Murder at Mansfield Park: A Novelby Lynn Shepherd
"Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park." --Lionel Trilling
In this ingenious new twist on Mansfield Park, the famously meek Fanny Price--whom Jane Austen's own mother called "insipid"--has been utterly transformed; she is now a rich heiress who is spoiled, condescending,/i>/i>… See more details below
"Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park." --Lionel Trilling
In this ingenious new twist on Mansfield Park, the famously meek Fanny Price--whom Jane Austen's own mother called "insipid"--has been utterly transformed; she is now a rich heiress who is spoiled, condescending, and generally hated throughout the county. Mary Crawford, on the other hand, is now as good as Fanny is bad, and suffers great indignities at the hands of her vindictive neighbor. It's only after Fanny is murdered on the grounds of Mansfield Park that Mary comes into her own, teaming-up with a thief-taker from London to solve the crime.
Featuring genuine Austen characters--the same characters, and the same episodes, but each with a new twist--MURDER AT MANSFIELD PARK is a brilliantly entertaining novel that offers Jane Austen fans an engaging new heroine and story to read again and again.
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Murder at Mansfield Park
By Lynn Shepherd
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Lynn Shepherd
All rights reserved.
About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation, and her father hoped that the eldest daughter's match would set matters in a fair train for the younger. But, though she possessed no less a fortune, Miss Julia's features were rather plain than handsome, and in consequence the neighbourhood was united in its conviction that there would not be such another great match to distinguish the Ward family.
Unhappily for the neighbourhood, Miss Julia was fated to confound their dearest expectations, and to emulate her sister's good luck, by captivating a gentleman of both wealth and consequence, albeit a widower. Within a twelvemonth after Miss Ward's nuptials her younger sister began upon a career of conjugal felicity with a Mr Norris, his considerable fortune, and young son, in the village immediately neighbouring Mansfield Park. Miss Frances fared yet better. A chance encounter at a Northampton ball threw her in the path of a Mr Price, the only son of a great Cumberland family, with a large estate at Lessingby Hall. Miss Frances was lively and beautiful, and the young man being both romantic and imprudent, a marriage took place to the infinite mortification of his father and mother, who possessed a sense of their family's pride and consequence, which equalled, if not exceeded, even their prodigious fortune. It was as unsuitable a connection as such hasty marriages usually are, and did not produce much happiness. Having married beneath him, Mr Price felt justly entitled to excessive gratitude and unequalled devotion in his wife, but he soon discovered that the young woman he had loved for her spirit, as much as her beauty, had neither the gentle temper nor submissive disposition he and his family considered his due.
Older sages might easily have foreseen the natural sequel of such an inauspicious beginning, and despite the fine house, jewels and carriages that her husband's position afforded, it was not long before Miss Frances, for her part, perceived that the Prices could not but hold her cheap, on account of her lowly birth. The consequence of this, upon a mind so young and inexperienced, was but too inevitable. Her spirits were depressed, and though her family were not consumptive, her health was delicate, and the rigours of the Cumberland climate, severely aggravated by a difficult lying-in, left young Mr Price a widower within a year of his marriage. He had not been happy with his wife, but that did not prevent him being quite overcome with misery and regret when she was with him no more, and the late vexations of their life together were softened by her suffering and death. His little daughter could not console him; she was a pretty child, with her mother's light hair and blue eyes, but the resemblance served only to heighten his sense of anguish and remorse. It was a wretched time, but even as they consoled their son in his affliction, Mr and Mrs Price could only congratulate themselves privately that a marriage contracted under such unfortunate circumstances had not resulted in a more enduring unhappiness. Having consulted a number of eminent physicians, the anxious parents soon determined that the young man would be materially better for a change of air and situation, and the family having an extensive property at the West Indies, it was soon decided between them that his wounded heart might best find consolation in the novelty, exertion, and excitement of a sea voyage. Some heart-ache the widower-father may be supposed to have felt on leaving his daughter, but he took comfort in the fact that his little Fanny would have every comfort and attention in his father's house. He left England with the probability of being at least a twelvemonth absent.
And what of Mansfield at this time? Lady Bertram had delighted her husband with an heir, soon after Miss Frances' marriage, and this joyful event was duly followed by the birth of a daughter, some few months younger than her little cousin in Cumberland. One might have imagined Mrs Price to have enjoyed a regular and intimate intercourse with her sisters at Mansfield during this interesting period, but her husband's family had done all in their power to discourage any thing more than common civility, and despite Mrs Norris's sanguine expectations of being 'every year at Lessingby', and being introduced to a host of great personages, no such invitation was ever forthcoming. Mrs Price's sudden death led to an even greater distance between the families, and when news finally reached Mansfield that young Mr Price had fallen victim to a nervous seizure on his journey back to England — intelligence his parents had not seen fit to impart themselves — Mrs Norris could not be satisfied without writing to the Prices, and giving vent to all the anger and resentment that she had pent up in her own mind since her sister's marriage. Had Sir Thomas known of her intentions, an absolute rupture might have been prevented, but as it was the Prices felt fully justified in putting an end to all communication between the families for a considerable interval.
