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466px-Leighton-Till_Death_Do_Us_Part-1878This weekend was Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Mansfield Park talk at our Washington Romance Writers meeting. As it always is with Kathy, the talk was intelligent, stimulating, instructive, and enjoyable.

In the morning we discussed what didn’t work for us in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, some of the same things I talked about in the blog last week. In the afternoon we speculated about alternate endings.

Some Alternatives

Mary Crawford is reformed and marries Edmund

Henry Crawford is reformed and marries Fanny

Tom is reformed and marries Susan, Fanny’s sister

The basic idea was that the flawed characters were more interesting than the wholly good Fanny or the easily besotted Edmund and that we like to see flawed characters change and be redeemed.

What Would You Change?

This got me thinking about other books or movies that deserve an alternate ending. The main one that comes to mind for me is Little Women. I always wanted Jo to wind up with Laurie. It still bugs me.

What books or movie endings would you change? Gone With The Wind? Wuthering Heights? Almost anything by Nicholas Sparks?


oddgirloutSometimes as a parent, I need to read books like this one: Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons, which addresses the covert bullying many girls partake in lieu of more overt, physical bullying which is more common in boys. Simmons explains that in many segments of our society where girls are still expected to be “nice” (while boys are encouraged to be competitive), girls do not develop healthy ways to be competitive or healthy and straightforward strategies for resolving conflicts. Instead, they develop alternative forms of aggression: manipulative “friendships”, shunning, gossip, etc.., often carried out under a veneer of “niceness”.

Although many of the cases described are saddening, Simmons doesn’t demonize the aggressors, pointing out that roles often change and that the aggressors’ behavior is rooted in insecurity and the fear of being excluded themselves. There is a high price paid by those who are part of the “in” clique.

On a personal level, I found Simmons’s insights useful, along with some of her suggestions for parents and schools. It also shed some light on behaviors I’ve seen in adult groups that are predominantly female. Not everyone outgrows this stuff.

As a writer, I also found the book interesting in light of fiction and character development.

mansfieldparkDiane’s recent post, Mansfield Park Revisited had me thinking about how Jane Austen depicted alternative female aggression in her books. Clearly, it’s not a new phenomenon.  Ladies of the gentry and aristocracy were certainly expected to be “nice” so alternative aggression likely flourished. One can see it in the relationship between Caroline Bingley and Jane Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, in the friendship of Catherine and Isabella in Northanger Abbey and definitely between Fanny and Mary in Mansfield Park.

Here’s an image from the infamous scene with lesbian undertones in the 1999 version of Mansfield Park. Although I’ll agree with critics that I never saw anything like that in the book, it does fit in with the model of manipulation, the pressure for the victim to tolerate behavior that makes her uncomfortable, with the underlying threat of loss of friendship.

My second full length Regency romance, The Incorrigible Lady Catherine, was the beginning of my “Three Disgraces” trilogy with heroines who met at boarding school and who, for various reasons, didn’t fit in and formed their own defensive alliance. So I’ve played with this issue before in my writing, although at the time of writing, I certainly didn’t understand the aggressors as well as Jane Austen must have.

Have you read other books, romance or not, where the concept of alternative aggression was used effectively?

ElenaGreene_TheIncorrigibleLadyCatherine_200pxTo celebrate the recent release of The Incorrigible Lady Catherine in paperback, I’ll give away one copy to a random commenter.  Comment by next Thursday (1/17) and I will announce the winner on Friday (1/18).


tt0178737This past weekend I joined several Washington Romance Writer (WRW) friends at the home of Kathleen Gilles Seidel to watch two film versions of Mansfield Park: The 1999 version with Frances O’Connor and Johnny Lee Miller; and the 2007 TV version with Billie Piper and Blake Ritson. Kathy had invited us to watch the movies with her, because she is scheduled to give a talk about Mansfield Park at WRW’s January meeting next Saturday. Also in preparation for Kathy’s talk, I am rereading Mansfield Park and am about halfway through.

Kathy Seidel’s annual Jane Austen-related talk is a WRW highlight for me. Kathy is an Austen scholar, having written her Ph.D. dissertation on Austen, but she is also hugely entertaining and her talks are always intelligent, stimulating and useful for writers. More on her Mansfield Park talk next week.

tt0847182We’ve discussed the Mansfield Park movies here at Risky Regencies before, most recently after the 2007 TV version was released, and most of us have generally thought the movies pretty dreadful. The WRW group was no different. The 1999 version was particularly abysmal, having very little to do with the book and having almost none of Austen’s sensibilities included. The 2007 version did not change the story quite as drastically, but when it did, it changed it in incomprehensible ways that made no sense at all. In both versions, the main characters were changed very drastically–except for Mary and Henry Crawford, the worldly brother and sister who come for an extended visit. The Crawfords are often described as the most interesting characters in the book.

