(Year: 1985 Reprint 2008 ISBN: 13:978-1-4022-1289-5)
Mansfield Park revisited? Hardly. More like Mansfield Park Redux. Aiken opens her book four years later with the death of patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram. This provides Aiken a convenient excuse to remove what many consider the most irksome aspect of Mansfield Park -the character of Fanny Price. For she and Edmund spend the course of the sequel abroad to tend to the family estate in the West Indies.
With Fanny removed, Aiken elevates Fanny’s sister Susan to centre stage. Austen described Susan thus, ‘her more fearless disposition and happier nerves made everything easier to her there.-With quickness in understanding the tempers of those she had to deal with, and no natural timidity to restrain any consequent wishes, she was soon welcome, and useful to all…’ (MP p 340) Essentially, Aiken rewrites Mansfield Park with an extroverted heroine.
To mimic the narrative construct Aiken rehabilitates the Crawfords and recasts the impulsive Julia in the role of scheming Mrs Norris. The delightfully wicked creatures Mary and Henry Crawford must be absolved of their sins. Henry’s affair is the result of ruinous imputation by the vengeful Maria. ‘Maria, it seemed, had a violent partiality for this Henry Crawford; nevertheless she committed the supreme folly of marrying another man…It seemed that Mr Crawford had not reciprocated Maria’s feelings; yet she must have had hopes for him for when, wearied out by impatience and incompatibility, she finally left her husband, it was to Mr Crawford that she turned. But he according to Mrs Norris, rejected her wholly, baldly informing her that he did not love her, had never loved her, that he loved another; in short , turned her from his door’ (p.59) There are two problems with Aiken’s reimaging-such a scandal would never by recanvassed by Mrs Norris among intimates let alone strangers and the burgeoning scandal is first brought to the attention to the family of Mansfield Park by Sir Thomas’s ‘old and most particular friend’ in London (MP p324) and is not a construct by Maria.
And Mary? The sexual potency of Mary Crawford is frightening to Aiken and thus she is shackled by an undissolvable marriage and death. Miss Crawford, Lady Ormiston, estranged from her mentally afflicted husband has returned to Northamptonshire as an invalid to die. Although Aiken wishes it, we can not entertain this shadowed character a serious contender for Tom’s heart as she was for Edmund.
As for the union between Tom and Susan-its inevitability is telegraphed at the beginning when we are told that ‘…Tom has never paid any especial attention to Susan, (p.9). Remarkably, the romance itself it so hastily cobbled together in the last few pages of the novel it seems that Aiken opted for the most convenient of exit strategies. One could also argue that in Mansfield Park the romance is likewise rapidly concluded but we are left in no doubt that Fanny nursed her love for Edmund far longer than Susan for Tom.
There is something elusively jarring about this book. Perhaps the quote on the cover ‘A lovely read-and you don’t have to read Mansfield Park to enjoy it’ sums up what is wrong with this book. Aiken doesn’t expect her readers to be familiar with Mansfield Park nor the social conventions of Regency England but merely popular culture’s recreation of Jane Austen with our contemporary mores. So we are left with book that perhaps should have faded into obscurity in 1985 and not have its life extended by the continued Austen-mania of the mid 1990-2000s.
Be kind to Fanny and read Mansfield Park.