Writing JAFF is a funny thing – we are the biggest fans of Jane Austen, and yet essentially our work is to improve upon hers. The essence of any fandom is admiration, and generally the object of one’s admiration imbued with a degree of perfection that will withstand any argument to the contrary. And half my heart does feel that way about Austen’s works. Her stories are timeless and delightful, and her characters perfectly imperfect, but to admit the distinction of true perfection here would be to render Austenesque fiction quite unnecessary – and that will simply not do.
If I were to question the perfection of any of Austen’s works, like many of you I would begin with Mansfield Park. Fanny is not the favorite of the masses when ranked against the Lizzy Bennets of this world, and while that was likely Miss Austens’ point entirely, we nonetheless have had a difficulty warming to her, particularly in the here and now. The relationship with her cousin Edmund also gives pause to many modern readers – personally, I am Team Crawford all the way. Infact, I always seem to root for the bad boys (Willoughby all day forever yes please).
With a hope to do justice to all that Jane Austen wished to say about the strength and poise of a heroine who is “quiet, but not blind” and a wide cast of characters whose “selfishness must always be forgiven,” I am happily going out on a limb with my next WIP. As insatiable as readers’ (and writers’) thirst may be for Darcy & Lizzy, I hope my dear Janeites will enjoy the Mansfield Park mash-up I will be releasing later this spring. All of my usual chaos will be unleashed upon the unsuspecting, match-making mamas will do their worst, and a few alternate-pairings will prevail.
As ever, I will be posting the WIP on A Happy Assembly before the fully scrubbed and shined version makes it to Kindle. Today I’d like to share the prologue with you, because if there’s one thing I love, it’s a good Sass Queen….
Norland Park, Sussex
Prudence Rushworth peered out the elegantly framed window and watched the footmen loading her luggage into the carriage below, noting a particular parcel of interest which, at her request, would be conveyed inside her barouche, where she might better examine its contents. She smiled to herself as she stirred her tea, and turned her attention back to the widow before her.
“Well, Margaret, my darling,” she sighed, patting the hand of her favorite niece as mournful notes began to drift in from the music room down the hall. “I do hope I have brought you and the girls some comfort, though it has been a shorter visit than I would have liked, and circumstances have obliged me to come alone.”
Margaret offered her a wan smile. “It was good of you to come at all.” Prudence nodded, knowing what Margaret would not say – that Prudence had offered her welcome respite from her feckless stepson and his overbearing, rapacious wife.
“You will write me, and keep me apprised of your well-being?”
“You may depend upon it. Indeed, I hope to soon inform you that I have received an affirmative answer from our cousin, Sir John.” She sighed, unconsciously turning to survey the drawing room of the home she would be forced to leave after twenty years.
Prudence arched an eyebrow, her pointed look a masterful thing after six decades of practice. “I should be much surprised if that is not the case – and obliged to box him in the ears, I am sure.”
Margaret laughed appreciatively. “I could hardly ask you to trouble yourself over the matter – though cousins, we know very little of one another.”
Her niece could mean nothing by this, but Prudence would not have begrudged the poor widow if she had. “Were it not for James’ betrothal, I should have all four of you with us at Sotherton, and carry Elinor’s young man off with us for good measure!”
This brought a telling glow to Margaret’s face, which, even in sadness, scarcely betrayed her forty years. “Of course. I cannot imagine any new bride would like to take up her role as mistress in a house so full of women.”
This time, there might have been just the trace of a barb in Margaret’s gentle observation; certainly there was truth. The new mistress of Norland had made such sentiments abundantly clear, though Prudence wondered at how such a well-bred woman could behave in such a way to a widow and her three grieving girls. No little resemblance to James’ intended, indeed! Prudence curled her lips up with distaste. “Your girls would show proper compassion at such a time. Especially Miss Marianne, I am certain of it.”
Margaret offered her aunt a knowing look; this time it was she who heard what had not been spoken. What a pity the girls should have no portion, Prudence silently lamented, for surely either of them would be a better match for James than the Bertram chit.
“You must convey our congratulations to James, and when a date for the wedding is set, we shall all write.”
“And you must do the same when Elinor’s young man finally speaks.”
