Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Janespotting: Mansfield Revisited by Joan Aiken

The late British author Joan Aiken had several Austen sequels among her 100-plus books; you may recall I reviewed her sequel to Sense and Sensibility last spring. I enjoyed that book, but it felt more Dickensian than Austenish, so I wasn't sure what to expect with Mansfield Revisited, originally published in 1984. What I found was a true sequel, one that picks up not long after the end of MP and continues the story with many of the same characters.

At the end of Austen's novel, when Fanny returns to the Park after three months in her family's noisy Portsmouth home, she brings along her younger sister Susan, who is fourteen and shows the most signs of being open to improvement. Aiken's novel begins four years later, when Susan is eighteen and has taken Fanny's place as Aunt Bertram's favorite companion. Sir Thomas Bertram has just passed away, and even though it is really the place of eldest son and heir Tom to handle matters, it is Edmund who travels to Antigua to handle the family's business interests, taking Fanny and their youngest child with them. Tom is more circumspect after the fever that nearly killed him in MP, but Susan still considers dealing with him challenging; when she first arrived he teased her and called her "Miss Bones."

The novel, which is a quick read at under 200 pages, parallels the plot of the original fairly closely: we have a put-upon Miss Price; a new rector come to serve the parish (in Edmund's place); and soon, a visit from Mary Crawford, who has sent news that the she is very ill and has let a local cottage, intending to spend her last days among memories of happier times. Mrs. Julia Yates (formerly Bertram) is also a frequent visitor to the Park, taking Mrs. Norris's place as chief critic of the visiting Price girl and trying to arrange a match between her brother and her simpering idiot of sister-in-law, Miss Yates. Tom has other plans involving the pretty and bubbly Miss Harley, but they take second place to his plans for hunting season.

Things come to a head when two further visitors appear: William Price, who ends up poaching the lovely Miss Harley, and Henry Crawford, come to visit his sister during her last days. Susan finds herself attracted to both of the Crawfords: Mary for her lively wit and kind heart, and Henry for his intelligence and kindness. Both have manners much chastened by experience and the prospect of Mary's mortality, and neighbors hint that the scandal involving the former Maria Bertram was mainly generated by Maria's vengeful behavior. When Tom is forced to stay at the Crawfords' to recuperate from a broken arm, relations between the two families are mended. Tom even falls a little in love with Mary Crawford. On her deathbed, she encourages Susan to make a match with Henry, but when Tom asks Henry his intentions, Susan—who has ten times more fire and independence than her sister Fanny ever did—overhears and objects to them both treating her like she has no say in the matter.

Tom later apologizes and suggest that he should marry Susan instead, because she's been such a brilliant manager of the house. Susan rejects the idea flat out; she will only marry for love, and although it turns out that she's actually in love with Tom, she won't marry him if he doesn't feel the same way. A judicious comment from a trusted friend leads her to discover Tom has more than housekeeping behind his proposal, and the novel concludes with another wedding between a Miss Price and a Mr. Bertram. Since this Miss Price is a much more spirited character, however, and we actually get to see the final declarations of Tom and Susan, the denouement is actually much more interesting than in the Austen original.

So while this sequel was pretty derivative as far as the plot, it made great use of the existing characters (and a few new ones) and was a fun read overall. A big thumbs up to this sequel, but it makes me all the more curious to see what Aiken has in store for her MP prequel.

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