I love Mansfield Park, and I love murder mysteries. Ms. Shepherd has a Ph.D. in English literature from Oxford, and it shows. Her command of the vocabulary of the Austen era is pitch-perfect. She also scatters learned references throughout, lifting entire sentences and paragraphs not just from MP but from the other novels, as well as from the letters and from Austen biography. "The heat keeps one in a continual state of inelegance," one character remarks in a line straight from a letter. "Indeed, she is quite the vainest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly I have ever had the misfortune to encounter," Mrs. Norris says of Mary Crawford, a remark in real life supposedly made about Jane Austen as a young woman by the mother of Mary Russell Mitford (though whether she actually knew her, or just later claimed to have, is open to some doubt).
The characters in Ms. Shepherd's alternative Mansfield Park are jumbled like dice in a box. Most notably, Fanny Price, still a cousin of the Betrams, is now orphaned, fabulously rich, and insufferable. Mary Crawford is poor and worthy. Henry Crawford is a renovator of estates, rather like Repton. Julia Betram is sensitive and romantic and neglected, and vaguely like the two younger Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility. Edmund, for some reason, is now the stepson of Mrs. Norris, who is much like the original Mrs. Norris, except richer and more obnoxious; he seems to have cross-pollinated with Edward Ferrars from Sense and Sensbility. Maria Betram is rather like herself, and so is Tom Betram. Mr. Rushworth is still rich but no longer stupid; he is more like Robert Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility.
I fancy I know Mansfield Park as well as the next person, having reread it only two months ago, but I found initially myself getting confused between the elements that overlap and those that don't. In the first half of the book many of the same scenes and elements crop up: an outing to view an estate, an aborted production of Lover's Vows, a necklace, a ball, a game of Speculation, Sir Thomas Betram's departure (he merely goes to Yorkshire, not Antigua), the departure of a beloved brother to sea (This time it's Julia who pines for him, not Fanny).
Incident rapidly succeeds incident, but at first I could not seem to answer the essential questions. Why has the author changed some things so utterly and left others the same? Where was she going with this?
Certainly Mansfield Park is the novel that Jane Austen fans find the most vexing: the way the people we feel we are supposed to admire (Fanny and Edmund) are so much harder to like than the supposed villains of the piece (Mary and Henry Crawford). Certainly there is a large body of readers who think the main characters married the wrong people, and that a Henry-Fanny and Edmund-Mary match-up would have been a more satisfying result. I do not share these views, but I do understand them. Was this the author's intent, to at once construct a homage to Mansfield Park and a more satisfying end to it, through the device of murder mysteries and alternate endings?
The book has 363 pages in the edition I am reading, and the body is discovered on page 158. Once a murder has been discovered, the book takes on a kind of energy it seemed to lack before. Or maybe it is not the book that underwent a shift, but the reader. For the things that were troubling me about the book up to that point -- how it both was and was not like Mansfield Park, the abrupt shifts in points of view and tone, the moments of foreshadowing that did not seem to fit, my puzzlement about the author's aim -- all seemed to fall away. Suddenly, everything made perfect sense, for I found myself in the familiar, forgiving world of an English country house murder mystery, and I understood exactly what the author was doing. And thought she did it very well. The detective, Charles Maddox, is perfect. Mary Crawford, once she steps out of the shadow of the other Mary Crawford, becomes an engaging and sympathetic character. The mystery plot is taut and engrossing; the language never gets in the way.
And could I have not figured this out before? The title of the book after all, contains the word "Murder." There is an image of a corpse on the cover; a tasteful image, to be sure, but still. A person might be forgiven for thinking I was a bit slow on the uptake. The only thing I can say in my defense: there was so much of Jane Austen here, I got confused. I was thinking the author was trying to do something else -- what? I was not certain. Construct an alternate Mansfield Park, somewhat the way the wonderfully strange Wide Sargasso Sea constructs an alternate Jane Eyre?
It's a good deal easier, and probably more pleasing to readers, to write a good murder mystery than the Mansfield Park answer to Wide Sargasso Sea, and I am happy that this in the end is what Lynn Shepherd did. It is a lesson in how truly elastic the murder mystery is as a form, despite its seemingly ironclad requirements.
SPOILER ALERT!!! And in this retelling, I really did think the heroine picked the wrong person! I was hoping Mary Crawford would marry Mr. Maddox and travel around England solving crimes with him. I think this could be the basis for a very promising series. Perhaps in Lynn Shepherd's next book, he can end up with another overlooked Austen heroine. Charlotte Collins, anyone (after the convenient death of her first husband)?