Margaret furrowed her brow, hesitating before she whispered, “I think Fanny means to prevent it. She has indicated that their mother has higher hopes for him.” There was no bitterness in her speech, only sad resignation, and it nettled Prudence to see her thus cowed.
“Pah! He is a man grown, my dear. At any rate, all mothers want what is best for their sons. But those of us who are wise also desire their happiness, and oftentimes the two are not quite the same thing.”
Eyes twinkling with mirth, Margaret’s lips twisted into a smirk. “Truly aunt, must you know everything?”
“Well, in one particular, I have much to discover. But enough about that. I shall keep you informed of any developments, once you are settled somewhere.”
Margaret took a long, pensive sip of her tea. “Perhaps it is unwise, Aunt.”
“Unwise? Where there is suspicion, it is always wise to act. I do know a great deal, you know. You have been as a daughter to me, and though I can give you no more than my allowance permits, you must allow me this.”
As in all things, Prudence had given her manner of assistance to Margaret considerable thought, certain it must come out to their advantage. Had Margaret’s stepson not taken such a disobliging aversion to Prudence’s own daughter when she came out, and he still was an eligible young bachelor, Prudence might have been moved to let things rest. Well, there was no accounting for taste, that she knew all too well.
She said no more about it, beginning to fear Margaret might cry off any interference at all, and finished her tea. She restricted her remarks to more urbane observations about the weather, and then sent for the girls to bid her farewell.
Sotherton Court, Northamptonshire
Their guests departed after a hearty dinner, of which Prudence had been vastly proud. Though her acquaintance with the Bertrams had spanned more than half her life, they had never seen Sotherton, and she took great satisfaction in showing the home to advantage. Whether Maria Bertram had the sense to understand her own good fortune, Prudence knew not, but she suspected her son would wish to discuss the day’s events with her in privacy, and she lingered downstairs, waiting.
James did not disappoint, and sought her out directly. He answered her beckoning gesture as he entered by crossing the room to kiss her on the cheek. “Well, Mother, it has been quite a day.”
“A satisfying one, I hope.”
James gave a quirk of his mouth as if contemplating his answer, and Prudence seized upon his indecision. “What think you of these Crawfords? Was the gentleman’s mode of observation and suggestion all that you had hoped?”
Here James scowled, and rubbed at his temple. “His mode of suggestion is….” He broke off and sighed, knitting his brow as he did when words escaped him.
Her conjecture had hit its mark, but Prudence kept her face an affectionate blank. “I am sure he must have had a great many notions of how things might be worked on.”
“Worked on, indeed,” James huffed. Oh yes, Prudence had certainly struck upon something here.
“You confound me, dearest. I had thought you most eager to get him here to Sotherton, but I think you are not best pleased. Has he given you some offense? Suggested some improvement in an area you already thought an advantageous prospect? He was most interested in the wilderness.”
As much as Prudence balked at needling him so, she could see his thoughts were still too disorganized for him to express without her helping him on. And help him, she would. To that end, she thought it best to act at once, for he was clearly in the throes of some great feeling.
Again he began by repeating her own words back to her. “Most interested in the wilderness indeed!” James threw himself into a chair, let out a few heavy breaths, and then regarded her apologetically. She had moved to sit beside him even before he gestured for her to do so, and she wrapped her hand around his. “My dearest boy, I only wish to know what distresses you. You must tell me, you know, for have I not always defended your interests?”
“Always,” he owned, and gave her hand a quick kiss before releasing it. After a moment of shifting uncomfortably in his seat, he finally met her eye. “I begin to distrust this Crawford fellow, Mother.”
Feigning surprise would perhaps be too much; Prudence only quirked an eyebrow at him. At least they were finally getting somewhere. “I am sure he must have given you some offense. Did he think the house or grounds wanting in some way?”
“No, not at all. I admit his praise and his advice for improvement were equally pleasing, but….”
“Perhaps he might have some qualms about your choice of mistress for the estate?” Prudence held his gaze, ready to have out with it already.
James nodded feebly. “Who could not but admire Maria? I am sure she is the finest girl in the county – have I not always said she is the finest girl in the county?”
James nodded, his chest puffing out with pride at his conquest. “Yes, well. Of course she should impress everyone she meets, and I had thought I would quite fancy being such an object of envy, with her on my arm. But it was not my arm she was on at all, but his!”
