“Mansfield Park:” Black Suffering And White Romance

Last night I watched Patricia Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which I looked forward to because I knew there would be an irrepressible heroine and lots of sexy 19th century repartee done up as only Jane can do it. Great cast, too.

After the film, starring Frances O’Conner, Jonny Lee Miller and Harold Pinter (!) was over, I tweeted, “I think I just watched a movie about how slavery interferes with white people’s romantic lives?”

Because what the hell was that?

Let me summarize for you: Fanny Price is a poor relation who gets sent to live with rich relations in Mansfield Park. She is in love with her virtuous cousin Edmund (who winds up being a clergyman – score one for positive depictions of clergy in cinema!). She is courted by a super hot but untrustworthy rake named Henry Crawford.

Fanny Price’s uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, makes his fortune largely through dealings in the West Indies. Fanny, though, is concerned about the evils of slavery (as is her cousin Edmund and her dissolute, drunken other cousin Tom, as we shall see). On her way to Mansfield Park in a stagecoach, she passes a harbor and hears the distant ululations of the slaves on a ship. The driver informs her that that’s the sound of “black gold.” The ship and the sounds from it return very briefly in a couple of other scenes. They trouble Fanny, you see.  She and Virtuous Edmund make abolitionist murmurings in one or two scenes, but never to directly challenge Sir Thomas, but more to inform him that they’ve been reading.

Reading is a much more important virtue to these characters than speaking out directly against the hand that feeds them — even when they have indisputable truth, as Fanny gains through the discovery of a sketch pad filled with images by an eyewitness, that Sir Thomas is a raping marauder of African women as well as being a direct beneficiary of the slave trade. Meanwhile, she frets prettily in those empire-waist gowns. We’re meant to see her as a woman in a sexist predicament: her futures are dictated by patriarch Sir Thomas who wants her to marry a guy she thinks is of poor character. Believe me, I’m sympathetic. But if Austen can have cousin Maria abandon her husband Sackcloth or Rightcroft or Snailditch (hilariously portrayed by a Hugh Bonneville in a poodle wig, whatever the hell his name is) and flee with a hot lover, she could surely have arranged a similar, parallel flight for Fanny for more righteous cause.

Here’s where I’m like, “Wow, I know that it’s silly to expect 21st century consciousness and intersectionality from Jane Austen, but how about this filmmaker in 1999?” Given that Patricia Rozema added some dialogue and changed some plot points for her film adaptation of  Mansfield Park, I wondered why she could not have added even one scene where the characters could actually grapple with the evils of slavery in a way that wasn’t merely a device to enhance the apparently integrity of the two romantic leads. I’m talking two or three lines of dialogue.

As it was, the theft, rape, torture, murder and enslavement of Africans by the English was used as a plot device to move white people through personal issues of integrity and romantic partnerings, which is how black lives are often used in white stories.

At one point, the apparently soul-sick Tom (that’s why he drinks! He’s guilty about supporting slavery) becomes gravely ill and Fanny is rushed back from her squalid home in Portsmouth to help nurse him. We are supposed to infer that Tom, whose ailment is never explained, is basically dying of moral injury. This effects a bedside mea culpa from his father, the evil Sir Thomas, who weeps, “Forgive me.” However, that apology is not for financially benefiting from the slave trade or raping African women who are never seen except as sketches drawn by a white man’s hand and heard by a white woman from a stagecoach, but a father’s distressed cry at the bedside of his dying heir: “Forgive me, and live to inherit my fortune and run my company.”

In other words, the forgiveness is begged not of the real victims of slavery, but of the white man whose conscience was inconveniently troubled by it.

That’s where I think I hooted and threw my remote control across the room.

After Tom (miraculously) recovers and all the romantic partners get squared away (the one character who showed lesbian leanings is exiled, of course, as she turns out to be a thorough baddie), the film ends on a quaint lawn scene as the narrator explains how things resolved. As it turns out, heh heh, Sir Thomas divests from his “interests” in the West Indies but goes into the TOBACCO industry. Isn’t that a great punch line? HA HA HA, a slave-tended crop that kills people! The cheerful music and wink-wink tone of the narrator signals that we are to find this information a mildly naughty irony rather than sickening evidence of the character’s continued exploitation and destruction of countless, anonymous black bodies, families and lives.

We so easily could have had a slightly redeeming coda saying that Franny and her husband Edmund joined an abolitionist cause, but naw. The pretty white heroine got her guy and happy ending. No need to mention slavery, as it was just there to provide a background conflict for white family drama.

Not one of the reviews I could find online mentioned this problem with the film; not even Roger Ebert’s four-star write-up.

Not even Hugh Bonneville’s poodle wig and rouged cheeks could sweeten my bitter disappointment.

mansfield park 1999 hugh bonneville











14 Replies to ““Mansfield Park:” Black Suffering And White Romance”

  1. Urgh. Thank you!!

    I am woefully behind the times and only watched it last night. I say watched it, but I barely got 1/2 way through before stopping and being unable to proceed. I needed to hit pause in only the first minutes when young Fanny Price first wheeled by the ships. The prose so jarred me I was shocked – both by the brusque and casual languaging of it all but also how, despite my understanding of it being “different times” – I was struggling already to get past it . Then by the time the insidious and rape-y Sir Thomas arrived home and they were discussing “mulattos” for so little a plot devise as (as you so aptly put it) black suffering for white romance, I was done.

    A fan of Austen, I am. A realist of the atrocities that occurred during the time the film was based, absolutely. But someone who will stand by and watch it for sport while other aspects of the film were adapted and changed for plot points yet the jarring concept of slavery, rape , torture and murder were merely used as chum for a regency tête-à-tête. I seem to have found my limit.

