Mansfield Park-inspired books, particularly ones set in the period, appear to be pretty few and far between. I first became aware of this book when looking for books connected to Mansfield Park as a bit of a personal celebration of the bicentenary of it first being published.
Mansfield Revisited is a sequel to Mansfield Park, set 4 years later. There have been a few changes to the family in this interval - Fanny and Edmund are happily married and proud parents to two children, Susan Price has been living at Mansfield, filling Fanny’s place as helper and general factotum to Lady Bertram. Julia (now Mrs Yates) persuaded her husband to buy a properly close to Mansfield Park and she is to be found visiting her mother on most days. Tom is still a bit unsteady, but he is no longer gambling or drinking to excess.
The story opens with news of the death of Sir Thomas, who was visiting his Antiguan property. Somebody will have to go to sort out business affairs there, and Lady Bertram is loath to part from the new Sir Tom, bearing in mind that 4 years previously he was extremely ill and took several months to recover full health. He also needs to learn the reins for his responsibilities at home, as Edmund has often done things that Tom should have been doing. Edmund is quite happy to go to Antigua, and in fact proposes that he, Fanny, and their younger child (who is only a few months old) should all go to Antigua. Thus, Edmund and Fanny are not present for nearly the whole of this book, which will please people who do not like the hero and heroine of MP!
Instead, Susan will take on responsibility for Fanny’s older child, in addition to running the household, exercising Pug, keeping Lady Bertram company, reading to her, and untangling her shawl fringe, netting, or whatever else she has managed to tangle. Susan is extremely grateful to her relatives for taking her in – being that bit older than Fanny was when she was removed from her family she sees all the advantages the move has brought her, and she is very attached to Fanny, who is her dearest friend as well as her sister. Susan is also more fully appreciated than Fanny was, and being less scared of her relatives allows her to be genuinely fond of them. Although Mansfield Park is now devoid of Mrs Norris the dynamic hasn’t changed that much, because Mrs Yates (Julia) has taken over the mantle of resenting the low-born interloper that is Miss Price. Mrs Yates isn’t quite as horrid as Mrs Norris, but she’s been cast in the same general mould and is quite blind to her own hypocrisy:
‘ I have often observed it; she chooses to go her own way without any of that decorum or propriety which you, ma’am and our dear aunt Norris were so careful to instil in Maria and me. ‘
This is coming from somebody who eloped! And of course, Maria ran off with her lover and was divorced so for either of them to be seen as models of propriety is laughable.
Happily, Lady Bertram is somewhat of a champion of Susan, in her own vacant, languid way:
‘Her ways suit me well enough – we go on very comfortably together, for she is an active, good-hearted girl, never too tired to untangle my work or take out Pug for an airing. And she has a fine, clearspeaking voice; I can hear it plainly when she reads to me, whereas you, Julia, always mumble, and so does Tom.'
Lady Bertram has some good speeches throughout this book, she doesn’t take much notice of anybody, isn’t bothered by much at all unless it impinges on her present comfort and she quite often is in complete disagreement with her daughter!
Susan is of a different temperament than Fanny – she isn’t meek, and she doesn’t take much of Mrs Yates’ criticism to heart. In fact, has had to learn to guard her temper, to prevent herself delivering sharp comebacks that would have been the norm in Portsmouth, but are not acceptable in this more refined society. She manages extremely well, but her Achilles heel in this respect is her cousin Tom, as they often contrive to rub each other up the wrong way:
‘He expected a more subservient and complaisant attitude from Susan than she was prepared to yield; indeed she was not prepared to yield to her cousin Tom at all, finding him in all respects, except for looks, greatly inferior to his brother.’
After Fanny and Edmund leave for Antigua, there are some new additions to the neighbourhood. One of Edmund’s friends, a Mr Wadham, has come to cover Edmund’s duties as parson, and he brings with him his widowed sister, Mrs Osborne. There is also a visitor who we’ve met before, Mary Crawford. Mary has married, but it was very unhappy and her husband has been committed to an asylum, so she asks people to call her by her maiden name. She is now gravely ill, and her brother has rented a cottage for her because she wanted to come to a place where she was happy – the environs of Mansfield Park. The opinion of readers is split on Mary – villainess or victim of her upbringing? Personally, I am quite fond of Mary, and I thought this author’s portrayal of her was wonderful, capturing Mary’s quickness and wit, how she noticed things, how she analysed characters, her humour:
‘How I can see Fanny in you; at first I did not detect the likeness; you are taller, more striking in looks and colour; but now I do. You are Fanny, but a more forceful Fanny. And, to tell truth, from what I recall of Lady Bertram, if you were occasionally to stamp and scream and throw her embroidery frame out of the window, you would quite retain my entire sympathy and give her no more than her desert.’
Mary may be ill, but she is determined to enjoy herself as much as possible, even possibly capturing a few more hearts and doing some good turns along the way. I was wrung with pity for her, it seemed so sad that somebody so alive should be wasting away:
‘I am as I was made. If, in my life, I have done harm through thoughtlessness, I trust that it was not so very bad, and that I am atoning for it now. For my part, I think that a little flirtation is far less of a sin than vindictiveness, or arrogance, or pride; and of those I have not been guilty.’
Talking of flirtation, what about Henry Crawford? Well, it has never been in doubt that he is a loving brother, and he is willing to bring his sister to an area where he must be decidedly unwelcome. An explanation is given for the situation between himself and Maria which exonerates him from much of the blame. Another old friend who makes a re-appearance is William Price. He was one of my favourite characters from Mansfield Park, being about the only person in that book who is entirely likeable – loving, hard working, thoughtful. He is less thoughtful of other’s feelings in this outing however, perhaps feeling all is fair in love and war, but it was nice to see William decisively taking opportunities when they fell to him.
Joan Aiken has tried to replicate Jane Austen’s style and I think she did a pretty good job of it – there were no glaring modern words jumping out and there was plenty of delicate humour sprinkled throughout the book. There were some aspects of the story that I didn’t feel were so likely; how readily Mary Crawford was welcomed back into Mansfield society and the behaviour of one particular character towards the end – I cannot tell you more for fear of spoilers! I also would have preferred a bit more romance, but I could say that about Mansfield Park itself! However, on the whole, I thought this was a believable account of what may have happened after Mansfield Park finished and it is certainly one of the best sequels to one of Austen’s works that I’ve read. If this book has been languishing on your 'To Be Read' list I’d recommend that you bump it up a bit higher and celebrate Mansfield Park’s bicentenary by reading this book!