A Return to Mansfield Park

I felt I did not do full justice to Lynn Shepherd’s Murder at Mansfield Park the last time I wrote about it, and I resolved to go back and do something about that. I should have done so before now, but so many things have gotten in the way.

I wrote my comments at about midpoint in my first reading of the book, shortly before the murder is discovered. 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 that. 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 sense of puzzlement about what the author’s aim was — 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, sure, but still; I was a bit slow on the uptake. The only thing I can say in my defense was, 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 Wild Sargasso Sea constructs an alternate Jane Eyre? 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?

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 is what Lynn Shepherd did. The main lesson I took away from this book is 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 married 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)?

“Three Weissmanns of Westport” and “Murder at Mansfield Park”: On Austen Homage

To write any novel invoking the name or spirit of Jane Austen is to ask for trouble, by inviting unflattering comparisons with one of the greatest novelists of her age (or indeed of any age). Few can stand up to the comparison. The Jane Austen Book Club does. So, I am happy to report, does The Three Weissmanns of Westport, which  I started with apprehension and finished with steadily mounting delight.

The apprehension was at the notion of what Cathleen Schine had, according to the reviews, undertaken in this book: a modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility. How many ways are there to screw that up? Too many to count. But my delight grew as I kept reading, because there is a sense of joyful mystery in reading a novelist who is firing on all cylinders, writing at the height of her powers (actually, since this is the first book by Ms. Schine that I have read, I can’t really say that. Maybe her other books are even better, and I hope to determine that soon. The one about dogs looks especially promising. But it’s hard to imagine this particular book being any better than it was, and that is not something I think that often).

Why did it work so well? That was what I kept trying to figure out afterward, and it was kind of hard. Books that don’t work are often more instructive than those that do. With the successful ones, the seams don’t show. Also, novels that work seem to lull one into a happy stupor, putting the critical faculties to sleep, so later it is hard to be analytical.

First, it succeeds on a micro level because the writing, at the sentence and paragraph level, is good. By good, I mean, it does not draw attention itself by being either clumsy or excessively mannered.  The prose struck me initially as workmanlike, uncliched, a thing that is rarer than it should be. Then I began to gradually find the writing not just satisfactory, but actually rather lovely, though again in a nonshowy way. Also, funny. The humor sneaks up on the reader, not unlike Jane Austen’s in that that respect, though the jokes are quite different.

The book succeeds on more macro levels, too. The plot works because the author is not afraid to have nothing in particular happen for rather long periods of time; again, the mark of a writer who knows what she’s doing, who recognizes that plot is not just the piling on of incidents, but the reflection on what those incidents mean, the accretion of time changing the characters’ understanding of what is going on.  The plot, one might object, is stolen from Jane Austen; but that is not strictly true. What is so delightful about The Three Weissmans is how the author uses the skeleton of Sense and Sensibility but adapts it to her own story’s needs. The characters and situations are recognizable and yet transfigured — cleverly, but never simply to show off the author’s cleverness. They resonate with the spirit of Jane Austen, but they also offer a witty commentary on contemporary life. It is almost as if Sense and Sensibility and The Three Weissmans are nodding to each other across the chasm of the 200 years and the wide ocean that separates them: with understanding and compassion, but also with a smile. Because what it is, first and last, is funny.

Now I am reading Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd. I wanted to like this, but I am finding it hard going. 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 me 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 son and heir 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. Everyone expects he and his cousin Fanny to marry and keep the wealth in the family. Maria Betram is rather like herself, and so is Tom Betram. Mr. Rushworth is still rich but no longer stupid.

I fancy I know Mansfield Park as well as the next person, having reread it only two months ago, but I find myself getting confused between the elements that overlap and those that don’t. In the first half of the book (as much as I’ve read so far) many of the same scenes and elements crop up — the trip to Sotherton, Lover’s Vows, the necklace, the ball, the game of Speculation, Sir Thomas Betram’s departure (he merely goes to Yorkshire, not Antigua), the departure of a beloved brother to sea (it’s Julia who pines for him, not Fanny).

Incident rapidly succeeds incident, but I can’t seem to answer the essential questions. Why has the author changed some things so utterly and left others the same? Where is she going with this? In theory it ought to be funny and ironic, winkingly postmodern, but for some reason I am not laughing. I think I am working too hard on figuring out what I am supposed to be paying attention to. It is undoubtedly a sincere homage. But why isn’t it working for me?