In recent years, there has been a literary and cinematic outpouring of Jane Austen updates in all manner of genres, ranging from romance to mystery to even zombie and vampire mash-ups. At least some of these updates appear to be hastily done, without a particularly deep understanding of Jane Austen’s work or her times.
While it is true that some of the recent takes on the Austen universe have been very enjoyable, it is often hard to know what one is in for from the title alone. Although Pride and Prejudice has probably been more frequently mined than other Jane Austen’s works, Mansfield Park remains the Austen novel that moviemakers in particular have taken outrageous liberties with, giving us versions of Fanny that are somewhat anachronistic and bear no relation to the original. So it was with some trepidation that I started reading Lynn Shepherd’s Murder at Mansfield Park, pegged by the publisher as an “irreverent twist on an old classic.”
I should confess at the outset that Mansfield Park is my least favorite work by Austen. I count myself among the legions of Jane Austen’s fans who have been dismayed and perplexed by Austen’s creation of the character of Fanny Price, Mansfield’s cringing, meek, sermonizing anti-heroine. The characters of Fanny, and her cousin and paramour, Edmund Bertram, have sometimes been described as insipid and tedious. To me, Fanny and Edmund call to mind not Pride and Prejudice’s romantic coupling of Lizzy Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, but dull and sanctimonious Mr. Collins, who takes such pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Austen has given us terrific heroines who just happen to be poor, patient, and forebearing. Consider the admirable Anne Elliot (“no one … so capable as Anne”) and the worthy Elinor Dashwood, who by contrast make the cringing, resentful, Gollum-like character of Fanny Price all the more surprising. As has been widely postulated before, all the charm of Mansfield Park belongs to Henry and Mary Crawford, the worldly and witty sibling pair who are presented as the immoral and debauched counterpoint to the moral Fanny and Edmund.
So while I did not particularly look forward to revisiting the setting of Mansfield Park, the promise of seeing a different Fanny - described in this take as “a rich heiress who is spoiled, condescending, and generally hated throughout the country” -- offered some promise of fun. The author states in her acknowledgments that she was inspired by Kingsley Amis’s famous denouncement of Austen’s Fanny Price as “a monster of complacency and pride, who under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel.”
It is this vision of Fanny that we encounter in Murder at Mansfield Park, re-imagined by the author as domineering, narcissistic and manipulative under a veneer of compliance and meekness. We learn from the back cover that Fanny Price will meet an untimely demise in the pages of the book, and Mary Crawford --- here recast as the virtuous heroine possessed of strong understanding and a sanguine temperament --- will help to solve the mystery. This version of the story includes all the original people and places, along with many of the central plot themes: economic disparities among the different sets of cousins; a family staging of an inappropriate play which serves to throw social conventions by the wayside; a day trip to a picturesque estate; even an elopement. But there the similarities with the original Mansfield Park end and an entirely different story takes shape.
Shepherd alters the character and circumstances of nearly everyone in the story. Edmund is no longer a Bertram but is instead Mrs. Norris’s stepson; his place in the Bertram family is taken by William, Fanny’s brother in the original book. It is Fanny who is rich and the Bertrams who are the poor relations, so that Fanny is preening and vain while her cousins Julia and Maria are now put upon and submissive. Mary Crawford occupies a position of particularly low status and is roundly derided by Fanny’s aunt Norris, one of the few characters who remains true to the original, appearing just as officious, crass, and penny-pinching as in the 1814 version. Some of these changes can be very confusing to a reader who knows the original work --- it took several pages of reading before I could settle in to enjoy and appreciate this parallel Austen universe.
However, once I got into the flow of the novel, I was delighted to find that Shepherd does a plausible faux-Austen, mimicking the original’s characteristic turn of phrase quite credibly. The engaging characters and twisting plot draw a reader in and hold one’s attention through the entire length of the novel --- nearly 400 pages. When Fanny abruptly disappears and her body is found in a newly dug trench, bludgeoned to death, it is up to Mary Crawford --- with the help of a handsome, cynical thief taker --- to solve the crime. I do not wish to give away the plot here, but suffice it to say that Murder at Mansfield Park is an engaging Regency murder mystery in its own right, with or without the Austen references.
It is clear that Lynn Shepherd has done a considerable amount of historical research, a fact that lends credibility to the story even when she introduces elements that would be out of place in Jane Austen’s own writing. For instance, we see the principal characters interact with the servants, something that lends an interesting Upstairs Downstairs viewpoint to the novel. A long scene describes the preparation of a corpse for burial by one of the principal characters --- something that Austen with her refined and fastidious sensibilities would have shunned setting down in prose --- providing an informative insight into Regency customs for a modern reader.
I am happy to recommend Murder at Mansfield Park to my fellow Jane Austen admirers (although some of them may not share my sentiments about Fanny) and others looking for an entertaining Regency mystery set in the Austen universe.