Kyra Cornelius Kramer and I have been Facebook friends for a long time. When she relocated to Wales about a year ago, I started following her adventures via an email subscription to her blog. She’s not only made me homesick for Wales (one of my very favorite places), but I’ve learned a lot of history, too.
I write both serious academic essays for peer-reviewed journals and books aimed at popular cultural enjoyment. Granted, sometimes pedantic asides appear in my lighter works, but I cannot always control the scholarly impulse. It overcomes me. The best I can do is convert it into snark so it doesn’t look overtly sententious. I become … Stuffy the Satire Layer.
One of the things that gets my nose seriously out of joint in the academic world is when some literary scholars (predominately male) try to disavow that Jane Austen is a romance author. She is, according to them, a writer of satirical comedy. No mere romance novel could be canon, you see. She is much too good a prose artist to have written mere romance novels!
To embrace Regency slang, what complete taradiddle.
Jane Austen wrote romances novels. They were, as the RWA defines, books where the “main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work” with “an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending”. Jane Austen was such an exceptional author that the Regency period (rather than the Georgian era as a whole) remains a significant subgenre for romances. Yes, Georgette Heyer is an important source of Regency romance in and of herself, but she is the spiritual heir of Austen rather than a progenitor. Moreover, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice formula – couples dislike one another initially yet fall in love anyway and overcome all misunderstandings – remains a stalwart aspect of romance novels throughout the genre and frequently bleeds over into other genres as a subplot as well.
Some of Austen’s other plotlines are not quite as popular, but have still maintained a strong showing in popular culture. One of those is the narrative of Mansfield Park. In Mansfield Park, the heroine, Fanny Price, is a very moral but average looking woman in love with a man who is dazzled by a beauty and thinks he is in love with the unworthy temptress rather than the deserving Good Girl. Anyone who has ever seen a romantic comedy film has experienced this trope, even if they have never read it. The antagonist beauty is often rich as well, making her even more desirable. Nevertheless, the hero comes to his senses, usually because of some repellent aspect of the beauty comes to the fore, and subsequently realizes he loved the heroine all along.
Until recently a lack of virginity could expose the Bad Girl and send the hero fleeing back toward the chaste heroine, but in modern times the Bad Girl has to be go out her way to prove herself revolting. She has to be cruel, or unfaithful, or kick a puppy while eating a baby, in order to disqualify herself for love. In Austen’s time, she didn’t need to forfeit her V card to lost the hero; she only had to show a lack of delicacy to demonstrate her vileness. In Mansfield Park, the adversarial beauty, Mary Crawford’s, major crime was trying to figure out how to save the hero’s sister from becoming a social pariah after the sister commits adultery. That’s it. That’s all it took for the protagonist, Edmund Bertram, to turn against her and become the rightful property of Fanny Price.
Needless to say, I loved Mary Crawford and all of her reasonable pragmatism, so I was indignant on her behalf when Edmund insulted her and abandoned her. After all, it was his sister Mary was trying to save. Edmund was, to me, more ungrateful whelp than hero after that point. Moreover, Mary had shown multiple kindnesses to Fanny Price, while Fanny had only pretended to be her friend to her face and internally hated her and slandered her to Edmund at the first opportunity. Then again, I found Edmund to be an intolerant, self-righteous, uptight, humorless, slave-owning twerp and thought Mary well shut of him. He and Fanny deserved each other; good riddance to bad rubbish.
Mansfield Park was a romance, in that Fanny and Edmund overcame obstacles and had their happily ever after, but I didn’t find it emotionally satisfying. I believed they merited a HEA much less than the witty, kind, open-minded and tolerant Mary Crawford. After stewing on this for a few decades, I finally came up with a solution: I’d rewrite the book from Mary Crawford’s point of view and give HER a laudable beau with whom to ride off into the sunset on a white horse. The beau would, of course, be much more of a hero than Edmund Bertram ever was. Literary justice for Mary!
In my book Mansfield Parsonage, I accomplished exactly half of this goal. As it turns out, rewriting Mansfield Park was a herculean project and as I edged up on 200,000 words I realized I was going to have to save Mary’s romantic finale for another book. Therefore, my retelling of Austen’s romance is not, in itself, a romance. There is as yet a lack of emotionally fulfilling ending. Well, there is some emotional fulfillment in that the reader hopefully agrees with me that Mary had a lucky escape in NOT marrying Edmund Bertram, but she has not yet had her own HEA. No help for it; I’m going to have to write another book.
I, at least, was emotionally fulfilled by Mansfield Parsonage. Not only was I able to express my disdain for Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, I was able to rant about the evils of slavery, the legal status of women as chattel, discrimination against Catholics, cultural imperialism, and colonialism … all in dialogue form. Plus, I got to throw in some puns. It is of such stuff happiness is made.
If you have read Austen’s Mansfield Park, did you like or dislike Fanny Price? If you haven’t read Mansfield Park, do you typically like your Regency heroines spirited or demure?
Renea Mason joins us on Friday, February 3.
Kyra Cornelius Kramer is a medical anthropologist and historian who has written primarily nonfiction and peer-reviewed academic essays, but has recently released her first work of fiction. She lives in Wales, with her husband and three daughters.
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Her blog is here.
Fans of Jane Austen will recognize the players and the setting – Mansfield Park has been telling the story of Fanny Price and her happily ever after for more than 200 years. But behind the scenes of Mansfield Park, there’s another story to be told.
Mary Crawford’s story.
When her widowed uncle made her home untenable, Mary made the best of things by going to live with her elder sister, Mrs Grant, in a parson’s house the country. Mansfield Parsonage was more than Mary had expected and better than she could have hoped. Gregarious and personable, Mary also embraced the inhabitants of the nearby Mansfield Park, watching the ladies set their caps for her dashing brother, Henry Crawford, and developing an attachment to Edmund Bertram and a profound affection for his cousin, Fanny Price.
Mansfield Parsonage retells the story of Mansfield Park from the perspective of Mary Crawford’s hopes and aspirations and shows how Fanny Price’s happily-ever-after came at Mary’s expense.
Or did it?