Of all the characters in Jane Austen's masterpiece "Mansfield Park", Susan Price is probably my favorite. I've never had any sympathy for Fanny Price, the book's heroine; she's always impressed me as being a world-class drip, but her younger sister Susan, who takes her place at Mansfield Park after Fanny's marriage to Edmund Bertram, is a delightful creature. More spirited, more outspoken, less sanctimonious and moralizing than Fanny, she's someone we feel comfortable with, and much nicer to be around. She deserved a book of her own, and now she has one: She's the heroine of "Mansfield Park Revisited".
Joan Aiken's reinvention of Mansfield Park opens four years after Austen's book closed, on the demise of Sir Thomas, leaving Tom Bertram the head of the family while Edmund goes off to Antigua, with Fanny and new baby in tow, to settle the family affairs. Susan is left at Mansfield to look after Lady Bertram, as shallow and indolent as Austen left her, while Tom's sister Julia, now married to John Yates, incessantly meddles in the affairs of the house (Aiken makes her almost as obnoxious as Aunt Norris was), with designs to marry Tom off to her husband's sister. Tom, meanwhile, has designs to marry an heiress with thirty thousand pounds, when he gets around to it, but finds his plans upset by Susan's brother William, a newly made naval captain, who beats Tom to the punch while he's attending to other affairs. Oh well.
Into the mix, Aiken reintroduces the notorious Crawfords, rehabilitated for what purpose I'm not altogether certain. I always liked the Crawfords, warts and all; they were much more interesting than the stuffy Edmund and the insufferably prissy Fanny. Aiken, for some reason, sees fit to present Henry Crawford as the victim of emotional blackmail and slander by Maria Bertram, and poor Mary is wasting away from a mysterious illness after marrying for money and repenting at leisure, but not before her obnoxious husband has lost his marbles and has to be confined in an attic. Interesting twist on "Jane Eyre": instead of the mad wife in the attic, Aiken gives us the mad husband in the attic. At any rate, we never see or hear from him.
Aiken's book is an enjoyable, fast-paced read, but some Austen purists will undoubtedly be climbing the walls at her revision of some of Austen's characters. She also lacks Austen's acerbic wit, but she has sense enough not to try to write like Austen; she tells her tale in her own style. She makes Susan Price a most engaging and sympathetic heroine, providing friendship and comfort to poor Mary Crawford, efficiently looking after Mansfield Park while Lady Bertram lays around on the sofa all day, and setting things to rights with her own mixture of good humor, intelligence and common sense. But Aiken's ending seems hurried and contrived; she doesn't develop it in any way and we're stuck wondering how in the world did this come about? We're left without a clue.
Taken as a whole, "Mansfield Park Revisited" is fun, uncomplicated, and about as deep as a rain puddle. It's not Austen, but it doesn't pretend to be. Just enjoy it for what it is.