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Why Mansfield Park? by Kyra Kramer

Mansfield Parsonage by Kyra Kramer is a behind the scenes tale of Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.  It tells another story; the story of Mary Crawford.

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.

Please welcome Kyra Kramer today, as she speaks about why she decided to write a book based on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, rather than a different one of her novels.

Why did I want to tell the story of Mansfield Park, one of Austen’s least-loved novels, from the point of view of the anti-heroine, Mary Crawford? To be blunt, it was because her treatment at the hands of the protagonists, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, appalled me. She was nothing but kind to both of them and they threw away her friendship like garbage when she turned out to be less rigidly moralistic and judgemental than they were. From the first time I read Mansfield Park, I wanted to call Fanny and Edmund onto the carpet over their shoddy behaviour toward Mary and to vehemently defend Mary’s ‘evil’ indelicacy. Mary’s great sin was that she wanted to save Edmund’s sister, Maria Bertram Rushworth, from disgrace after Maria left her husband to run off with Mary’s brother, Henry Crawford.

Golly, how horrible to want to keep Maria for being cast out of good society forever! And make no mistake – it was Maria she was trying to save, perhaps at the expense of her own brother’s happiness. After all, as a man, Henry Crawford was going to get off relatively scot free after running off with another man’s wife, but Maria was going to become a total pariah unless Henry married her. So, even though Henry didn’t love Maria, his sister Mary was going to try to get him to wed her in the hopes of preventing her social death.

How did Edmund and Fanny respond to Mary’s attempts to save Maria? By throwing her goodwill back in her face and telling her she was disgusting for even thinking of it! In the original novel, Edmund describes his reaction to Mary’s offer:

As soon as I could speak, I replied that I had not supposed it possible, coming in such a state of mind into that house as I had done, that anything could occur to make me suffer more, but that she had been inflicting deeper wounds in almost every sentence. That though I had, in the course of our acquaintance, been often sensible of some difference in our opinions, on points, too, of some moment, it had not entered my imagination to conceive the difference could be such as she had now proved it. That the manner in which she treated the dreadful crime committed by her brother and my sister (with whom lay the greater seduction I pretended not to say), but the manner in which she spoke of the crime itself, giving it every reproach but the right; considering its ill consequences only as they were to be braved or overborne by a defiance of decency and impudence in wrong; and last of all, and above all, recommending to us a compliance, a compromise, an acquiescence in the continuance of the sin, on the chance of a marriage which, thinking as I now thought of her brother, should rather be prevented than sought; all this together most grievously convinced me that I had never understood her before, and that, as far as related to mind, it had been the creature of my own imagination, not Miss Crawford, that I had been too apt to dwell on for many months past. That, perhaps, it was best for me; I had less to regret in sacrificing a friendship, feelings, hopes which must, at any rate, have been torn from me now. And yet, that I must and would confess that, could I have restored her to what she had appeared to me before, I would infinitely prefer any increase of the pain of parting, for the sake of carrying with me the right of tenderness and esteem. This is what I said, the purport of it; but, as you may imagine, not spoken so collectedly or methodically as I have repeated it to you. She was astonished, exceedingly astonished—more than astonished. I saw her change countenance. She turned extremely red. I imagined I saw a mixture of many feelings: a great, though short struggle; half a wish of yielding to truths, half a sense of shame, but habit, habit carried it. She would have laughed if she could. It was a sort of laugh, as she answered, ‘A pretty good lecture, upon my word. Was it part of your last sermon? At this rate you will soon reform everybody at Mansfield and Thornton Lacey; and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary into foreign parts.’  She tried to speak carelessly, but she was not so careless as she wanted to appear. I only said in reply, that from my heart I wished her well, and earnestly hoped that she might soon learn to think more justly, and not owe the most valuable knowledge we could any of us acquire, the knowledge of ourselves and of our duty, to the lessons of affliction, and immediately left the room.

There it is. Edmund’s response to Mary’s kindness – to tell her he was shocked she turned out to be such a horrible skank and he hoped she became less skanky over time. Worse, he also whinged to Fanny about Mary’s “total ignorance” of proper moral rectitude and her “perversion of mind which made it natural to her to treat the subject as she did”. He practically wept about her “faults of principle” and her “blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind”. Strong words about a woman whose only crime was trying to save Edmund’s sister from permanent alienation!

Moreover, Mary was the most amusing, most vital, and most complex character in the book; the opposite of the stodgy Edmund Bertram and milquetoast Fanny Price. As I explain in my preface:

The delight of most Austen’s characters, for good or for ill, is in their flaws. Whether they are comic relief or fodder for scathing social commentary or beloved protagonists, they were imperfect. Austen’s strong-willed heroines are particularly relatable for the reader because they are not pure paragons. Elizabeth had her prejudice, Anne was too persuadable, Marianne was too romantic, Elinor was too pragmatic, Catherine was naïve and overly imaginative, and Emma was subject to vanity. They are loved because they are inherently decent people, and lovable because they aren’t revoltingly perfect models of submissive 18 th century feminine ideals. Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, stands alone as the main protagonist who was unable to make a mistake. Fanny Price is an apotheosis of delicacy, modesty, and tenderness. She is so meek, mild, and righteous that it is almost impossible not to hate her. Mary Crawford is the sharp one in the book. Mary Crawford is the one with uncongenial character traits to be overcome. Mary Crawford is interesting.

In summary, I wanted to tell Mary’s story because she was treated unfairly and was the most charismatic person in Mansfield Park. Although I stuck to the narrative plot of Mansfield Park like glue, I did everything I could to secure the reader’s sympathy in the place I believed it should naturally lie … in Mary Crawford’s perspective. I present Mary Crawford as Austen did; as a good-natured and realistic woman of the world and her time. Unlike Austen, however, I did not condemn Mary as “ruined” by her tolerance of the social shenanigans which surrounded her and her clear-eyed view of English religious hypocrisy. Considering that Austen’s other novels also evince a knowledge of how ridiculousness clergymen could be and how the detection of sin, rather than sin itself, was treated as the true evil, I can only wonder if Austen was trying to “punish” herself for her overly-sardonic worldview by making Mary Crawford the antagonist. If so, she failed, because Austen’s caustic take on the Regency’s sociocultural norms, which are nevertheless threaded with real hope for domestic happiness, remain as charming as Mary Crawford. We, like Mr. Darcy, are still enthralled by the mixture of sweetness and archness in Austen’s tales and have fallen in love with them. Mary Crawford, with her good nature and searing wit, belongs in the ranks of Austen’s heroines more than the tepid and creepmouse Fanny Price ever will.

About the Author:

Kyra Kramer is a medical anthropologist, historian, and devoted bibliophile who lives just outside Cardiff, Wales with her handsome husband and three wonderful young daughters.

She has a deep – nearly obsessive – love for Regency Period romances in general and Jane Austen’s work in particular. Ms. Kramer has authored several history books and academic essays, but this is her first foray into fictional writing.  Visit her website, Twitter, and on Facebook.

Giveaway — win an e-copy of Kramer’s Mansfield Parsonage; Comment by March 6, 2017 at 11:59 PM EST.