Mansfield Park remained for many years my least favorite Austen novel: the heroine so passive and mild, the moral themes so unyielding, and the injustices Fanny endures so extensive, that I found the novel often more pain than pleasure to read. I finished reading it again about a week ago, and I am more inclined to rate it higher. Of all Austen's novels it is, perhaps, the most critical of moral corruption and metes out more punishment to those who err. While Fanny remains very timid and quite unlike fan favorite Elizabeth Bennet, I had much more sympathy for her and respect for the delicate way Austen delineated her circumstance and portrayed her character. When Fanny does defy everyone she loves, that action is highlighted by her usual acquiescent nature and becomes a key pivot in the novel, while the comparabe scene of Lizzy standing up to Lady Catherine de Bourgh is just what we'd expect the lively Miss Bennet to do. Fanny is shown to be just as courageous and right-minded as all the Austen heroines, although much more shy.
For that reason, I find myself more disappointed by the 1999 film adaptation of the novel that previously. I like the film quite a lot -- I agreed with critics like Ebert and Holden that many of the changes from the novel are mostly welcome, and stay true to the spirit of Austen's work. But upon rewatching it right after I reread the novel, I was struck by how different the film Fanny is, and how much that change hurts the dramatic and satisfying character arc of the novel.
Fanny is shown from the very beginning of the film to be a sort of stand-in for Jane Austen herself: a writer, a keen observer of human nature, a lively spirit who loves horseback riding and describes herself as a "wild beast." She addresses the camera directly, recounting romances, like a Regency Carrie Bradshaw. How opposite from the novel's Fanny! She was scared of riding for many years and, it's implied, never got quite as comfortable on horseback as Mary does after just a few lessons. The novel's Fanny is timid, and doesn't dare to ask for anything due to her. She believes the best of everyone, even the odious Mrs. Norris. That, I've come to see, is her strength and core to the novel's theme. Austen's message is that even the most retiring, gentle, and accomodating woman can still hold on to her principles, challenge her entire family, and in the end, be utterly vindicated for staying true to her values. If Fanny is made into the sort of woman who naturally speaks up and defies authority, even making saucy remarks to her relations, that message is lost. Austen recognized that not all women are Elizabeths and Emmas, and she showed that even reserved Annes and Fannys can still find happiness in the integrity of their thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is a shame the film erases this critical point.