Review: Murder at Mansfield Park, by Lynn Shepherd

Murder at Mansfield Park: A NovelI had anticipated this latest Austen adaptation to be a bit like The Matters at Mansfield, by Carrie Bebris. I expected quite a bit of pastiche, mixed with an Austenesque preservation of the characters, even amounting to reverently mounting them on a pedestal of Jane Austen's own personality. The fact is, the pastiche is there in full force - you get almost word-for-word passages from each of Austen's novels throughout the text, along with an undeniable nod at Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre towards the later chapters. But the character preservation is gone, tossed out the window - we've kept the old wooden chess board, but the original pieces have gone missing - we've got to make do with what plastic pieces we can find.

The characters are all present, but they have different pasts, different presents, entirely different characteristics and, to top it all off, our heroine is not Jane Austen's pale, sickly, first-cousin-loving weakling Fanny Price, but her incorrigible Mary Crawford (who, in Ms. Shepherd's hands, takes on a very odd amalgamation of characteristics, making her at once Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett and Elinor Dashwood!) It's a very strange feeling to have the characters alter as they do, here.

As its own novel (though there is a bit too much allusion for my taste) it stands pretty well. And though it bears the characters and even quotations of Jane Austen, it heavily relies on Charlotte Brontë's mood, structure, and even certain particular characters themselves. The end result, however, is not disappointing in the least. It's a pretty quick read, in part due to the inherent mystery of which character takes on which identity in the crosshairs of Ms. Shepherd's and Jane Austen's understanding.

Most interesting is Ms. Shepherd's take on Fanny Price. She sets the story up for us, almost in the reverse of the original characters' fortunes. Fanny's mother marries the best out of all the three sisters, instead of shaming her family by marrying an eventually-destitute sea captain. Fanny is an only child (instead of being the eldest girl out of 7 children...or 18 kids, whatever it was) who upon her parents' and grandparents' untimely demise (didn't happen in the original), is now an heiress, needing to be raised by her only living relatives, the Bertrams (and Mrs. Norris, of course).

Instead of being tossed about like a servant waif, she is exalted, afforded 2 ladies maids, given the best of everything, and - most importantly - put up with...desired, even. Ms. Shepherd's take on this new personality is haughty and really a mix of Maria Bertram, Emma Woodhouse and Caroline Bingley - not an attractive a very young Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but a picture, nonetheless, that allows us to buy into Ms. Shepherd's version of the plot.

I really enjoyed it. If only Jane Austen's Fanny Price had been more like Ms. Shepherd's version of Mary Crawford, perhaps then she would not be so ill-appreciated. Ah, well. Enjoy.


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