Thanks to New York born and raised director Whit Stillman, one of Jane Austen’s characters in her juvenilia, Lady Susan Vernon, had a field day last year. For those wondering how that came about, do seek out Stillman’s film Love & Friendship (2016), or his movie-tie-in book Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated.
But Janeites may not have noticed, back in 1990, five years before the pivotal year of wet shirt Darcy’s mortifying encounter with Lizzy Bennet, another Austen character was vindicated, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. And they have Stillman to thank.
What does Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, published in 1814 England, have in common with a bunch of upper class college freshmen/women in 1990 New York City, calling themselves UHB (Urban haute bourgeoisie), worrying about an ‘escort’ shortage for their debutante parties during their Christmas break?
Wait a minute, UHB? ‘Urban Haute Bourgeoisie‘? Isn’t that the kind of targets that would have interested Jane? Our astute Jane who loved to wield her pen, piercing through the façade of the rich and privileged, shaking the underlying status quo of society of her time? Jane would have loved Stillman’s film. She would be amused by the characters in this comedy of manners and their social commentaries. Debutante parties? Jane would be surprised to hear they still exist in the 20th century. If she were to write the screenplay, Jane would probably be less subtle.
Stillman’s Metropolitan is not so much an acerbic satire but a gentle poke and descriptive vignettes of the young UHB’s lifestyle and thinking. From his treatment of his characters, he is gentle and forbearing, albeit incisive, just enough to elicit some knowing chuckles.
In Mansfield Park, Jane presented a heroine that is a contrarian. Fanny Price is unadorned, impoverished, athletically challenged, a misfit and outsider when she enters the upper class home of Sir Thomas Bertram. But it’s her being principled and virtuous that make her stick out like a sore thumb. As Jane ends the book, Fanny gets the final praise, and an oblivious, but decent, Edmund as her ultimate reward.
Stillman’s Metropolitan is set in 1990 NYC. It has two characters that are a type of Fanny Price. First is Tom. He stands for everything that’s the opposite of the UHB. A self-professed socialist, Tom comes from the other side of the track. He wears a raincoat (albeit with a warm lining as he explains) in midwinter, and a ‘snob’ for public transit. Taxi? No, he’d rather walk.
Sure, his new found friends of the UHB know why. How many can afford to take the taxi as their usual means of transport and wears tux to parties? So, to their credit, despite knowing Tom might be from the opposite side of town, they receive him into their midst, especially as the girl Audrey likes him very much and wants him to help solve their, or her, ‘escort shortage’ to the debutante parties.
Audrey is a lover of books. She’s unpretentious, modest, and above all, a sensitive soul not unlike Fanny. In one scene, Audrey serves as a moral compass as the group gathers in the after party to a game that she disapproves of. That’s a Fanny incognito there. She insists on her stance despite everyone, Tom included, feels there’s nothing wrong with the game.
So there are the Austenesque parallels and types. You might be able to identify the Crawfords there too. The youthful characters are all serious in their viewpoints. One must give them credits. In their tux and gowns they discuss social theories. Therein lies Stillman’s gentle satire. While the sarcasm and humour is subtle, there are a few lines that are overt, lines I think Jane would have approved.
In this scene (above photo), Audrey and Tom discuss books. Audrey says Persuasion and Mansfield Park are her favorite Austen books, Tom is incredulous.
Tom: Mansfield Park! You got to be kidding.
Tom: But it’s a notoriously bad book. Even Lionel Trilling – one of her
greatest admirers – thought that.
Audrey: If Lionel Trilling thought that, he’s an idiot.
Jane probably would have thought, “Oh I wish I had written those lines.”
But wait, there’s more. Later in the party, Tom and Audrey continue to discuss Mansfield Park.
Audrey: You find Fanny Price unlikeable?
Tom: She sounds pretty unbearable, but I haven’t read the book.
Tom: You don’t have to have read a book to have an opinion on it. I
haven’t read the Bible either.
Audrey: What Jane Austen novels have you read?
Tom: None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way
you get the novelist’s idea as well as the critic’s thinking. With
fiction I can never forget none of that has really happened. It’s all
made up by the author.
Oh I can see Jane ROFL.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
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