From the desk of Lisa Galek:
If you are one of those Austen fans who think it’s a shame that Mansfield Park is so rarely adapted for modern audiences, then The Beresfords will be a welcome addition to your reading list.
When six-year-old Frannie Price is removed from the care of her drug-addicted mother and sent to live in a foster home, her mother’s sister, Marie, and her husband, Paul, sweep in (at the instance of Paul’s overbearing sister, Terri) and bring the girl to live with them in California. There, Frannie grows up in a large, luxurious home with her four older cousins (step cousins, really. They’re her uncle’s children from his previous marriage).
The oldest, Tom, is clearly the troublemaker of the bunch. The two younger sisters, Rachel and Julie, spend most of their time either arguing or ignoring Frannie. Only Jonathan, a devout Christian who is determined to one day become a pastor, shows Frannie any kindness. He soon becomes her closest friend, confidant, and, in Frannie’s heart, so much more.
In the summer of 1985, when the shy, introverted Frannie turns fourteen, Tom brings the Grant twins home from college for a visit. Frannie is instantly repulsed by Eric Grant, who flirts openly with both Rachel and Julie, playing the two sisters against each other. But the beautiful and graceful Caroline Grant, who rarely takes anything seriously and is bored by religion, easily captures Jonathan’s attention. The story plays out over the course of the next seven years, in which Frannie’s admiration and love for Jonathan are tested, her bonds with her family are strained, and she is tempted by the very person she despised all those years ago.
Mansfield Park is one of Austen’s works that’s hardly ever given a contemporary spin. Pride and Prejudice is a much more popular choice, probably because the witty, determined, Elizabeth Bennet transitions so seamlessly into a present-day heroine. The same is true of Emma Woodhouse and Marianne Dashwood. There’s something so modern and appealing about their style that it’s easy to imagine them walking around in our world.
But not every young woman sparkles with wit, charm, and confidence. That’s why the bookstore needs characters like Fanny Price. Though she’s often written off as an uptight prig, Fanny is also a dazzlingly complex character.
The Beresfords achieves the near impossible feat of staying true to Austen’s creation, while bringing her convincingly into the 20th century. The author does this by making her Frannie a very religious girl who quotes the Bible and lives by a strict Christian moral code (which she learned mainly from her beloved cousin, Jonathan). Here, Frannie is pious without being insufferable. Her reliance on scripture, her concern and love for others, and her continual striving for goodness seem natural and consistent. Like many shy girls before her, Frannie struggles to follow her convictions but, eventually, grows in self-esteem and confidence in her own choices.
Austen’s other characters are all convincingly updated and (dare I say it) even improved at times. Jonathan is as admirable and yet, at times, clueless as Edmund ever was. The other Beresford children and their parents are equally well done. Mrs. Norris becomes the micro-managing Aunt Terri, who is forever going around picking on Frannie and telling everyone how much things cost. She’s delightful and terrible at the same time.
The plot adheres very closely to Mansfield Park, but every moment feels fresh and new. The stakes are heightened to give modern readers the jolt they need. For example, Eric Grant can no longer just flirt with Rachel Beresford in front of her boyfriend, he has to seduce her into surrendering her virginity. The ending, which is expanded from Austen’s original, actually made my heart pound and tears run down my face.
My one quarrel with the book was the dialogue. Teenagers growing up in California in the 1980’s just didn’t talk like this:
“You aren’t going inside, are you, Frannie?” [Caroline asked] “That was so helpful of you to explain Greg’s point of view. I would’ve had no idea he was the religious type… I bet you think it was mean of Eric, what he did to Greg.”
I nodded once. She might act like we were having a private conversation, but she didn’t lower her voice any.
“It was,” Caroline agreed. “You’re right. And you know what, even if that kind of stuff happens all the time in college – and I’m afraid it does – that didn’t make it less mean, does it?”
“I don’t think so,” I said in a low voice.
“I know so,” said Caroline. “You’ve convinced me. Eric must apologize to Greg. And Greg must forgive Eric. If he doesn’t I’ll set you on him, Frannie, and you can tell him exactly what you told us – that it’s his religious duty.” She smiled at me. “We’re going to see a lot of each other this summer you know, your family and mine. We can’t have anyone mad at anyone. I dub thee Frannie the Peacemaker.”
However, overall, the writing is very good quality.
I would rank The Beresfords with some of the best Austen updates I’ve ever read or seen. The author clearly knows and loves Mansfield Park and has taken her characters on wonderful journey. That’s what every Austenesque author hopes to write and every Janeite hopes to read. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
4 out of 5 Stars
The Beresfords, by Christina Dudley
Bellavita Press (2012)
Trade paperback (402) pages
Cover image courtesy of Bellavita Press © 2012; text Lisa Galek © 2012 , Austenprose.com