Mansfield Park is arguably Jane Austen’s most challenging and least understood novel. Her heroine, Fanny Price, divides opinion even among Austen’s most avid fans. By many she is considered insipid and irritating, whereas others admire the strength of her moral conviction in the face of unrelenting pressure.
Lynn Shepherd argues that Mansfield Park is “unlike Jane Austen”, that, in fact, “there’s another novel in there – a novel Austen could have written and decided not to. A much lighter, sharper and more playful novel”. She therefore wondered what this “other alternative Mansfield Park might be like”. The end result is Murder at Mansfield Park which combines Shepherd’s interest in Jane Austen with her passion for literary mysteries. She says that she set herself “the challenge of combining an authentic-sounding narrative with a much more modern form of fiction – the murder mystery.”
The first half of Murder at Mansfield Park is a pastiche, with all of Austen’s cast of characters. They are, however, the oppposite of the originals. Fanny Price is no longer the poor, shy, trembling cousin of the Bertram’s of Mansfield park but rather a beautiful, heartless heiress who is “vain, insincere and possessed of a quite excessive degree of self-consequence”. Julia Bertram is the character with “the nervous disposition”. Mrs Norris has a step-son, Edmund, while Mr Rushworth is a “coxcomb…smooth and plausible”.
The story is told from the perspective of Mary Crawford who arrives at Mansfield Park with her brother Henry who has been employed by Sir Thomas to advise on improvements to the Mansfield estate. He has established a reputation as a “genius” in such matters.
However, Mary Crawford in Murder at Mansfield Park is a travesty of Austen’s original. Rather than the witty, sparkling character than Austen created, Shepherd’s Mary Crawford is more a cross between Lizzie Bennet and Elinor Dashwood. She is a true heroine; intelligent and dependable, with an independent spirit.
The first half of Murder at Mansfield Park depends on the reader’s knowledge of the original for it to succeed. Shepherd uses extracts from Austen’s letters extensively, as well as biographical information about Austen, within her narrative. For instance, Mary is described viciously by Fanny Price as “quite the vainest, most affected, husband hunting butterfly” an insult once directed at Austen herself. Its all a little contrived and Shepherd is not in the same lterary league as Austen.
The second half of the novel is quite different, as, with a brutal murder at Mansfield Park, Shepherd’s murder mystery takes off. She introduces her own character, Charles Maddox, a London thief-taker employed to uncover the murderer. Maddox is an attractive, impressive character who dominates the rest of the narrative. He has “a sense of latent energy, of formidable powers held in check, such as might command attention, and draw every eye, even in the most crowded of rooms”. Mary is attracted to him and repelled by him in equal measure. Their interaction creates some of the most sexually charged scenes in the novel.
The two halves of Murder at Mansfield Park do not sit easily with each other. Shepherd should have had the courage to realise that she had the imagination to write a convincing, successful historical murder mystery without having to emasculate one of Jane Austen’s novels.