  2. You are correct that there doesn’t seem to be any other similar criticism of this film on the Internet, so thank you for writing it. And, you’re right to have levied your criticism at the director; it’s hard to imagine that in 1999 this was acceptable.

    The only thing you didn’t mention but that I noticed immediately is that Tom, who we later see is “so troubled” by slavery, wears blackface early on in the film, when the group of young people is about to stage a play.

    I love an English drama, but truthfully I’m wondering if I don’t write Netflix and ask them to remove it.

  3. The movie so effortlessly glossed over the raping of women by the family patriarch that I found myself here, googling to see if I missed something or was confused.
    Unbelievably insensitive and inhumane narrative, and like you’ve mentioned, salt rubbed in the womb when the real villain of the piece ends up in the tobacco industry indicating how much he stands to gain off of further evils.

  4. Thanks for commenting! I have that experiencing so often: I see a movie and can’t find a critique that mentions aspects of the film I find to be blatantly problematic. I’m glad my reflection here validated your own viewing experience.

  5. I just watched this movie on Netflix, and I scoured the internet for any mention of the gross way slavery was used as a plot device. To my dismay, more outrage seems to be displayed over the loose adherence to the source material, rather than the half-assed attempt by the filmmakers to tell the audience “slavery= bad”.

    From the very beginning, Edmund reveals to Fanny that Sir Thomas has been having issues with those “pesky abolitionists” interfering with his business. When Fanny voices her support of their cause, Edmund refutes her, and snidely reminds her that she benefits from the wealth his father’s dishonourable business ventures afford them.

    Indeed, it seemed that the groundwork was being laid throughout the film that Fanny would have a choice to make about her place in this world. This seemed to mirror nicely her decision on whether or not to marry Mr. Crawford. On the one hand, to marry him would afford her the comfort she had grown accustomed to at the sacrifice of true love, but on the other hand, as her mother emphasized, love does not make a life of poverty any easier to bear.

    So it would seem, a simultaneous argument was being developed by the film that beneath the elegant facade of regency era romance, there is a deeply sinister price to pay to live in the lap of luxury. All this seemed to be driving towards a decision not just between true love or wealth, but also of morality or wealth. In other words, compliance or defiance.

    How disappointed, and frankly, confused, was I when the movie not only revealed that Sir Thomas was the leader of an evil enterprise, but that he participated in heinous crimes against humanity, only for it to be played off as part of his redemption arc as he tearfully apologized at his sons death bed for making him take part in his dishonourable deeds.

    I guess all is good, because Fanny has no issue marrying into this family, and to stand by a supposed man of god, who earlier sympathized with his father’s business woes. Should he not over every other family member, have the moral compass to guide his family towards compassion? Are not “all men equal” under the eyes of god?

    I guess we’re all supposed to ignore what we’ve learned of Sir Thomas in the epilogue, and focus on the happy romance of Fanny and Edmund. But just in case you WERE worried about it, it’s all good because Sir Thomas has turned the other cheek, and is in the tobacco business now (hahaha get it? Because he thought he was doing the right thing but tobacco actually kills people?!)

    Thank god I found someone else out there who shared my anger and frustration with how the topic of slavery was handled. They shouldn’t have brought the topic up at all, if they had no plans to handle it with care.

  6. I noticed everything that you are drawing attention to here, but I believe I am noticing those things because the director wants us to notice them. The point is made at the end that the patriarch has not changed at all because he is going on to make money in tobacco. The reason not to give Edmund and Fanny a more active role in abolition is that we are meant to be critical of them as well as everyone else. Instead of feeling comfortable with the romance of a Jane Austen plot, we are made to feel the horror of knowing the price of that romance. And apparently that is the effect the movie had on everyone commenting above so I think the director achieved what she set out to do.

  7. Thank you for writing this. I just watched it and was so surprised and upset by the drawings and how the father didn’t have any consequences…. they just brushed passed it and onto romance! Such a messed up way to add drama for dramas sake. With a facade of being enlightening. Thanks for your review!!!

  8. I’m not sure how to say this without sounds sympathetic towards racial issues but you have to remember to see this within the lense of that time. At that time is was widely accepted that black people from Africa were not people. Full books were written about black/white anatomy and how black peoples were more similar to a farm animal than human. They we’re like the missing link. Not fully human not fully beast. There was no internet or education to teach them differently. People were still be hung in the town square for theiving. Women did not have rights. Your husband could rape you and it was not considered rape. In this time period, her uncle would not have been considered a monster just someone who did something naughty. Men of that time often had mistresses so it was not against society for him to take to bed another. I honestly really enjoyed the movie. I felt that when this film was made they did not have the cultural norms we have now. It reminds me of the film “Heathers” with kids committing suicide and bringing guns to school or the film 16 Candles with rapey vibes or Disney’s “Blank Check” with an adult woman kissing a child. In their time, it wasn’t wrong. I still watch this film and get that bad feeling in my gut during that scene when fanny finds the drawings. But I think it’s important not to erase history just because it’s hard to process. Was it wrong and do we have a new insight into this film? Yes. Will people of the future also have brand new insights we don’t have now? Yes. Overall, I appreciate Mansfield Park for showing me a culture I won’t ever live in.

  9. I’m glad you liked it but there’s no need to inform me of things that I am fully aware of. The whole point of doing cultural analysis of today’s entertainment is to question how these harmful cultural norms are being presented today.

  10. I remember seeing this movie as a kid. The part about “then he invested in tobacco” really came across as positive to me then. Like, oh, he made a good choice. Everything’s all right now. The tone of the film and the music is so playful and cheerful at that point. But watching it as an adult I’m like, how is that better? The whole question of slavery is completely glossed over. You’re right, it served its purpose so that the two nice white people can be together.

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