As through a prism, darkly
Mansfield Park was always a rather less satisfying Austen novel, principally because of the curiously un-Austen like heroine. Fanny Price always seemed like a model for the late Victorian (Dickensian) sweet natured, pedestal dwelling model of selfless, long suffering martyred and hard done by woman, rather than the intelligent, articulate , witty woman of spirit, who also learns, changes and grows in depth that Austen generally places centre stage.
I think many readers must have suspected that Mary Crawford was the real central character, but that somewhere along the line Austen shuffled her out of the way, and pushed a character of secondary interest, Fanny, into the spotlight. It’s as if, in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennett, rather than Elizabeth, had been the central character
However, for all the original Fanny’s apparent sweetness, Kingsley Amis professed to see something devious, describing her as
a monster of complacency and pride, who, under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel.
First-time novelist Lynn Shepherd appears to use this as a springboard, with inventive imagination and a sure mastery of Austen’s style, and a satisfying sense of period and immersion inside the original novel.
She makes a few radical changes, most particularly of wealth and therefore status, and from thence sets in train new relationships and alliances, and a tie-in between Mansfield Park and a murder mystery. Fanny, now blessed with more wealth than anyone else, and therefore a being of status, to be courted, not despised, becomes rather obviously Amis’ monster.
The central character of this novel is the one most readers probably found the natural central character of the original – Mary Crawford, here, with the wit, intelligence and sensitivity to others which she so often showed in the original novel, before Austen seemed to collect herself and start flinging a lot of baser motivations and over emphasis on financial gain towards her. However, what we do have, is the Crawfords, brother and sister, of a lesser status and fewer means than the others, and therefore, more aware of the day-to-day gradations of class and position. All the above stairs characters of the original novel are in place, as they were, but seen as if through a prism which changes how we see them – certain virtues become flaws, certain flaws may be seen as virtues. And, in addition, we are introduced to a cast of below stairs characters at Mansfield Park itself, and the new tensions provoked by the influx of an early nineteenth century detective into the mix.
Shepherd has fun with various characters introducing ideas – as fantasies – of what will be later tools of detection into the mix – someone for example wishing it were possible to identify whose blood is on a garment, and somebody else ridiculing the whole idea that this would ever be possible.
It would insult Shepherd to say she has written a very accomplished pastiche. What she has done, is to immerse herself into an original text, and use that as a springboard into something else (whilst, admittedly using quite a bit of the original text and subverting it to her own devices) I very much look forward to reading what she will do with other classic texts – Bleak House is the next! – Tom All Alone’s