Cindy Jones

My Jane Austen Summer:

A Season in Mansfield Park

For George

Synopsis of Mansfield Park

by Jane Austen

Young Fanny Price is sent to live at Mansfield Park, the manor home of her wealthy Aunt and Uncle Bertram, where she grows up neglected and abused, and secretly in love with her cousin Edmund. But Fanny is the obvious dark horse in any competition for Edmund's affection, especially after the arrival of Mary Crawford, a witty and engaging husband hunter.

Edmund is so charmed by Mary Crawford that he abandons caution and agrees to act in amateur theatricals while his father is away—mischief! As expected, the relaxed decorum of the stage inspires Mary's brother, Henry Crawford, to flirt with both of Edmund's sisters, one of whom is engaged to be married. When Uncle Bertram arrives home unexpectedly, the stage is shut down, but the scene is already set for disaster.

Without theatrics for amusement, the players are left to their own devices. Edmund's sister marries her rich buffoon, and Henry Crawford blazes uncharted territory: he will make Fanny Price fall in love with him. Henry convinces everyone, perhaps even himself, of his reformation. But Fanny has seen Henry in action and she steadfastly refuses his marriage proposal, even though it makes everyone mad at her. Uncle Bertram hopes an extended visit with her birth family in gritty Portsmouth will allow sufficient leisure to rethink her impertinence.

Henry pursues Fanny to Portsmouth, where he maintains his good behavior, ingratiating himself by overlooking her mother's slovenly housekeeping and her father's coarse manners. At the moment when even the reader thinks perhaps Henry has changed and perhaps Fanny should reconsider, news arrives that Henry has committed a sin of the first magnitude; he has run away with Edmund's sister, a newly married woman. Mary Crawford's casual response to her brother's barbarous behavior clues Edmund to Mary's real character. His infatuation destroyed, Edmund is free to discover his affection for Fanny.

In the end, Fanny's tenacity in the face of competition and steadfast resistance to artful guile win her the love and happiness generally reserved for witty and charming heroines.

Mansfield Park was published in 1814.


My spirits always lifted the instant my car started. Abandoning the grocery store pretense, I backed out of the driveway and headed in the familiar direction of my ex-boyfriend's house, driving the same direction I'd driven the previous three, eight, or perhaps thirty-eight nights. Passing through familiar neighborhoods: ferocious Highland Park, sleepy SMU, earnest M Streets, stopping for lights, I played the protagonist careening toward destiny, Anna Karenina rushing to Vronsky, or Marianne seeking Willoughby. One soulful connecting glance and Martin would confess he'd missed me. We would share his blue denim sofa like the old days, Martin watching ESPN, me reading a novel. But Martin didn't expect me anymore; I was no longer a part of his life.

At the red light a mile from his house I opened the book on my passenger seat: Jane Austen's Unfinished Novels and Juvenilia. Having read all six novels, I now trolled her minor works desperate for the sort of Jane Austen fix a book like Sense and Sensibility offered. But instead of reading a few sentences at the red light, I studied the postcard doubling as a bookmark: a postcard promoting a summer literary festival in England where people enact Jane Austen's novels. Vera, owner of my favorite indie bookstore, gave me the postcard the day I bought Mansfield Park, saying, "I think you're ready for this."

The light turned green and my stomach lurched. This drive-by spying thing wouldn't be happening if Jane Austen hadn't died so young. I'd started reading Persuasion aloud to my mother shortly after her cancer diagnosis, kept reading Emma as her faculties deteriorated, and finished Mansfield Park alone. I read the last three in a state of denial and hit the wall after Pride and Prejudice, confronted with the stark reality there would never be any more Jane Austen novels. The sequels and prequels failed me; no amount of fan fiction could bring her back to life in my mind. All other books paled; I reread random pages from Mansfield Park for days, postponing the inevitable withdrawal, jilted by Jane Austen. If only Austen were still alive and writing, I wouldn't have to stare at the walls of my bedroom, studying the Braille-like texture under the paint, as if the clues to my failure hid there.

Or stalk my ex-boyfriend.

