Today’s guest post is by Lynn Shepherd, award-winning author of Murder at Mansfield Park and three subsequent literary mysteries, The Solitary House, A Fatal Likeness, and The Pierced Heart, inspired respectively by Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the lives of the Shelleys, and Bram Stoker’s Gothic classic Dracula. All four of her novels have received Kirkus stars. You can visit her website and follow her on Twitter @Lynn_Shepherd.
Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.
My Fanny, indeed, at this very time, I have the satisfaction of knowing, must have been happy in spite of everything. She must have been a happy creature in spite of all that she felt, or thought she felt, for the distress of those around her. She had sources of delight that must force their way. She was returned to Mansfield Park, she was useful, she was beloved; she was safe from Mr. Crawford; and when Sir Thomas came back she had every proof that could be given in his then melancholy state of spirits, of his perfect approbation and increased regard; and happy as all this must make her, she would still have been happy without any of it, for Edmund was no longer the dupe of Miss Crawford.
Henry Crawford, ruined by early independence and bad domestic example, indulged in the freaks of a cold-blooded vanity a little too long. Once it had, by an opening undesigned and unmerited, led him into the way of happiness. Could he have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman’s affections, could he have found sufficient exultation in overcoming the reluctance, in working himself into the esteem and tenderness of Fanny Price, there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him. His affection had already done something. Her influence over him had already given him some influence over her. Would he have deserved more, there can be no doubt that more would have been obtained, especially when that marriage had taken place, which would have given him the assistance of her conscience in subduing her first inclination, and brought them very often together. Would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward, and a reward very voluntarily bestowed, within a reasonable period from Edmund’s marrying Mary.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 48 (www.mollands.net)
I first read Mansfield Park for my school leaving exams, so this is a novel that has been with me for the best part of 30 years. I’d read Pride and Prejudice before that, and I remember thinking, even then, that Mansfield Park was a very different animal. Pinning down exactly why it was so different was rather more puzzling. Mansfield Park does, after all, have the same “boy-meets-girl” love story at its heart, and the usual obstacles to the fulfilment of that love, whether social or self-imposed. So why do we find Mansfield Park so hard to like? As I have blogged elsewhere, the real problem with Mansfield Park is not its story, but its heroine. As Lionel Trilling famously opined, “Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park.” And since even Austen’s mother found Miss Price “insipid,” this is not entirely down to a modern prejudice against heroines who sit on the sofa rather than get up and go. Nor is the hero much help – since Edmund has “formed her mind and gained her affections” she now, as Austen admits, “think[s] like him,” so we can hardly blame Fanny if she comes over as her cousin’s mini-me. But the result is rather a case of the bland leading the bland: as Kingsley Amis said (in one of my favourite quotes about the novel), “to invite Mr and Mrs Edmund Bertram round for the evening would not be lightly undertaken.”
So where am I going with this, and how does it relate to the two passages I have chosen?
The short answer is that I think Austen knows. Knows her aim to write a more serious novel has not quite come off, knows that her heroine is hard to like, and knows – most importantly – that she has wrenched the trajectory of her own plot to ensure Fanny gets her man.
You can see this, in the first of the two passages, in her reference to her heroine as “my Fanny.” No other heroine of hers is ever accorded the honour of the possessive pronoun, not even Elizabeth Bennet. And then, in the second passage, we have perhaps the most flagrant authorial mea culpa ever written. What’s fascinating about this paragraph is its adoption of the conditional tense: what would have happened. In other words, Edmund marrying Mary, and Fanny marrying Henry Crawford. Because that, after all, is the natural conclusion towards which the whole novel was tending. Despite Austen’s concerted campaign to weigh the scales against Mary Crawford, Edmund was most definitely in love with her, not Fanny, and even Austen admits that Henry Crawford had done enough to win over the punctilious Miss Price in the end. The momentum towards this ending is so strong, in fact, that only a juggernaut can stop it. And that’s what Austen is forced to supply. A deus ex machina plot device that is frankly unworthy of her: a completely implausible and (for Crawford) emotionally illogical elopement, which all takes place hugger-mugger out of view of the reader, because – I believe – even Jane Austen doesn’t think she can present those scenes to us and expect us to believe them.
And this is followed, shortly after, by the passage in which Jane Austen waves a magic wand and asks us to accept that the man who has only 20 pages ago referred to Fanny as his “only sister” has undergone a complete volte-face and fallen in love with her. “I only intreat every body to believe that [it was] exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier.” Sorry, Jane, I love you dearly, but even I don’t buy that one.
These two passages are like the ghost of another novel, which was struggling to get out, and suffocated by its author for reasons of her own (and I have speculated about that, too). That ghost novel would have been much more like Pride & Prejudice – much more “light and sparkling,” and with another heroine entirely. That ghost first took shape when I was 18, and haunted me for years after. So much so, in fact, that I was eventually inspired to sit down and try to write that book myself. The result? Murder at Mansfield Park. And the rest, as they say, is history….
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Elisabeth Lenckos, Sheryl Craig, and Ryder Kessler. This week, in honour of Jane Austen’s birthday, there’s one post per day.
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