Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Janespotting: Version and Diversion by Judith Terry

This is the last of the Mansfield Park sequels I could lay my hands on, and I was intrigued because it was written by a professor of English who seems to have more than a passing knowledge of Austen; at least, she has had articles published in the journal of JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America). And the premise looked interesting: a "below-stairs" portrayal of Mansfield Park, told by a ladies' maid who serves the Bertam sisters.

Our narrator introduces the story as her own personal history, writing in the present as the "new wife of a squire," someone in a privileged position in society. Her name is Jane Hartwell, and she relates her humble origins as the granddaughter of the gardener at Sotherton, home of the Rushworths. She is quick-witted and acquires skills that make her suited for a combination of general maid and ladies' maid to Julia Bertram—an economy suggested by Mrs. Norris—and the first half of the novel relates many of the events of Austen's novel, but from the servants' perspective. We see that Julia isn't so bad except when under Maria's influence (interesting, that none of the sequels paints her as misunderstood); Tom is a randy scalawag who blames servants for his own shortcomings; Fanny is insipid and unable to stand up for herself; and Henry Crawford is still a flirt, but one who is honest and forthright and charms the pants off Jane.

When Tom Bertram discovers their affair, he has Jane fired; she decides to go to London to make her fortune as an actress. While playing a small role during the Mansfield production of Lovers' Vows, not only was she praised by Crawford but by the talented scenery painter Matthew Quinney, who had London experience. Jane runs away with Quinney, who is also a bit of an agitator for working class rights. The second half of the novel becomes her picaresque journey, as she escapes a posse hunting Quinney only to be captured by a gang of thieves who commit unspeakable acts upon her person. Eventually, however, she is taken in by a kindly former co-worker, given work at Covent Garden, and through talent and hard work becomes a leading lady at the theatre.

This success brings her into the orbit of the Bertrams and Crawfords once again; her refusal of Henry's proposal drives him into the arms of Maria, and scandal ensues. When Rushworth challenges Henry to a duel, Julia asks Jane to try and intervene; instead, her appearance inflames Maria so much that she takes one of the dueling guns and tries to shoot Jane. (Poor Maria; every author's villain.) Jane survives, of course, to finish her story of her successful career and marrying well. It's left in doubt until the very end whether the wealthy gentleman in question is Henry Crawford or not; I won't spoil it here, because this was a very entertaining novel and you might like to read it yourself. It had good pacing, re-use of Austen's original characters, and interesting details regarding class conflicts of the age. It may have made Fanny and Edward minor characters in their own story, but it was all the more entertaining because of it.

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