don’t let us talk any more about it. As I said before, it is too late.”
The squire was like a child to whom some toy has been refused; from time to time the thought of his disappointment in this matter recurred to his mind; and then he took to blaming Cynthia as the primary cause of Roger’s present indifference to womankind. (W&D, Ch. LIX)
There are similar scenes of Fanny and Molly in trouble with their father figures—albeit for very different reasons—though neither heroine has actually done wrong. Sir Thomas is angry with Fanny for refusing Mr. Crawford’s proposal of marriage (MP, Ch. XXXII). Mr. Gibson is angry with Molly for meeting with Mr. Preston in secret (W&D, Ch. XLVIII).
Even in appearances, Fanny and Molly have much in common. They are both delicately pretty—not a flashy beauty. They are both without the robust color that announces health and beauty. It is not really brought out in the movie ‘Wives and Daughters’, but Molly also is somewhat fragile in health—not strong—like Fanny. Fanny grows into a pretty young woman, as her cousin, Edmund Bertram, points out:
“Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny—and that is the long and the short of the matter. Anybody but myself would have made something more of it, and anybody but you would resent that you had not been thought very pretty before; but the truth is, that your uncle never did admire you till now—and now he does. Your complexion is so improved!—and you have gained so much countenance!—and your figure—nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—it is but an uncle. If you cannot bear an uncle’s admiration, what is to become of you? You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman.” (MP, Ch. XXI)
Roger Hamley similarily notices Molly’s impovement in looks: “’Poor Osborne was right!’ said he. ‘She had grown into delicate fragrant beauty just as he said she would: or is it the character which has formed the face?’” (W&D, Ch. LV).
And then, each of them has their happy ending. Edmund Bertram finally falls in love with Fanny Price:
Exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.
With such a regard for her, indeed, as his had long been, a regard founded on the most endearing claims of innocence and helplessness, and completed by every recommendation of growing worth, what could be more natural than the change? Loving, guiding, protecting her, as he had been doing ever since her being ten years old, her mind in so great a degree formed by his care, and her comfort depending on his kindness, an object to him of such close and peculiar interest, dearer by all his own importance with her than any one else at Mansfield, what was there now to add, but that he should learn to prefer soft light eyes to sparkling dark ones. And being always with her, and always talking confidentially, and his feelings exactly in that favourable state which a recent disappointment gives, those soft light eyes could not be very long in obtaining the pre-eminence.
Having once set out, and felt that he had done so on this road to happiness, there was nothing on the side of prudence to stop him or make his progress slow; no doubts of her deserving, no fears of opposition of taste, no need of drawing new hopes of happiness from dissimilarity of temper. Her mind, disposition, opinions, and habits wanted no half-concealment, no self-deception on the present, no reliance on future improvement. Even in the midst of his late infatuation, he had acknowledged Fanny’s mental superiority. What must be his sense of it now, therefore? She was of course only too good for him; but as nobody minds having what is too good for them, he was very steadily earnest in the pursuit of the blessing, and it was not possible that encouragement from her should be long wanting. Timid, anxious, doubting as she was, it was still impossible that such tenderness as hers should not, at times, hold out the strongest hope of success, though it remained for a later period to tell him the whole delightful and astonishing truth. His happiness in knowing himself to have been so long the beloved of such a heart, must have been great enough to warrant any strength of language in which he could clothe it to her or to himself; it must have been a delightful happiness. But there was happiness elsewhere which no description can reach. Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that affection of which she has scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope. (MP, Ch. XLVIII)
And, in the fullness of time, Roger Hamley falls in love with Molly Gibson:
He felt every day more and more certain that she, and she alone, could make him happy. He had felt this, and had partly given up all hope, while his father had been urging upon him the very course he most desired to take. No need for ‘trying’ to love her, he said to himself,—that was already done. …. Once safe home again, no weak fancies as to what might or might not be her answer should prevent his running all chances to gain the woman who was to him the one who excelled all. …
“I only wish you could know what a different feeling this is to my boyish love for Cynthia.” [said Roger to Mr. Gibson.] …. “Do you think that Molly, after seeing and knowing that I had loved a person so inferior to herself, could ever be brought to listen to me?” ….
“Lover versus father!” thought he [Mr. Gibson], half sadly. “Lover wins.” (W&D, Ch. LX)
There are many differences between Fanny and Molly, and their stories are very different, but there are enough similiarities to show that, with proper respect for the text, a good movie could be made of Mansfield Park.
- In citing passages from the novels, I have abbreviated Mansfield Park by Jane Austen to ‘MP’ and Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell to ‘W&D’.
- Images from ‘Mansfield Park’ (1983, with Sylvestra Le Touzel) are from sns_red_curtain.
- Images from ‘Wives and Daughters’ (1999, with Justine Waddell) are from desert sky.