Review by Brenda S. Cox
“It is only to be regretted that there are not more persons like yourself . . . who give their lives to an important cause, rather than living merely for pleasure, or merely for themselves. Those who are aware of a higher calling, who put their hand to the plough and do not look back, have surely been called by Providence to do some great thing!”–Fanny Price to an abolitionist in A Contrary Wind, by Lona Manning.
I have learned to appreciate Mansfield Park more and more as I’ve explored the Christian backgrounds of Austen’s novels for my own book, Fashionable Goodness. Fanny Price’s strengths shine out more clearly as we understand her times. So, I appreciate authors who seek to explore and expand on Mansfield Park, rather than the more popular Pride and Prejudice.
I enjoy Jane Austen variations that are good stories, with well-developed characters, and especially those that also teach me more about history. Lona Manning’s Mansfield Trilogy is all of that and more.
A Contrary Wind, A Marriage of Attachment, and A Different Kind of Woman, by Lona Manning, follow the people in Mansfield Park through a different route.
As Manning says,
“I asked mystelf, what if Fanny broke away from the truly—to use the modern phrase—dysfunctional situation she’s living in? What if Aunt Norris’ remark was the straw that broke the camel’s back? And what if Sir Thomas had been held back by a contrary wind? And finally, what if Fanny was tempted, truly tempted, to do something that was against her strict moral code? What would tempt her? How would the story have unfolded differently?”
So, to begin with, Sir Thomas is delayed, and Maria and Henry’s flirtation goes too far. Fanny decides to flee Mrs. Norris’s abuses and seek the relative independence of becoming a governess. And Mary Crawford finds, and destroys, Fanny’s parting note to Edmund.
The story plays out from there. A pretend marriage, a duel, a deathbed wedding, a troubled marriage, a pregnancy, and even a shipwreck keep us guessing. Characters make good and bad decisions (mostly bad) and take the consequences. Several find redemption and second chances. Some characters from other Austen novels appear as minor characters in this series, which is fun.
Prudes and Sociopaths
In an Afterword to the first book, Manning explains,
“One barrier that prevents some modern readers from appreciating Mansfield Park is that the manners of today are very different from those in Austen’s time, so the things that Fanny and Edmund object to as being improper make them [Fanny and Edmund] seem prudish and priggish.”
She goes on to explain some of those things, then tells readers she has “amped up” the Crawfords’ “sociopathic qualities to make it clear that they are dangerous people who don’t care what havoc they create in other people’s lives.” This works well. However, be aware that there are a few sexual encounters that are more explicit than we would find in a Jane Austen novel.
History and Poetry
Strands of real history connect with the story. Fanny becomes friends with an abolitionist and discusses the Bible and slavery with him. Clarkson and Wilberforce are mentioned, and Hannah More comes into the story, though she doesn’t take it over. Notes at the end of the books explain historical information. We also get to taste a bit of the popular poetry of Cowper, Wordsworth, and Shelley.
A Marriage of Attachment and A Different Kind of Woman
The second book in the trilogy, A Marriage of Attachment, continues the story of various characters, going even farther afield from the original plot, against the background of the Industrial Revolution. The Bettering Society enters the story, trying to help the poor (as it actually did). The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is mentioned, “an utterly self-indulgent man-child of colossal ego,” and we see more of his character and life in the third novel. In London, Fanny’s brother John gets involved in a real murder mystery and tries to prevent an assassination. William Price helps suppress the slave trade and pursues a surprising romance. Fanny’s and Edmund’s separate sagas continue.
In the third book, A Different Kind of Woman, we see much more of Shelley, and the slave trade continues to be part of the background. Luddites resist the Industrial Revolution, and Fanny even gets caught up in the “Peterloo Massacre,” when workers riot in Manchester.
Finally, though, a number of characters get their hard-fought “happily ever afters.” A satisfying ending.
I appreciate Lona Manning’s careful attention to historical detail and the explanations she gives at the end of each novel. But, first and foremost, these novels are good stories. The characters are reasonably consistent with the originals in Mansfield Park (with a few tweaks, as mentioned earlier). I really enjoyed Manning’s creative ideas about directions the story might have gone.
The series includes touches of religion, including the Evangelicals and their active roles in society. Science also comes into the stories. One of the characters writes a book making bold scientific predictions: “that steam-machines will liberate the working class from toil, and mankind will be free to pursue knowledge and the arts.” Characters briefly discuss scientific ideas of the time, true and false, and their social implications. Violent, negative reactions to technology are also shown.
However, be aware that the series is not always as “clean” as the books I usually prefer and recommend (see caveats below).
Overall I found this series kept me reading; I didn’t want to stop! Fortunately all the books are on Kindle Unlimited, and of course also for sale.
Caveats: There is one fairly explicit sex scene in book one (ch. 14). A brief fantasy in book two (ch. 5). Some crude sexual references and non-explicit accounts of extramarital sex in book three (ch. 10, 13).
I want to add a brief review of another Mansfield Park variation that I enjoyed. In Maria Returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park, by Roslyn Russell (also on Kindle Unlimited), Maria Bertram gets a second chance. Humbled by years of living with Mrs. Norris, she travels to Barbados with a friend and discovers family secrets. She also gets involved with the abolition movement. Maria and her friend explore some fun natural history (birds, plants, etc.). An interesting book that kept me reading. Recommended.
Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park addresses some deep themes of right and wrong. It shows a man and woman of character (Edmund and Fanny) who are not as charming and appealing as a shallower man and woman (Henry and Mary). Yet Edmund and Fanny end up happy and at peace, and Henry and Mary do not. Would you make changes to Austen’s novel? If so, what would they be?
Brenda S. Cox is the author of Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England, which explores faith in Jane Austen’s life, novels, and world.