Mansfield Park RevisitedJoan Aiken
Copyright © 1985, 2008 by Joan Aiken Enterprises, Ltd.
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Originally published in 1985 as Mansfield Revisited by Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mansfield Park revisited : a Jane Austen entertainment / Joan Aiken.
1. Young women—England—Fiction. I. Title.
About the Author
A sequel to Mansfield Park? What presumption! No, not presumption. Love and admiration. No one could presume to make any attempt to fill the gap left by Jane Austen. And I have not done so. But, finding myself filled with an overmastering wish to find out what happened after Fanny married Edmund, and when Susan came to live at Mansfield, I had no recourse but to try and work it out by a mixture of imagination and common sense.
The sudden and unexpected death of Sir Thomas Bertram, while abroad engaged on business relating to his various properties in the West Indies, could be a cause of nothing but sorrow, dismay, and consternation to the baronet’s friends in England. A just administrator, an affectionate parent, a devoted husband, and respected neighbour in the county of Northamptonshire where he resided, Sir Thomas must be missed sincerely by all; yet his nearest family were left in particular and extreme distress, since in so many matters his word had been accepted as final authority; without its head, his household hardly knew how to go on, or how to resolve the innumerable difficulties and perplexities which his loss had occasioned, yet which only he it seemed could resolve.
In the first place it was immediately necessary that one of the baronet’s two surviving sons should proceed without delay to Antigua, to settle the numerous matters of business there left in a state of uncompletion by his demise; yet, which son could be spared?
“I cannot part with Tom,” lamented his mother, the disconsolate widow. “That Tom should go is wholly out of the question. No, no, I cannot spare Tom.—Yet how can I manage without Edmund?”
As the heir and elder son, it was unquestionably part of the new Sir Thomas’s duty to undertake the journey, and so he properly felt himself; but, on the other hand, he could hardly flout his bereaved and sorrowing mother’s wishes in the matter. A further consideration, lending additional weight on this side of the question, was the fact that Tom, not four years since, had been so critically ill of a neglected fever that, for some weeks, his life had been despaired of; and, even after amelioration had commenced there had, for a considerable period, been much grave cause for anxiety, since a number of hectic symptoms pointed to a morbid condition of the lungs. These fears had, fortunately, proved to have been misplaced, yet a certain weakness, remaining for several years thereafter, rendered a prolonged sojourn in a tropical climate so unwise that Sir Thomas, although he would have been glad of his elder son’s company on the voyage so that Tom might become familiar with the state of his affairs in Antigua, had nevertheless decided against taking him.
“Supposing that Tom should contract the fever a second time, and die in that dreadful place?” wailed Lady Bertram. “No, no, it is not to be thought of. But yet, how shall I ever do without Edmund?”
“My dear ma’am, I am positive that you can manage without Edmund very well,” cried the Honourable Mrs. Yates, who had come to lend her voice to the family council.
Miss Julia Bertram, having been so ill-judged as to marry the younger son of a peer, had soon, on becoming more closely acquainted with the limited extent of her husband’s fortune, decided to quit the doubtful pleasures of life in London on a straitened income, and console herself by becoming queen of a smaller society. She had persuaded her husband, the Honourable John Yates, to purchase a respectable property in Northamptonshire, not too far distant from Mansfield Park, therefore able to be illumined by some of its lustre. Since then, by almost daily visits to Mansfield, and by longer visits amounting to several months during the course of the year, Mrs. Yates was able to reduce materially her own domestic expenditure, and exert almost as much influence as she wished in Mansfield affairs. Her husband generally found himself very well content to remain at home on these occasions, shooting his coverts, fishing, or hunting six days a week as the season dictated; these, with billiards, were his only occupations.
“But Julia, how shall we ever do without Edmund on Sundays to preach the sermon?” demanded Lady Bertram.
“Do not concern yourself on that head, ma’am!” Edmund, the younger son, had, indeed, long ago settled the necessities of this matter in his own mind. As incumbent of the parish of Mansfield there devolved on him many duties from which he could ill be spared; yet nevertheless he had seen from the first that he must be the one to travel to Antigua. Fixed in this resolution he had already enlisted the aid of an acquaintance in Holy Orders some years older than himself, who, having recovered from a fever contracted during missionary work abroad, had been recommended by his Bishop to take six months’ respite in a healthy country parish before returning overseas.
Mr. Wadham had by letter expressed himself happy to oversee the cure of Mansfield and its outlying farms, the matter had been settled, and the gentleman was expected to arrive at the Parsonage shortly.
“I am persuaded, ma’am,” continued Edmund Bertram with half a smile, “that you will find my friend Frank Wadham’s sermons a decided improvement on mine. He is of a most unimpeachable character, well-bred and amiable, a distinguished preacher, and a devout Christian. I am sure that he will fill my place very well.”