The Fanny and Edmund of the book are very unlike the heroine and hero we would expect in a book of romantic fiction today.

Fanny is timid, self-effacing, and long-suffering, but she is the moral compass of the book, the one character who consistently acts in a principled manner. In other words, she doesn’t change in the book. She stands firm, no matter what happens to her. This was obviously Austen’s vision for Fanny, but I think today’s reader wants heroines who strive actively to reach their goals, not ones who merely endure what happens to them.

Edmund shares Fanny’s view of morality, but he is very easily swayed by the manipulations and allure of Mary Crawford. That is not the sort of hero who interests me. I want my hero to be strong enough and wise enough to see through the clever manipulations of others, and I do not want him to be tempted to fall in love with a character who is not the heroine.

At the end of the book (or the movies) you are glad Fanny and Edmund wind up together, but it was hard to feel strongly enough about either of them to actually root for them to wind up together.

I was thinking that today’s romance novelist would probably choose Mary and Henry Crawford as more likely candidates to be hero or heroine. Now those are two characters who could do with a strong character arc. Do you know if anyone has written such a version?

What do you think are the most important elements in a hero or heroine?

I also watched the first episode of season three of Downton Abbey. It occurred to me that one of the reasons that the series is so successful is that all of the characters are interesting and all have ways they can change, ways we can root for them.


Three years…a lifetime in the blogosphere, and thanks to you–our lurkers and readers and commenters–for your great comments and for dropping by so often. And extra special thanks to your employers for so generously lending us your time.

I’ve learned so much from everyone here–it’s been a real education. And I’ve been humbled and amazed, too, by the smart, knowledgeable, funny people who have joined the Riskies family.

With little originality, I’m going to remind you of my favorite posts over the last year.

In my tireless campaign against gratuitous mantitty, I counterattacked with a post about Hot Old Men like the lovely and talented Alan Rickman: Women swooned at his imcomprehensible upperclass mumble and the slow crawl of his jowls seeking freedom from his high collar. And I promise, I will post about Hot Old Women sometime, too.

I love our interviews too, and this year I was fortunate enough to get an exclusive with Cupid on Valentine’s Day. The Regency wasn’t bad, all things considered. Not too much whalebone, and no steel–that was tough, dealing with Victorian corsets. You wouldn’t believe the number of arrows I ruined. …

You might think blogging on holidays is easy, but how on earth do you relate an American holiday, such as Thanksgiving, to the Regency? Fortunately, Thanksgiving 2007 was also George Eliot’s birthday and I pondered on why one of my favorite, flawed novels, Daniel Deronda, is like a turkey dinner.

I also enjoyed our week celebrating the birthday of Jane Austen, and chose Mansfield Park–mainly because I suspected none of the other Riskies wanted it. I wasn’t even sure I wanted it myself. What a revelation, to read this sexy, difficult, daring book, and what a great discussion. Did anyone read it as a result? Tell us what you thought.

I find there are topics we return to again and again, because they’re fascinating and influential, and we discover new facts we have to share. I blogged about the great astronomer William Herschel on March 13, the anniversary of the day he discovered the planet Uranus. I’m sure one of us will mention him again soon. I revisited another favorite topic, servants, in response to an email from a blog visitor who highly recommended Mrs. Woolf and the Servants by Alison Blight, and wondered how Woolf’s attitude to her servants was like or unlike that of Regency-era masters.

Please tell us if there’s a topic you’d like to talk about–we love to hear from you! And if you’re a lurker, come by and make your first comment. Don’t be shy!

Prizes? Oh yes, prizes.

If you’re a writer, I’ll offer a critique of your first chapter and synopsis.

If you’re a reader, you can win a signed copy of each of my books, Dedication, The Rules of Gentility, and Forbidden Shores (the last written as Jane Lockwood).

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You heard it here. Mansfield Park is the Austen equivalent of big girl panties.

I chose Mansfield Park because I was afraid no one else would want it, and I was interested in seeing what I thought of the book decades after my last attempt at reading it. Briefly, it is the story of Fanny Price, who is raised by her wealthy relatives the Bertrams in their luxurious home Mansfield Park (thought to be based on Cottesbrooke Hall), where [i]f tenderness could ever be supposed wanting, good sense and good breeding supplied its place.

