The cover of Murder at Mansfield Park quotes the literary critic Lionel Trilling: “Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park.” Apparently, Shepherd shares his views.
That heroine, of course, is Fanny Price, and I have to admit I do like her in the original novel, even though she is not my favorite Austen heroine. Shepherd had to jump through some hoops in her recasting of Fanny, however, to get her to be really unlikable.
In Shepherd’s novel, instead of Fanny Price being the despised, impoverished orphan living with wealthier relatives, Shepherd transforms her into a spoiled heiress, whom the Bertrams and the dreadful Mrs. Norris treat better than their own children. Fanny’s marriage with her cousin Edmund Norris has long been planned, at least by Mrs. Norris.
Mary Crawford in the original novel was the worldly socialite whose lax views eventually shocked Edmund into dropping her, but in Murder at Mansfield Park, she is the heroine. Her brother has been hired to redesign the grounds of Mansfield Park. In this novel, she has switched positions with Fanny Price in that she and her brother have little money, and Mrs. Norris treats them with disdain.
Fanny shows little desire to wed the introverted Edmund and finds entertainment in filching suitors from her cousin Maria Bertram and being nasty to everyone. I would not usually give away an event that occurs well into the novel, but the blurb makes no secret that Fanny is eventually found murdered after going missing for some weeks. Suspects abound. Charles Maddox, Shepherd’s sleuth, arrives to solve the crime.
I don’t think I enjoyed this reimagining of Austen’s novel as much as I have some of Shepherd’s others, even though she is amazingly adept at recreating Austen’s writing style. I think my reaction is because she probably could have achieved a similar effect, more subtly, without changing so many aspects of the original story.
I don’t mean to imply, however, that I didn’t enjoy the novel. Shepherd has made a very interesting career for herself by putting a dark spin on classic novels, and it is always entertaining to read her. She is a wonderful writer, and she gets the period details and style of dialogue correct. I think my favorite of hers, however, is still her chilling rewrite of Bleak House.