“If you say so, Edmund—” replied his mother, sounding only half convinced. And his cousin Susan here asked bluntly,
“But if you go, Edmund—and Mr. Wadham comes to the Parsonage—what about Fanny? What becomes of Fanny?”
Fanny was Edmund’s wife. Her sister Susan had, four years ago, at the time of her cousin Tom’s illness, been invited to make her home at Mansfield Park, as help, auxiliary, and general comfort to her aunt Bertram. Aged fo
urteen at that date, and coming from a home which superfluity of children, poor governance, and straitened means had rendered slatternly, turbulent and uncomfortable, Susan had rapidly accustomed herself to the dignities and amenities of Mansfield. Well endowed with quickness of understanding, pleasure in being useful, no inconsiderable force of character, and a disposition to be happy, she had soon become essential to her aunt’s comfort, and in a very short time had established herself as the linchpin of the household. Fanny, Susan’s more delicately formed and tender elder sister who previously lived at Mansfield, had, at that time, married her cousin Edmund and was now established with her husband at the nearby Parsonage, where their marriage had been blessed first with a remarkably pretty little girl, the apple of her father’s eye, and, more recently, with a baby boy.
“Fanny insists on accompanying me,” said Edmund.
All the ladies cried out at this.
“Impossible! Not to be thought of! In that hot climate! With her delicate disposition! It would be utter folly—utter madness!”
“You know Fanny, my dear ma’am,” said Edmund. “Once she has taken her resolution on a thing, she is not to be swayed. And to tell the truth I shall be exceedingly glad of her company. Fanny thinks justly on all topics, and has a good head on her shoulders for business.”
“But Edmund,” objected Edmund’s older brother, “Fanny is such a puny little thing—so easily fatigued. Walking half a mile knocks her up. She will be prostrated, quite done up, after six weeks in that climate!”
Tom felt not a little ashamed, now the matter had been resolved without his having to put himself out, that his being spared the inconvenience and exertion of a journey should occasion his brother’s wife being thus laid at risk. Not ill-disposed to his cousin Fanny—he thought her a very good sort of dull little thing—Tom wished her no harm in the world, “I have been to Antigua,” he continued. “I know what the climate is like. It will not do at all for Fanny. No, no, I will tell you what will be best. She must come up to this house with the children while you are gone, Edmund. She can stay at Mansfield and be looked after. She will be company for my mother.”
“Yes, that will be better,” agreed his sister Julia. “The children may have the little white attic where Fanny herself used to sleep, and she can be in the East Room; there she will feel quite at home and be no trouble to any body.”
A certain curl of the lip betrayed her cousin Susan’s sentiments at this arbitrary disposal of Fanny, but Edmund repeated quietly,
“Fanny travels with me, and little William also. That is all decided. If you, ma’am, will be so good as to receive my daughter Mary at Mansfield—”
“The little dear. Of course we shall be happy to have her,” sighed Lady Bertram, anticipating no inconvenience to herself in this arrangement, as indeed there would not be, for she could be quite certain that three-year-old Mary would be devotedly cared for by her aunt Susan.
These matters established to everybody’s satisfaction, the two brothers went away for a last talk about estate affairs, since, in fact, for the last few months, during Sir Thomas’s absence, Edmund the younger brother had been dealing with the greater part of these, while Tom spent time in London and Bath, paid visits to acquaintances, and improved his knowledge of Brighton and Harrowgate. Pasturage, turnips, gamekeepers, which coverts must be attended to, which tenants indulged, which scolded, and which hunters put out to grass, must all be discussed, since Edmund and his wife would be setting sail from Liverpool in two days’ time.
“If you will not mind excusing me, Aunt Bertram, while my cousin Julia remains with you,” said Susan, “I think I will just run over to the Parsonage to ask my sister about little Mary’s clothes, and find out if I can help in any way with her packing.”
“Do, my love; go by all means; and tell Fanny that while she is in the West Indies she may as well bring me back a fringed shawl; or, no, perhaps two shawls would be better.’
“That girl does not improve,” said Julia, when Susan had left the room. “There is something about her—a certain freedom of manner, a lack of proper modesty, a wish to put herself forward—I have often observed it; she chooses to go her own way without any of that decorum and propriety which you, ma’am, and our dear aunt Norris were so careful to instil into Maria and me. I suppose one cannot hope for anything better—coming from such a very vulgar background as she does—yet after four years amid the elegancies and refinements of Mansfield, one might have expected to see more signs of gentility. It is impossible to be comfortable in her society. And how she grows! She must be more than a head taller than poor Maria, who was accounted one of the finest young ladies in the country. I confess I cannot admire her looks—she is so high-coloured and coarse. And her eyes! Instead of casting them down demurely as a young lady should who is not out, she stares you straight in the face—it is almost brazen! One is put quite out of countenance. There is no delicacy, no wish to avoid notice. If she went into society she would be giving offence every minute.”
