Honestly, everyone, I don’t know why this book hasn’t received more attention.
Is it because it’s based on Mansfield Park, one of Austen’s lesser-appreciated works? Is it because it’s based on Mary Crawford, a special kind of anti-hero even for Austen? Or maybe it’s because of author C.M. Mitchell’s style of writing, which mimics Austen’s in its complexity and structure. It’s probably all three of those reasons, but if you are like the 99.99% of the JAFF world that has not read this book, you are missing a real treat.
The story is told in first person and takes us from Mary Crawford’s life before the start of Mansfield Park, right up through meeting Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. It cuts off and begins the story again just at the part where the infamous house party begins in the original novel.
For make no mistake–this is a re-telling of Mansfield Park, not from the point of view of Fanny or Edmund or any of the other typical characters. Instead, it’s told through the eyes of Mary herself. Mary, the woman who (spoiler alert!) nearly steals Edmund from Fanny even though she despises his chosen profession. Mary, whose motivations throughout Mansfield Park are difficult to discern. Mary, who in the end seems to countenance and excuse the married Maria Rushworth’s affair with Henry Crawford, rendering her forever unsuitable in Edmund’s eyes. That Mary.
In using this point of view, Mitchell takes a huge risk, hoping that by seeing the events of the novel from Mary’s perspective, we will come to have sympathy and appreciation for her. And she succeeds, largely because of the witty conversation Mary brings to her interactions with nearly everyone around her.
Mary is never more brilliant than when speaking to her particular friend Heathcliff. In this passage she is beginning to tell him about the circumstances of removing to the home of her half-sister, Mrs. Grant. Notice that this passage also describes and illustrates her relationship with Heathcliff himself:
Heathcliff: “So, I am a friend who is missing part of this story.”
“What part are you missing, my dear friend?” I chuckled, playing on his use of words.
“The story behind your sister.”
“I never told you? Truly?”
“You forget Mary that our friendship is a sporadic one . . . . Off and on like a day of fishing our conversations are; you indulge it long, and then can go long without undergoing it once more.”
“Did you just compare us to fish?”
“No, but our conversation to fishing.”
“Oh, very good, I was under the wrong impression for a moment.”
Later in the novel:
Mary: “On a matter of the utmost importance, will you ever ask me to dance?”
“Oh, you did not have a request yet?”
“No, for I have been standing beside you, blind fool, therefore every man expects you to have asked me,” I laughed.
Under Mitchell’s hand, Mary Crawford sounds like a slightly bolder version of Elizabeth Bennet herself, and is every bit as likeable. We omniscient readers know what will happen further along in the story, and there is a reluctant sense of knowing that our friendship with Mary will only go so far.
But that is for the next book in the series, which I will begin devouring immediately now that I am done with this first volume. The occasional editing errors with spelling and punctuation do not detract from the power of the story itself. Enjoy it, dear readers; you will not be disappointed! I look forward to getting to know Mary even better.