I've finally worked out the problems I've always had with Joan Aiken's Jane Austen sequels. She gets language right, she gets atmosphere, she has setting nailed, and she does some interesting things with the characters that occasionally does not make me cry vexedly. But she utterly, utterly lacks a sense of humor. Like it was surgically removed.
Austen's wit, both subtle and not so much, is entirely lost on Aiken, and I mean entirely. Mansfield Revisited is honestly the best of the lot she's written due to the fact it's very short, so she has minimal time for her lack of any rudimentary sense of humor to really start irritating me.
(Note: I still contend Emma's friendship with Harriet was a comedy and was intended to be one; there was just too much wrong with it, and I'm not even speaking of differences in class. From start to finish, it was combination girl crush, comedy of errors, and something very much nineteenth century Three Stooges meets Murphy's Law. When Harriet falls for Knightly, you only wonder how on earth Emma didn't see that coming.)
But nevermind. Mansfield Revisited or, how to make something so short seem to last so very, very, very, very long.
Mansfield Park is my favorite Jane Austen to read--while Pride and Prejudice owns my heart, Mansfield Park holds my sense of the ridiculous, because honestly, it is. It carries off the strictest rules of propriety with the interesting undercurrent of making it clear the higher your natural rank in society, the less you are bound by those rules, and the highest position and greatest freedom a woman can hope to achieve is a very wealthy, independent widow, carrying as it does all the independence of marriage with none of the inconveniences of a husband.
However, Mansfield Park is not a favorite for Jane Austen writers, which is sad, because the cast alone is enough to inspire; Julia Bertram isn't inspiring herself, but Susan Price looks the best of the lot to actually do something, and who doesn't want to revisit Maria Bertram in exile, the Crawfords, or see if Fanny and Edmund have finally melded into one earnest, righteous, boring person? Right, of course you do.
Joan picks up four years after Mansfield Park ends; Sir Thomas Bertram is dead, the younger Tom Bertram is now the Sir, Fanny and Edmund have two children, Julia is in the process of becoming Mrs. Norris (and that does irritate me; nothing in her earlier established character pointed her in that direction and recycling characterizations for the sake of having a familiar type of irritating character at the expense of an established character is really damn annoying), and Susan Price, Fanny's sister, is Lady Bertram's new companion.
(I can't complain too much on Lady Bertram's characterization, per se, but it comes back to my irritation with Aiken all over again; Jane was funny and Lady Bertram was a figure of perfectly respectable fun for her, while Aiken's like throwing a brick through the window. Where Austen uses wit and humor, Aiken uses disapproval to highlight imperfections of character, and she has a bad habit of equating imperfection with vice or inactive evil.)
For reasons that passeth understanding, but make sense, I'm sure, Edmund and Fanny and their baby are going to Antigua to handle Sir Thomas' affairs, whatever they may be, while their three year old daughter Mary stays at Mansfield. Blah blah, a letter comes for Fanny from Miss Crawford, who is hideously frank by epistle on a failed, abusive marriage. Also, she's ill and implying she is dying. So she is coming back to stay at Mrs. Norris' old house (up for rent), apparently to die in peace.
To take Edmund's place at the Parsonage is an old friend whose sister is an Admiral's widow (in Austenworld, best job ever), who just happens to have nursed Mrs. Norris (living with the disgraced Maria Bertram) over her last days and knows the truth about what really went down when Maria Bertram ran off with Henry Crawford. I bet you can totally guess right now, before I write another word, where this is going.
Aiken, not subtle here.
Anyway. Blah blah blah, stuff happens, Mary Crawford shows up, the Admiral's widow becomes Susan's confidant (as one does), and tells Susan The Truth About Henry Crawford.
You really want to hear this? It's a doozy. And to get through the rest of the story, you will just have to accept it. Right? Right.
Henry Crawford never disgraced Maria Bertram. What Actually Happened was that Maria Bertram that day threw herself at him, he said no, then he left; Maria, in a fit of pique, went with Julia and Yates to Gretna Green to get married. Henry was blameless, you see. But too much of a gentleman to contradict--wait.
