Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd

I have such mixed feelings about this novel. On the one hand, it is an extremely compelling murder mystery, full of suspense and romance, that held me hooked from the beginning (well, chapter two) until the end. On the other hand, it turns Mary Crawford into the heroine while villainizing Fanny Price, a dynamic that makes me want to scream with frustration.

Those of you who clicked on my profile of Fanny Price last week (read it here), already know perfectly well how I feel about misrepresentations of this most maligned of Austen's heroines. I HATE it when people alter her character, especially when Mary Crawford is proffered up as a heroine in her place. Just because Mary has a witty tongue, in the style of Elizabeth Bennet, does not make her the latter's equal. Mary is a mercenary, misguided young woman, willing to act as an accessory in her brother's selfish plan to ensnare Fanny's affections and celebrate the death of Tom Bertram. She is awful, and I cannot understand why so many writers sympathize with her conniving ways. This is why I have such difficulty with Murder at Mansfield Park.

In this novel, Lynn Shepherd fundamentally changes the dynamics of society at Mansfield Park. Fanny is still the adopted niece, but here she is both orphaned and the heiress to a staggeringly large fortune. The Bertram's still have four children, but Edmund (now Mrs. Norris' son) has been replaced by William (as in William Price), and Julia is a younger woman, much in the style of Marianne Dashwood. The Crawfords, on the other hand, have diminished resources in this reimagining. While Henry still holds property (his estate at Everingham is altered into a small house in Enfield), he must work as an improver to supplement his income, and Mary has "less than two thousand pounds" (which, in this universe, is apparently enough to drive her into the working class). As something of a purist, after reading the first chapter of the book, I abandoned it for several weeks in a fit of extreme frustration. When I finally chose to return to it, it was with a great degree of skepticism. This is why I am still astounded that I actually ended up enjoying the story.

My dislike of the Crawfords aside, Mary is portrayed by Ms. Shepherd in an incredibly sympathetic manner. She is smart, brave, observant, and kind, and it is these qualities that allow her to attract the attention of not only Edmund Bertram, but also Mr. Maddox, the investigator brought in to solve the murder referred to in the title. I do not want to give anything away, but I will say that I was disappointing with the man Mary ends up with in the end. The culprit, on the other hand, I found to be a pleasant surprise, and perhaps the characterization most in keeping with Austen's original story. Remarkably, despite the massive changes in plot, the structure of the novel (or at least the first half) remains in tact. Sir Thomas travels, leaving his family unattended by his careful supervision, there is an unhappy trip to Sotherland, and a failed production of Lovers' Vows. Furthermore, Ms. Shepherd's prose are very well-written, and the story's plot highly compelling. All in all, I would say that any person long dissatisfied with Mansfield Park will find much to enjoy in this retelling. Lovers of the novel, however, will probably find it difficult to get beyond the distortion imposed on Austen's characters, as I did. To this latter group, I recommend setting aside loyalties and angry passions in order to just enjoy the ride. It might be a bit of a struggle, but this story is worth the effort.


  1. Thank you for persevering Alexa - I understand where you're coming from on the Fanny Price debate, but I'm delighted you liked 'my' Mary.
    I really wanted people to enjoy the mystery story, and I'm always thrilled when people praise the quality of the prose.

    Only one small point - Henry doesn't have Everingham in my version - just a small house in Enfield!

  2. Hi Lynn! Thanks for the correction (this is what happens when I wait to write reviews). I had a difficult time writing this post, and hope I succeeded in representing the strengths of your novel while being honest about my own very partial and prejudiced feelings about these characters. As you well know, most readers agree with the Trilling quotation on the back cover of the book, but it is my hope that those who do not will read the book anyway, and maybe this review will help convince them. This is the only representation of Mary Crawford I have ever liked, and I'm very glad that you seem to realize what an accomplishment that it. Thanks so much for stopping by, and if you are ever interested in debating this Mary vs. Fanny issue, I would be thrilled to do a post about it! My emails is at the bottom of the page, should you wish to pursue the notion.

    All the best,


  3. I just loved reading this murder mystery for the exact reasons why you parlty hated it. I can understand that for someone loving Fanny Price as you do, it mustn't have been easy to get to the end! But, honestly, you recognized and it is impossible to deny it- that Lynn Shepherd did an excellent job. "Ms. Shepherd's prose are very well-written, and the story's plot highly compelling£, in your own words. This book is one of the best Austen-based novels I've recently read. We differ a bit on our evaluation of what we like in this work, but we Janeites are good at being honest and tolerant. I appreciated your review Alexa. Really. Hugs. MG

  4. Hi Maria! This comment includes something of a spoiler - just a warning to anyone other than you, amica mia, who might be reading this. I hope the review doesn't make it sound like I hated the book - I really liked it. I just hate Mary Crawford and adore Fanny Price, making it difficult to accept the premise of the story. Once I got beyond that, my only real complaint is that I really liked Maddox (doesn't hurt that Edmund is my least favorite Austen hero). Yes, we Janeites are honest and tolerant, but we are also passionate and prejudiced, especially in regards to our beloved characters. I do hope this review helps encourage those, like me, who are constantly on the defense about Mansfield Park, to give this book a chance anyway. Like I said, it's definitely worth it!

    Thanks for providing the opposite perspective. Hugs back to you!

  5. On the other hand, it turns Mary Crawford into the heroine while villainizing Fanny Price, a dynamic that makes me want to scream with frustration.

    That alone would make me rush out to buy the book.

  6. You are not alone, Juanita! We Fanny defenders are definitely in the minority.