The Austen Project, with bestselling contemporary authors reworking “the divine Jane” for a modern audience, kicks off later this month with the publication of Joanna Trollope’s new Sense & Sensibility, in which Elinor is a sensible architecture student and impulsive Marianne dreams of art school.
Also promised are versions from Val McDermid (Northanger Abbey), Curtis Sittenfeld (Pride & Prejudice) and – gadzooks – the prolific Alexander McCall Smith, most famous for his Botswanan private eye novels, who has been let loose on Emma (an experience he describes as “like being asked to eat a box of delicious chocolates”).
Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, no one has signed up for what I believe to be Austen’s greatest novel, Mansfield Park. Why am I not surprised? Well, consider a passage from the best essay, by far, ever written about Mansfield Park, in which Tony Tanner writes,
Fanny Price exhibits few of the qualities we usually associate with the traditional hero or heroine. We expect them to have vigour and vitality; Fanny is weak and sickly. We look to them for a certain venturesomeness or audacity, a bravery, a resilience, even a recklessness; but Fanny is timid, silent, unassertive, shrinking and excessively vulnerable. Above all, perhaps, we expect heroes and heroines to be active, rising to opposition, resisting coercion, asserting their own energy; but Fanny is almost totally passive. Indeed, one of the strange aspects of this singular book is that, regarded externally, it is the story of a girl who triumphs by doing nothing. She sits, she waits, she endures; and, when she is finally promoted, through marriage, into an unexpectedly high social position, it seems to be a reward not so much for her vitality as for her extraordinary immobility. This is odd enough; yet there is another unusual and even less sympathetic aspect to this heroine. She is never, ever, wrong. Jane Austen, usually so ironic about her heroines, in this instance vindicates Fanny Price without qualification. we are used to seeing heroes and heroines confused, fallible, error-prone. But Fanny always thinks, feels, speaks and believes exactly as she ought. Every other character in the book, without exception, falls into error — some fall irredeemably. But not Fanny. She does not put a foot wrong. Indeed, she hardly risks any steps at all: as we shall see, there is an intimate and significant connection between her virtue and her immobility. The result of these unusual traits has been to make her a very unpopular heroine.
The pivotal event of the novel is a long scene in which various young people gathered at Mansfield Park, the Bertram country house, decide to stage a play that Fanny believes to be immoral and that she therefore quietly but firmly refuses to act in. When Sir Thomas Bertram unexpectedly returns from Antigua and finds them in the middle of rehearsals, his younger son Edmund meets with him and confesses the general impropriety. But he adds this: “‘We have all been more or less to blame,’ said he, ‘every one of us, excepting Fanny. Fanny is the only one who has judged rightly throughout; who has been consistent. Her feelings have been steadily against it from first to last. She never ceased to think of what was due to you. You will find Fanny everything you could wish.’”
There is absolutely no chance that any novelist now living will even attempt to portray a Fanny Price remotely like the character Austen created. It is impossible to imagine any moral idea more completely alien to the spirit of our time that the notion that someone can exhibit virtue by refraining from participating in the recreations that other people enjoy. Prig! Prude! Narrow-minded bigot!
If anyone ever does sign on to re-write Mansfield Park, one of two things will happen: either Fanny will become a completely different character, one not noted for her “immobility” and resistance to evils small and large, or she will have those traits and will therefore be explicitly portrayed as what Kingsley Amis said the original Fanny was, “a monster of complacency and pride.” There are no other foreseeable options.