I read the Oxford University Press edition–not my first choice but the local library didn’t have a copy and I couldn’t find my collected Austen. No helpful notes or introduction, and so I was left to my own interpretation. First, I had trouble figuring out what is the book really about–it’s unlike Austen’s other works in that it covers so much ground and so many themes, and the point of view shifts frequently; I believe it’s the only one of the novels that uses multiple points of view. It’s the only one of the novels that is concerned in a major way with fashionable mores of the ton and has more titled characters, at least mentioned in passing, than you can shake a stick at.

Is it a comedy? Sort of. Mrs. Norris, the only truly funny character, isn’t that funny after a time as you realize how mean-spirited she is and as you see her fall out of favor with the powerful Sir Thomas Bertram. There’s also the stagestruck Mr. Yates who really really likes his blue dress (no, not that sort of dress) and pink satin cloak.

Is it a love story? Sort of. Edmund and Fanny slide into marriage–and the one thing I do remember from earlier readings is that these two are well matched in vapidity and longwindedness. The moral of the book?–that if you wait, all things will come to you?–Fanny must have a horse, a fire in her room, and ultimately a husband (the cousin marrying thing was not nearly as icky as you might think). That virtue is rewarded, certainly; Miss Prism (The Importance of Being Earnest), whose definition of fiction was that the good end happily and the bad unhappily, probably enjoyed Mansfield Park.

Fanny develops from the poor, sickly relative into an attractive and well read young woman, although shy and given to longwinded rhapsodies on the beauties of nature etc. (this is a book of voluble characters. Edmund, bless him, goes on for pages and pages). She and her Bertram cousins are befriended by the worldly and ambitious brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford, and Henry becomes involved with both of Fanny’s female cousins, playing them off against each other, even though one of them is engaged. And Fanny finds herself befriending Mary, even though she isn’t really sure she likes her or approves of her, and feels pretty much the same way about Henry.

One of the early crises of the book–ending with a splendid cliffhanger at the end of Volume I–is the amateur staging of a very naughty play, Lovers’ Vows. Fanny refuses to take part; poor Edmund, in a crisis of conscience, decides it is his moral duty to take a part in the play. (I think, but I’m not sure, that you are meant to laugh here.) Much later you find out that Edmund very much enjoyed rehearsing with the fascinating Miss Crawford, with whom he’s fallen in love, even though he suspects her moral code does not match up to his. And, yes, she really does say “What gentleman among you am I to have the pleasure of making love to?”

And then Henry Crawford tells his sister that his next challenge is to make Fanny fall in love with him.


Is Austen writing her version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses? Certainly Crawford, short, dark, flirty, and keen on farming as well as women, is no Valmont. Henry arranges for a promotion for Fanny’s midshipman brother and even wrenches good behavior out of her uncouth family in Portsmouth. But Fanny holds firm–she won’t marry a man she doesn’t love, however persuasive he, his sister, and her own relatives are in gently blackmailing her to accept him, even if Henry does seem to be genuinely in love with her. Her instincts prove to be right.

Mansfield Park is possibly Austen’s sexiest book, and I think this may be one reason–other than the yawn-inducing Fanny and Edmund–why it’s her least favorite. I suspect it may be beyond many readers’ comfort zones–it doesn’t sound like dear Jane. There’s a tremendously strong physical awareness between her characters:

… she gradually slackened in the needle-work, which, at the beginning, seemed to occupy her totally; how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it—and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day, were turned and fixed on Crawford, fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him in short till the attraction drew Crawford’s upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken.

And the most blatant expression of physical desire of all of Austen’s books:

…Maria, still feeling her hand pressed to Henry Crawford’s heart, and caring little for anything else.

The characters are equally conscious of their physical presence indoors and outside. The book is full of references to space, horizons, the landscape improvements of Repton and others that open up vistas; and their movements around the house are like stage entrances and exits. There’s an extraordinary scene, elaborately choreographed, involving a locked gate, when the Bertrams, Fanny, and the Crawfords visit the estate of Miss Bertram’s fiance. When Fanny visits her family in Portsmouth you almost expect her to whip out a tape measure, so shocked is she by the humble dimensions of the rooms.

Enough from me. Have you read Mansfield Park? If not, why not? If you have, what do you think of it?

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