One can only imagine the mortifying sensations that Sir Thomas must have endured at such a time, but all private feelings were soon swallowed up by a more public grief. Mr Norris, long troubled by an indifferent state of health, brought on apoplexy and death by drinking a whole bottle of claret in the course of a single evening. There were some who said that a long-standing habit of self-indulgence had lately grown much worse from his having to endure daily harangues from his wife at her ill-treatment by the Prices, but whatever the truth of this, it is certain that no such rumour ever came to Mrs Norris's ear. She, for her part, was left only with a large income and a spacious house, and consoled herself for the loss of her husband by considering that she could do very well without him, and for the loss of an invalid to nurse by the acquisition of a son to bring up.
At Mansfield Park a son and a daughter successively entered the world, and as the years passed, Sir Thomas contrived to maintain a regular if unfrequent correspondence with his brother-in-law, Mr Price, in which he learned of little Fanny's progress with much complacency. But when the girl was a few months short of her twelfth birthday, Sir Thomas, in place of his usual communication from Cumberland, received instead a letter in a lawyer's hand, conveying the sorrowful information that Mr and Mrs Price had both succumbed to a putrid fever, and in the next sentence, beseeching Sir Thomas, as the child's uncle, and only relation, to take the whole charge of her. Sir Thomas was a man of honour and principle, and not insensible to the claims of duty and the ties of blood, but such an undertaking was not to be lightly engaged in; not, at least, without consulting his wife. Lady Bertram was a woman of very tranquil feelings, guided in every thing important by Sir Thomas, and in smaller day-to-day concerns by her sister. Knowing as he did Mrs Norris's generous concern for the wants of others, Sir Thomas elected to bring the subject forward as they were sitting together at the tea-table, where Mrs Norris was presiding. He gave the ladies the particulars of the letter in his usual measured and dignified manner, concluding with the observation that 'after due consideration, and examining this distressing circumstance in all its particulars, I firmly believe that I have no other alternative but to accede to this lawyer's request and bring Fanny to live with us here, at Mansfield Park. I hope, my dear, that you will also see it in the same judicious light.'
Lady Bertram agreed with him instantly. 'I think we cannot do better,' said she. 'Let us send for her at once. Is she not my niece, and poor Frances' orphan child?'
As for Mrs Norris, she had not a word to say. She saw decision in Sir Thomas's looks, and her surprise and vexation required some moments' silence to be settled into composure. Instead of seeing her first, and beseeching her to try what her influence might do, Sir Thomas had shewn a very reasonable dependence on the nerves of his wife, and introduced the subject with no more ceremony than he might have announced such common and indifferent news as their country neighbourhood usually furnished. Mrs Norris felt herself defrauded of an office, but there was comfort, however, soon at hand. A second and most interesting reflection suddenly occurring to her, she resumed the conversation with renewed animation as soon as the tea-things had been removed.
'My dear Sir Thomas,' she began, with a voice as well regulated as she could manage, 'considering what excellent prospects the young lady has, and supposing her to possess even one hundredth part of the sweet temper of your own dear girls, would it not be a fine thing for us all if she were to develop a fondness for my Edmund? After all, he will in time inherit poor Mr Norris's property, and she will have her grandfather's estate, an estate which can only improve further under your prudent management. It is the very thing of all others to be wished.'
'There is some truth in what you say,' replied Sir Thomas, after some deliberation, 'and should such a situation arise, no-one, I am sure, would be more contented than myself. But whatever its merits, I would not wish to impose such a union upon any young person in my care. Every thing shall take its course. All the young people will be much thrown together. There is no saying what it may lead to.'
Mrs Norris was content, and every thing was considered as settled. Sir Thomas made arrangements for Mr Price's lawyer to accompany the girl on the long journey to Northampton-shire, and three weeks later she was delivered safely into her uncle's charge.
Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram received her very kindly, and Mrs Norris was all delight and volubility and made her sit on the sopha with herself. Their visitor took care to shew an appropriate gratitude, as well as an engaging submissiveness and humility. Sir Thomas, believing her quite overcome, decided that she needed encouragement, and tried to be all that was conciliating, little thinking that, in consequence of having been, for some years past, Mrs Price's constant companion and protégée, she was too much used to the company and praise of a wide circle of fine ladies and gentlemen to have any thing like a natural shyness. Finding nothing in Fanny's person to counteract her advantages of fortune and connections, Mrs Norris's efforts to become acquainted with her exhibited all the warmth of an interested party. She thought with even greater satisfaction of Sir Thomas's benevolent plan; and pretty soon decided that her niece, so long lost sight of, was blessed with talents and acquirements in no common degree. And Mrs Norris was not the only inmate of Mansfield to partake of this generous opinion. Fanny herself was perfectly conscious of her own pre-eminence, and found her cousins so ignorant of many things with which she had been long familiar, that she thought them prodigiously stupid, and although she was careful to utter nothing but praise before her uncle and aunt Bertram, she always found a most encouraging listener in Mrs Norris.
