It doesn’t happen very often that a TV drama erases any interest I have in a classic novel but ITV’s 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park did. Being a completist with ambitions of reading all of Jane Austen’s novels, of course, I thawed and last year listened to an unabridged audio. Well, what a surprise, the book was nowhere near as awful as I’d expected and in fact, I found the, by reputation, priggish Fanny Price quite likeable and sensible. I may have been in a strange state of mind at the time but nevertheless I’m afraid Lionel Trilling’s statement Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park did not hold true. It most certainly did though when I read Lynn Shepherd’s literary homage.
For ne’er did a more sharp-tongued, insulting and condescending shrew inhabit the pages of a literary mystery. Breathtaking in her badness and when Fanny Price à la Shepherd ends up dead, I defy any reader to shed a tear. Just desserts and all that. (Well, actually I can think of a more fitting punishment – someone should have married her to Heathcliffe. I know I’m mixing my Austens with my Brontes but if anyone deserves that kind of living hell, then it’s this madame.)
But I’m writing an alternative story here and that may suggest that Shepherd’s take isn’t satisfying. That’s not where I’m heading at all. For Shepherd has turned Austen’s original on its head while still retaining elements of the original. Fanny is filthy rich and evil with it. Mary Crawford is poor but morally good but not in a cloying goody-two-shoes way. Edmund’s still a bit of wet rag, when all’s said and done. Austenesque plot elements are retained (the conventions of polite society, the play, the ball, the match making, an elopement, the happy ending) but the curtain is opened on unsavoury realities when servants are allowed to speak of their masters. The murder mystery (and like all good crime novels, once there is one corpse, the body count keeps rising ….), the detective who’s not above bullying his way to the truth and the style, that could have been Austen’s own, add up to a playful mix of elements that makes this novel succeed where P D James’s Death Comes to Pemberley does not. Even if it takes a while to get going and the mystery is easily resolved, it’s a delight discovering which trick Shepherd is going to perform next. The cast from Mansfield Park were never so versatile and the characters from other Austen classics so generous with their cameo performances.
I don’t think you need to know Austen’s original to enjoy this but you’ll enjoy it all the more, if you do.