My Jane Austen Summer: A Season in Mansfield Park by Cindy Jones

I’m pretty sure Mansfield Park (hereafter MP) is Austen’s longest novel, and somehow Jones manages to condense its important events to two pages, prepping those who have yet to read it for the story Jones is about to tell (and reminding MP readers about key events they may have forgotten).

Our heroine has four serious problems at the beginning of this work: 1) she lost her mother (to whom she read Persuasion and Emma), 2) her boyfriend has recently broken up with her, 3) she got fired for reading when she was supposed to be working, and 4) she is now faced with the “stark reality [that] there would never be any more Jane Austen novels,” a misery familiar to any reader who has finished the six for the first time (2).

The boyfriend, it becomes almost immediately clear to the reader, is not the right match for our heroine. He, after all, spends time in the bookstores, but only in the magazine aisle, and has no understanding of her real character. She describes herself at one point as having “found [her] perky face,” but Martin is perpetually oblivious that she has more than he sees on the surface (5). Alas, our heroine’s spunk is self-contained, at least at the start of her story. She is also clueless about her own behavior, driving by her ex’s house, accosting him and the new girlfriend in the street, and really, deserving his final admonition to her: “You’re a lost dog. Go home” (9).

The trip to Jane Austen’s England is a metaphorical trip home, but on this journey, Lily discovers more about her family, herself, and her choices than she could have imagined when she first makes the choice to go, largely because she needs an escape and doesn’t know how else to effect one.  Her self-confidence shattered, she thinks of herself as a “secondary character,” someone she just hopes the actor playing Mr. Rushworth would take a fancy to (22). As Austen aficionados, we now know how bad it is.

There are some troubles with plot details being too obvious—we know, for instance, she’s going to lose possession of her precious cross (a nice twist on the cross Fanny receives, and on the ones Jane and Cassandra received) because Lily comments that “the necklace assumed the full burden of [her] memories as well as the connection with [her] mother; [she] could not let [her]self lose it” (25-26). There are also plot points that seem unnecessarily confusing—why is Lily rude to Gary when she first meets him? (35) Why doesn’t she talk to the potential Heathcliff when they’re alone in a church together? (54) Later, when Lily should get distracted by the guy, she doesn’t; instead she’s focused, as no woman—let alone this woman!—really obsessed with a new man would be, on her latest project (130). Worse than obvious or illogical, there’s even an inappropriate mention of Anne Frank’s attic that did not resonate well with me.

The text, however, redeems itself in two classic Austen ways: through language and through characterization. The opening line of chapter four, for instance—“On the first page of my new life, I met my first Janeite”—is direct and simple and perfect (29). The irresponsible woman (whom, at first, we’re tempted to see as the Mary Crawford character) calls her father “The Wallet.” Austen becomes Lily’s “imaginary friend” particularly when Lily arrives in Austen’s “homeland” (34). The Austen character here plays great games when she’s bored (working on “a List of Silly Girls,” for instance) and is really, for some, like a religious figure (149, 60, 115). We get a gay best friend, a conflicted lover who isn’t what he first appears to be, a very wealthy family with a jerky heir, a sham marriage, Regency underwear, literary references all over the place, and, of course, vampires (yuck).

And though we don’t have quite a Jane Austen ending, Jones teaches her heroine “to love herself [so] she’ll find happiness for a lifetime,” which is pretty good, too.

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Published in: on July 3, 2011 at 7:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

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