“Then,” said Lady Bertram calmly, “it is fortunate that Susan does not go into society. Her ways suit me well enough—we go on very comfortably together, for she is an active, good-hearted girl, never too tired to untangle my work or take out Pug for an airing. And she has a fine, clear speaking voice; I can hear it plainly when she reads to me, whereas you, Julia, always mumble, and so does Tom.”
“I do not consider that she need dress as fine as she does. It is making herself needlessly conspicuous. That gown she had on was by far too bright. And the pattern too large; it does not suit her.”
“Her cousin Edmund gave it her, for her birthday.”
“Oh—! That was very good in Edmund. He does not remember little Johnny and little Tommy on their birthdays,” said Mrs. Yates, conveniently forgetting that she herself took no pains to mark the anniversaries of her brother’s children. “And then there is something altogether too easy and confident in her way of talking—as if she felt herself quite on a footing with the rest of us. Do not you think so, ma’am?”
“Well,” said Lady Bertram, after many minutes’ slow consideration, “I suppose she is on a footing. Sir Thomas had a decided respect for her mind; he was used to say that she had a remarkable intelligence.”
“No doubt my father intended to show indulgence to her, because of where she came from. He made allowances.”
“I do not believe so. I have heard Sir Thomas say that if she had been a boy she would have had a good head for politics and should go into Parliament.”
“A fine notion!” said Julia with an angry laugh. “Mr. Yates would hardly agree with my father there. I have heard him compare my cousin Susan to a squawking jay. He does not at all admire her.”
“That is because she corrected him on a point about the slave-trade.” said Lady Bertram placidly. “I remember that he was very put out at the time.”
‘‘Mamma, I have been thinking,” said Mrs. Yates, drawing her chair a little closer to the sopha on which Lady Bertram reclined. “Now that my father has died, do you not think there is a certain impropriety in my cousin Susan remaining under this roof? The household at Mansfield now so very much diminished, just the three of you, my brother Tom, and Susan, and yourself—mischief can come of such a small, close society. Tom and Susan will be in one another’s company more than is prudent.”
“But you know, my love,” pointed out her mother, “that Fanny and Edmund are here every day with the children. And how many times a week are you not coming over from Shawcross with little Johnny and little Tommy.—Where are the little angels, by the bye?”
“I left them over at the Parsonage with Fanny. They quite doat on little Mary and the baby. But, Mamma, I wish you will be thinking seriously about this matter. Susan has remained at Mansfield quite long enough; in my opinion quite long enough. She has derived untold benefits—untold advantages fro
m her residence here. But it is time she went home to Portsmouth. My aunt Price must need her. And she would, I daresay, soon find herself a husband among the dockyard officials or naval officers there. I do not think it wise that she and Tom should be so much thrown into one another’s society as they are certain to be from now on.”
“But Tom has never paid any especial attention to Susan,” said Lady Bertram, after more thought. “It is rather the reverse. He was used to laugh at her when she first came, when she was fourteen, because she spoke rather quick, and had some little expressions that were not quite ladylike; she must have picked them up from her brothers, you know. But since those days he has hardly noticed her; he is become accustomed to her as one of the household.”
“But he has been very much away from home these past few months. Now that he is to be more at home—”
“I do not think,” pursued Lady Bertram, “that Susan’s mother would wish her back in Portsmouth now that the family are moved to a smaller house. My sister Price has never expressed any wish for Susan to return. And besides, I could not spare her. I am sure I could not get on without her.”
“But, Mamma, either I or Fanny can very readily perform for you all those small services that you receive at Susan’s hands. And Tom, you know, will be marrying soon; it is high time that he did so. And after that his wife will be here to keep you company and Susan will not be needed.”
“Married?” repeated her ladyship slowly, as if this idea were a novelty. “Tom, married? Has he shown any signs of partiality to any young lady? I have not been aware of it myself.”
“No, Mamma, but then you never go into society. You do not pay visits or receive company or attend balls; you do not see the young ladies that Tom distinguishes with his attentions.”
“Does he distinguish young ladies? If that is so,” remarked Lady Bertram after more thought, “then I do not see that you need have any anxieties about his fixing his regard upon Susan.”
“Well—Tom is too well-bred for any unsuitable particularity, of course,” said his sister quickly, “but I have noticed that he has shown a decided interest in Miss Yates. He has danced with her a great number of times at the Northampton Assemblies.”