At first, I drove by his house late at night and saw the blue light flickering in the front room, Martin operating the remote from his sofa. Once, on a Saturday evening in early spring, I drove down his street of stately trees and found him outside, his back to me, relaxing with a beer in his hand, talking to a neighbor. As much as I loved seeing his familiar male legs and broad shoulders, the close call scared me into staying home the next two nights. But great windows of free time opened up after my termination, allowing me to drive by earlier and more often, lured by the notion that discovering Martin's secrets would reveal my own missing pieces.

Lately, he'd been up to something. Last Wednesday evening Martin had not been home. His car gone, windows completely dark, the dog didn't even come to the fence. Thursday I drove by a little later and he was gone again. But the dog was home. On Friday, stopping just beyond his driveway, lurking in my dark car as if I were the secret, I noticed an unfamiliar bicycle leaning against the garage wall. I told myself he slumbered alone, tired from the busy week, but the unfamiliar bicycle troubled me.

At home, I tidied up my kitchen and went to bed with Henry James, unable to engage The Wings of the Dove no matter how many times I started over. Did Martin sleep alone in that dark house? I reviewed the clues: the bike, the pattern of absence, the missing dog. Saturdays were the critical night. I could barely function, couldn't even stare at the walls for the anxiety of Saturdays because, if Martin was going to have a date, he would have it on a Saturday.

Turning off Mockingbird Lane, my pulse quickened, driving through the neighborhood where I'd long imagined Martin and I would eventually reside: mannerly Tudors with yard signs announcing births, advertising remodeling projects, or proclaiming enrollment in elementary schools, private or public. The closer his house, the more nervous I felt, but nervous was so much better than the desperate loneliness of sitting at home wondering whose bicycle had moved in.

My mother had said Martin wasn't my type and I should let go, but she just didn't like him because of his commitment problem and his habit of sometimes closing his eyes when he talked to you. I reminded her Martin was the first guy who would ever agree to a date in the bookstore on Saturday night. I missed the way I could always find him in the magazine department reading Car and Driver when I was ready to go. Now, the scorching pain of my emptiness was unbearable. I began the final approach to Martin's street; one more turn and I would see his car in the driveway. Twenty feet farther, the dog would recognize me. Adrenaline surged as my car accelerated into the turn, putting me on the street that had been mine. My heart stopped for just a moment because there, on the sidewalk directly in front of me in cargo shorts and flip-flops, was Martin. I'd never seen Martin walk the dog. Too late to backtrack; I was nailed and he wasn't alone. Stopping the car, my mind raced for excuses.

Martin contemplated his cargo pockets and then fixed his gaze on the air just over my head, waiting. The woman holding his hand turned and stopped speaking when she saw me. The dog, straining on his leash, stopped pulling. Stepping out of my car, ankles teetering on my optimistic stilettos, keys jangling in my trembling hand, I tucked my hair behind my ears and smoothed my stalker-black sheath as if I had a purpose in interrupting their walk. Martin adopted the expression one saves for door-to-door magazine salesmen, but the woman smiled warmly, as if unaware of our adversarial position as well as her advantage.

"Hi, I'm Ginny," she said; her hand twitched as if she had considered extending it, and I could tell she knew everything. I tried not to study her dark blond Afro, her T-shirt advertising a hunger walk four years ago, and her lack of any of the Car and Driver curves Martin found interesting. My replacement was so contrary to my expectations I began to think I'd completely misread Martin.

"Hi," I said, looking at Martin. The dog sniffed my legs, pulling the leash Ginny held. Martin had never walked the dog with me.

"Scout," Ginny whispered, coaxing the dog to her side.

Martin glanced down the street as if help might be coming. "What's up?" he said.

Tucking the hair behind my ears again, unfortunately using the hand holding my keys that tangled and pulled out several long brown strands, I prayed for inspiration. She was down-to-earth, ordinary, and apparently sweet, not a single quality I could claim for myself. Is that what he wanted? I'd been struggling with cosmetics, lingerie that guaranteed cleavage, and sheaths selected to accentuate all things slim, when, all along, he had preferred Mother Earth. I could have done earth for him.