'My dear Fanny,' her aunt would reply, 'you must not expect every body to be as forward and quick at learning as yourself. You must make allowance for your cousins, and pity their deficiency. Nor is it at all necessary that they should be as accomplished as you are; on the contrary, it is much more desirable that there should be a difference. You, after all, are an heiress. And remember that, if you are ever so forward and clever yourself, you should always be modest. That is by far the most becoming demeanour for a superior young lady.'
As Fanny grew tall and womanly, and Sir Thomas made his yearly visit to Cumberland to receive the accounts, and superintend the management of the estate, Mrs Norris did not forget to think of the match she had projected when her niece's coming to Mansfield was first proposed, and became most zealous in promoting it, by every suggestion and contrivance likely to enhance its desirableness to either party. Once Edmund was of age Mrs Norris saw no necessity to make any other attempt at secrecy, than talking of it every where as a matter not to be talked of at present. If Sir Thomas saw any thing of this, he did nothing to contradict it. Without enquiring into their feelings, the complaisance of the young people seemed to justify Mrs Norris's opinion, and Sir Thomas was satisfied; too glad to be satisfied, perhaps, to urge the matter quite so far as his judgment might have dictated to others. He could only be happy in the prospect of an alliance so unquestionably advantageous, a connection exactly of the right sort, and one which would retain Fanny's fortune within the family, when it might have been bestowed elsewhere. Sir Thomas knew that his own daughters would not have a quarter as much as Fanny, but trusted that the brilliance of countenance that they had inherited from one parent, would more than compensate for any slight deficiency in what they were to receive from the other.
The first event of any importance in the family happened in the year that Miss Price was to come of age. Her elder cousin Maria had just entered her twentieth year, and Julia was some six years younger. Tom Bertram, at twenty-one, was just entering into life, full of spirits, and with all the liberal dispositions of an eldest son, but a material change was to occur at Mansfield, with the departure of his younger brother, William, to take up his duties as a midshipman on board His Majesty's Ship the Perseverance. With his open, amiable disposition, and easy, unaffected manners William could not but be missed, and the family was prepared to find a great chasm in their society, and to miss him decidedly. A prospect that had once seemed a long way off was soon upon them, and the last few days were taken up with the necessary preparations for his removal; business followed business, and the days were hardly long enough for all the agitating cares and busy little particulars attending this momentous event.
The last breakfast was soon over; the last kiss was given, and William was gone. After seeing her brother to the final moment, Maria walked back to the breakfast-room with a saddened heart to comfort her mother and Julia, who were sitting crying over William's deserted chair and empty plate. Lady Bertram was feeling as an anxious mother must feel, but Julia was giving herself up to all the excessive affliction of a young and ardent heart that had never yet been acquainted with the grief of parting. Even though some two years older than herself, William had been her constant companion in every childhood pleasure, her friend in every youthful distress. However her sister might reason with her, Julia could not be brought to consider the separation as any thing other than permanent.
'Dear, dear William!' she sobbed. 'Who knows if I will ever behold you again! Those delightful hours we have spent together, opening our hearts to one another and sharing all our hopes and plans! Those sweet summers when every succeeding morrow renewed our delightful converse! How endless they once seemed but how quickly they have passed! And now I fear they will never come again! Even if you do return, it will not be the same — you will have new cares, and new pleasures, and little thought for the sister you left behind!'
Maria hastened to assure her that such precious memories of their earliest attachment would surely never be entirely forgotten, and that William had such a warm heart that time and absence must only increase their mutual affection, but Julia was not to be consoled, and all her sister's soothings proved ineffectual.
'We shall miss William at Mansfield,' was Sir Thomas's observation when he joined them with Mrs Norris in the breakfast-room, but noticing his younger daughter's distress, and knowing that in general her sorrows, like her joys, were as immoderate as they were momentary, decided it was best to say no more and presently turned the subject. 'Where are Tom and Fanny?'
'Fanny is playing the piano-forte, and Tom has just set off for Sotherton to call on Mr Rushworth,' replied Maria.
Excerpted from Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd. Copyright © 2010 Lynn Shepherd. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
LYNN SHEPHERD, who received a doctorate in English literature from Oxford University, lives in London. She first had the idea of writing "an authentic Austen murder" nearly ten years ago. Contact her on the web at lynn-shepherd.com.
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