Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Janespotting: The Matters at Mansfield

I conclude my survey of Mansfield Park-related works with Carrie Bebris's fourth "Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mystery," a series that turns the married Elizabeth and Darcy into amateur sleuths who just happen to encounter (and solve) puzzling events within their social circle. I really enjoyed the third volume, North by Northanger—it not only made great use of characters from the novel, but avoided some of the mysticism I disliked about the first two installments—and hoped the fourth volume would be another step forward.

I'm glad to report that this was indeed the case. Not only did The Matters at Mansfield bring in some of the most interesting characters from MP—mainly Henry Crawford and Mrs. Norris—but it also continued developing some of the minor characters from Pride and Prejudice. We get another strong dose of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is as stubborn and interfering as ever. The book opens with the Darcys at a family function (the engagement ball of Darcy's cousin Earl Fitzwilliam, the Colonel's older brother), and Lady Catherine is busily planning an engagement for her daughter Anne. You'll remember from P&P that Anne is sickly and put-on; Elizabeth observes, however, that while Anne is still put-upon, she seems a little less sickly than at their last meeting, and even dances with her cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam while Elizabeth and Darcy distract Lady Catherine's attention away from her. At this ball they are also introduced to one Henry Crawford, who seems pleasant enough—although Anne won't dance with him, feeling her mother may return at any time. She is right to feel nervous; Lady Catherine is about to sign an agreement affiancing Anne to Neville Sennex, the son of a viscount whose reputation is that of a wastrel with a bad temper.

To everyone's surprise, Anne is found missing the next day, having run off to Scotland to elope with Crawford. She had a previous acquaintance with him, and sensing her mother's intent to match her with Sennex, decided to take action. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam follow quickly, but are too late to prevent the marriage and its consummation; they do convince the couple to return to England to face Lady Catherine and her lawyer. An accident injures Anne's leg and forces them to stop in the village of Mansfield, a place where Crawford is rather better known than he'd like. He gets unpleasant visits from both Mrs. Rushworths (the estranged Maria and her mother-in-law), and it looks as if he's going to settle the marriage with Lady Catherine's lawyer when a woman shows up looking for "John Garrick," points Crawford out as the man, and claims to be his wife.

This, of course, is utter disaster for Anne (emotionally) and Lady Catherine (socially), especially when Crawford splits town, threatened with gaol as a bigamist. He remains missing for a few days, until a body turns up on the grounds of Mansfield Park, with a gunshot to the head. Suicide? Murder? A duel? Darcy feels obligated to seek out the truth, even though the list of suspects could include someone in his own family and further complications make the puzzle even harder. The resolution is satisfying, both as a mystery—I figured it out just soon enough before the Darcys to feel clever—and as a romance, concluding with a wedding arranged for romantic, not financial, reasons.

I thought Bebris again made very good use of characters from Austen's novels, and I had no quibbles with her interpretations of this time. Henry Crawford, in particular, seemed very consistent with Austen's view of him; unlike his portrayal in some other sequels, he was both charming and thoughtless, much like the original. (So many of the sequels seem to give him a pass, putting all the blame for the affair on Maria Bertram.) So I give this installment another big thumbs up, and look forward to Bebris's take on Emma, which just came out this year. It's going to have to wait a while, though; "Janespotting" is going on hiatus for the summer, to give me a break from all the Austen sequels. While the last few summers I've turned to the classics for my remedial lit program, I'm going to go in a different direction this summer ... but you'll have to wait a couple weeks to find out more.

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