Yes, that's where I ended up. It also causes hideous problems with Julia's motivation in marrying Yates, as she did it due to Maria running away with Crawford, so Maria's presence there kind of--makes no sense. Like I said, you just have to roll with it.
(Also, with Mrs. Norris' death, Maria Bertram sold the cottage, took her inheritance from Mrs. Norris, and ran off to London. This sounds really exciting; it's not. Somehow, and I don't know how, Aiken manages to make the most interesting part of the entire story really damn boring. That's a gift.)
Anyway. Mary Crawford is dying, Susan is nice to her, they talk and become BFF, Henry shows up once in a while, there's a ball, Captain William Price falls in love with a girl that Tom wants to marry, blah blah blah, there's a Miss Yates that Julia wants Tom to marry, it is really damn boring did I mention this? Tom falls off a horse, has to stay with Mary Crawford, falls in love with her, mourns her death, then falls for Susan.
I cannot emphasize enough that this should be funny. I can actually hear this being written correctly, as a lightly melodramatic comedy, but Aiken is deadly serious and doesn't quite see the humor of another Bertram falling for Mary Crawford and then marrying a Price.
And to add--Henry Crawford falls for Susan. And she doesn't marry him, but marries Tom. No, really. No, I am not kidding.. It's like the least interesting quasi-incest in the world. That's--so sad.
Also, Maria Bertram marries Lord Ravenshaw, who got a whole two mentions in the first book (I need to double check spelling) as a highborn gentleman of Yates' acquaintance who turns into a sixty year old libertine seemingly overnight.
Pretty much the best story in here is Maria Bertram in the background, getting out of the country, finding a rich, titled husband, and moving in circles with Dukes. (Libertine dukes, but again, from an Austenian perspective, the higher your status, the less the strictest rules seem to apply). Pretty much that was my favorite part; I never liked Maria, but I do have a taste for irony, and I think Jane Austen would have approved of Maria's final fate; you can in fact, be bad and still prosper if you put enough work into it. Jane, I always felt, deeply respected a strong work ethic. See Sense and Sensibility if you don't believe me.)
Here is the thing about Henry Crawford, and I may not have liked Fanny, but I was with her in her wariness (this is a relatively new development, tbh, in how I think about him, and a lot of it has to do with with the acting thing in the original book). I will buy he was genuinely in love. I will buy he wanted to make Fanny happy. I cannot and will not buy he would have, or could have, made her a fit husband, other than provide her with a home.
He was not domestic, as was prized in the family she grew up in and what she was taught to value. He wasn't merely a flirt, who acted on gallant impulse or courts of love nonsense--he wanted women to fall in love with him for the lulz. This was his major source of entertainment. Fanny would have to have changed radically as a character to deal with him in any kind of social situation where his instincts in dealing with women, and the challenge they represent to him, would place her in a position I'm not sure she could have tolerated. Nothing about him made me believe he was capable of the kind of radical growth required to understand what he was doing was utterly wrong without outside interference. He'd never been hurt, he'd never been bruised, his own actions had never carried consequences. After Maria Bertram, maybe. Before, no. And the very thing that would have made it possible for him to be a fit husband to any woman is the very thing that also gave him the lesson--losing Fanny.
So, Henry not going with Maria makes no sense as far as his character went. There's also, again, that freedom that comes with marriage; Maria Bertram, to him, probably felt like a pretty safe object to really throw his powers at, as she was no longer maiden and married. And Henry never struck me as a man to turn down a woman who threw herself at him; with the protection afforded by her wedding ring, there was no reason to do so.
To be honest--and this is very true of all Jane Austen writers--I need the humor more than the style. Style is easy, anyone can copy that, but catching Jane Austen's whimsy and sense of the ridiculous is so much harder and so much more important; that's what made her unique. It's not just the woman knew her subject, because many did, or loved them, which she did; she also looked upon them and found them deeply hilarious and let her audience know it.