Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Janespotting: Mrs. Rushworth by Victor Gordon

I nosed around for information about the author of this week's featured Austen continuation, Victor Gordon, but I couldn't find much at all. He was published in Britain and had a few books on food published. (I wouldn't advise googling his 1989 title, Prawnography, looking for more information.) In 1989 he also published the novel Mrs. Rushworth, a continuation of Mansfield Park. From the title, it's obvious he's exploring the story of Fanny's cousin Maria, who notoriously married for money and then ran away with Henry Crawford, who deserted her.

The novel opens almost immediately after the end of MP, with Maria and her devoted Aunt Norris reading the announcement of Fanny and Edmund's marriage. The two have been traveling nonstop, trying to avoid Maria's notoriety, and finally decide to settle in Leamington Spa for a while. They seem to find their niche, until they discover the existence of a novel called Mansfield Park at their local library. Mrs. Norris tries to buy all the copies, but some get out, and when a local baron's son tries to take advantage of Maria, she decides that the only way to escape her reputation is to travel to America. She heads to Liverpool to book passage, and along the way aids a woman of shadowy background give birth. The experience moves her strangely, and gives her the courage to stand up to Mrs. Norris when she tries to derail the American trip, and then Maria's budding romance with Charles Cheviot, a gentleman of hidden musical and theatrical talents. When Mrs. Norris tries to prevent them traveling on the same ship to America, Maria gives her the slip and she and Charles end up getting married.

After a happy and successful seven years in America, during which Maria bears two children, the family returns to England, settling in Liverpool, where Charles has a nominal job that allows him to spent time writing music. Maria encourages him in his efforts to write an opera, and they become respectable members of the city establishment, even after Maria's father dies and the annual support he had provided her is withdrawn. (This is shown in a very clever scene that echoes the beginning of Sense and Sensibility.) They befriend Maria's cousin (and Fanny's brother) William Price; they forgive him for being the venue through which Jane Austen learned Maria's story (he mentioned it to Austen's brother, also a naval officer) and host a ball in his honor. They also spend a lot of money mounting a production of Charles's opera, which is marred by public misbehavior but ends with Charles being offered a chance to join an opera company in London as an apprentice. Maria encourages him to take the position, but the pay is too low to support the family. Instead he devotes time to his real job, which has him managing the affairs of a widow who has inherited a mill.

The job takes him away from Maria, who typically lets her imagination run away with her regarding Charles and the widow. When William Price visits after losing an eye fighting for his country, she doesn't prevent a session of "cousinly comfort" bestowing a "hero's reward" in her bed. When this single night ends in a pregnancy, Maria can't prevent Charles from discovering the truth, and although she declares her steadfast love, he finds it hard to forgive her. While there was a possibility for reconciliation, she storms off in a melodramatic huff and becomes an actress. By the time she tries to come back, Charles has already started divorce proceedings, and eventually ends up with the mill widow, who by chance is the young woman whom Maria aided in giving birth all those years ago. Maria's child is adopted by Tom and Susan (Susan Price having married Tom Bertram in this novel as well), and Maria herself returns to America to become an actress.

Maria was one of the more unpleasant characters in Austen's original novel, and here in this novel she is just as flawed. However, we are given more of her interior life and at times she becomes a somewhat sympathetic character. Mrs. Rushworth gives us an almost picaresque journey which is always interesting to read. She comes close to redeeming her flaws, but not quite, and the way the author weaves in Austen and all her novels was very entertaining. So while the book wasn't very Austenish in tone (too much naughtiness going on), it made very good (and fairly consistent) use of her characters and told an entertaining tale. All in all, it was a much better read than I would have expected from someone better known for writing about food.

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