Prudence suppressed a smile. “You think he means to detach her from you? But this is most impossible! You are betrothed, you have her father’s permission.”
“True.” James chewed his lip. “I shall not feel entirely secure until her father returns from his business in Antigua. He shall see what a knave this Crawford fellow is, and I hope he expels him from Mansfield entirely.”
“Is it really so bad as that?” Prudence had her suspicions, but she pressed her son for more information. What followed was an impassioned complaint about Mr. Crawford’s attentions to Maria Bertram throughout the course of the day. The pair had broken off from the rest of the walking party and gone off together to explore beyond the ha-ha, despite James’ haste in retrieving the garden key.
“Were they quite alone together all that while?” Prudence gently raised a hand to her chest, scandalized at the possibilities of such a thing.
“For an hour or more, I am sure of it! Even Fanny Price acknowledged it was an ill-contrived business for them to go over the gate, for I am sure I was very quick about getting the key, you know. I rather pitied her being left behind.”
“Of course you did, dear heart. But did you catch them up?”
“I was quite fatigued by then, but though they had gone off the main path, they had not covered so much distance.”
With another quirk of her eyebrow, Prudence curled her lip in displeasure. “I would expect that in the time it would take you to fetch the key and return to the gate, they might have gone a mile or more. What a nasty trick!”
“No more than half a mile,” James assured her. “But still….”
Prudence’s suspicion deepened. It was not the first time she had been moved to raise such a question about the persons concerned, and some manner of intervention began to seem necessary. “I wonder whatever they were about, then. Where did you discover them?”
“On a bench near the pond – the scenic spot on the western bank.”
“A very cozy spot, to be sure.” Prudence regarded her son evenly, watching as he conjured up the same images that flitted through her own mind, of Maria and Mr. Crawford in a lovers’ embrace.
“I cannot say for sure that it was so very untoward, only… well, I was rather jealous. I should have liked to show her that place myself, you know.”
“A perfectly natural inclination. But I wonder why they might be about such mischief. Were they quite alone?”
“Miss Julia had only just caught them up a moment before I happened upon them – now she was most put out.”
“And Miss Price, was she about, too?”
“No – they had left her behind, at the gate.”
“Oh, yes. Well! I hate to speak ill of anybody, but that sounds like incivility to me. To leave her cousin behind! I wonder what Maria was thinking by it.”
James sighed heavily and slumped backward in his chair. “Surely she could not fancy such a little man. He is not five foot nine, I am sure of it, and not at all handsome!”
“No indeed,” Prudence agreed. “He is not at all as finely featured as you, my dear. You have every advantage over him, including the hand of Maria Bertram.”
“Yes, well….” James shook his head in dejection, and fixed his mother with a querulous gaze. “You do not think she has changed her mind?”
“If she has, I should call her quite a fool, and most unworthy of you!”
James shrugged his shoulders. “I am sure it is no fault of hers.”
“Perhaps not. But, James, you need not marry a woman who has become enamored of another man – a lesser man. The match was made so quickly, and I am sure it could be unmade in a trice.”
Prudence instantly saw that she had miscalculated, for James looked utterly aghast. “What? No, no indeed! Why should I give her up? I only wish that Crawford would do so, and bestow his charm where it is wanted.”
Prudence suspected Mr. Crawford was already doing just that, but kept this thought to herself. “You are quite sure of your Miss Bertram, then?”
“She is the loveliest creature I ever beheld, Mother. Things were progressing just as I wished before this Crawford fellow came upon us all. That is all I mean.”
Maria Bertram was far from blameless in Prudence’s estimation, for she had observed the girl on several occasions since the Crawfords had come into the area. Prudence wished, rather than believed, that James’ estimation of things might prevail, but she was determined to be prepared for any eventuality. “I daresay the Crawfords will not be much longer amongst us, my dear – they have been at the Grants’ above a month already. I am sure it will all come right, and if it does not, well… there are plenty of other pretty girls in England.”
“Yes, yes, but I want Maria.” James looked pitifully at his mother, and though Prudence thought her son had made a very foolish choice indeed, she could not gainsay his happiness any further – at present….
Thanks for reading – I hope you all enjoyed today’s excerpt! I’d love to hear from you all, with any questions, comments, or predictions about where things might be headed for the folks at Mansfield and Norland….