How did this novel come about? Like many people, I first read [Jane Austen's] Mansfield Park when I studied it at A level, which meant I ended up knowing it backwards, and learning huge chunks of it by heart (which I can still remember, even now). Later on I wrote about it in my English finals, and nearly ended up doing a DPhil on Austen straight afterwards. When I did eventually go back to that idea 15 years later - after setting up my own business as a freelance copywriter made that possible - I chose instead to write about Austen's great literary hero, Samuel Richardson, but even so I still managed to finish the thesis with a whole chapter on - you guessed it - Mansfield Park.
So the novel has woven in and out of my life since I was 18. I know and love Pride and Prejudice, just like everyone else, but there's something about Mansfield Park that keeps drawing me back. I think I first realised exactly what that was about ten years ago, when the seeds of what is now Murder at Mansfield Park started to come together. What intrigues me about Mansfield Park is how unlike Jane Austen it actually is. So much so, in fact, that there's another novel in there - a novel Austen could have written, and decided not to. A much lighter, sharper and more playful novel, with a heroine at its centre who is far more in the mould of Emma or Elizabeth Bennett - fallible, yes, but funny, resourceful, and very human. No-one could ever accuse Fanny Price of being any of those things, and one of the reasons so many readers are dissatisfied with the novel Austen did write is that they find her heroine at best insipid, and at worst, downright irritating. I'm not the only reader who feels Austen loads the dice against Mary Crawford, and wrenches the natural trajectory of the plot to achieve the ending she has clearly decided on at the outset. I started to wonder what this other, alternative Mansfield Park might be like, and this was the first inspiration for my own novel.
The first half of Murder at Mansfield Park recasts the original from Mary Crawford's point of view - it's the same characters, and the same episodes, but each time with a new twist. I wanted the reader to feel the same delight of recognition that you get from any good pastiche. Obviously anyone who knows Austen's work well will get the most out of this, but even someone who's only seen the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice will find more to amuse them here than in the much heavier and more moralising fare Austen offers up for them in Mansfield Park. In fact, I've deliberately written the book so that it works on a number of levels, and could appeal as much to those who merely like a mystery story, as it could to the card-carrying Austen aficionado who will scrutinise every word (and on that level I hope they won't be disappointed - every word and phrase has been checked to ensure that it was either used by Austen, or in use at the time). Part of the sheer joy in writing this novel was to lay down nuggets for the hard-bitten fan to find and gloat over, like the quotes I've lifted from Austen's letters, or the fact that the first and last sentences are exactly as Austen wrote them, or Kingsley Amis' famous condemnation of the original Fanny Price, which I've slipped in as a (far more valid) criticism of my own.
If uncovering the 'other Mansfield Park' was one impetus behind the book, the other was my own passion for literary mysteries. I set myself the challenge of combining an authentic-sounding Austen narrative with a much more modern form of fiction - the murder mystery. After all, the mise-en-scene for Austen's novel is almost identical to that of a PD James or a classic Christie: a group of characters in a relatively isolated setting, with passions running high, and motives aplenty. Halfway through my novel the brutal reality of a violent death suddenly intrudes on the story, both literally and in the shape of Charles Maddox, the London thief-taker summoned to solve the crime. Both he, and the subject-matter he has to deal with, are a long way from the world of Austen's novels (though not, of course, from the world she lived in), and with his arrival the layers of propriety and convention at Mansfield Park start to be stripped away, and we glimpse much darker possibilities. We also become aware, for the first time, of the existence of the servants, who are always present (and sometimes even named) in an Austen, but are rarely given a face or a voice. In the wake of the murder these silent bystanders become characters in their own right – either as witnesses, or as people with an equally valid perspective on what has really been going on behind the scenes.
I hope anyone who's ever read and enjoyed Austen will find something that appeals to them in this book - even if it's only something to provoke them! Mansfield Park still sparks huge debate, most of it centred on the conflict between Fanny and Mary, and if I can add something light-hearted to that discussion then I'll have achieved a good deal. Likewise I'm sure many book groups would enjoy reading the two books together, and debating the differences and parallels between them. This would certainly shed light on what I've tried to do with my own novel, and might even shine a little back in the opposite direction. In fact, I hope anyone who reads Murder at Mansfield Park will not just like it for its own sake, but be inspired to return to the original. Now that would be something.
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Murder at Mansfield Park is a witty and clever reimagining of Jane Austen's much-loved novel Mansfield Park. But in this Mansfield Park, things have changed ...