Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Matters at Mansfield (Or, The Crawford Affair)

I'm not sure Anne de Bourgh has any dialog in Pride and Prejudice, and I've never given the character much thought.  I'd always thought of her as a young girl, but she'd have to be Darcy's age if their mothers planned their marriage from the time they were infants.  Anne comes to life in The Matters at Mansfield, Carrie Bebris's fourth (and best) Mr. and Mrs. Darcy mystery.  Lizzy is the first to notice the change - Anne seems prettier and less retiring than before her long sojourn in Bath while her mother made an extended visit to Pemberly.  While Lady Catherine plots Anne's marriage to the vicious and foul-tampered son of senile Viscount Sennex, Lizzy encourages Anne to dance with her cousin Captain Fitzwilliam or with an attractive stranger, Henry Crawford.  Anne misinterprets Lizzy's advice and instead elopes with Henry (who comes across as more spoiled and less caddish than the man who would ruin Fanny Price and break her heart for a bit of fun).

Needless to say, Lady Catherine de Bourgh will not stand for her daughter marrying a nobody with a shady past and sends her nephews to find the couple.  An unfortunate accident on the return trip leaves the party in the Ox and Bull Inn in the village of Mansfield where Anne finds herself the unlikely center of two separate love triangles, neither of which amuse her mother who welcomes Henry's death because it would free Anne to marry Neville Sennex.  Or Vicount Sennex - anyone but Henry.

As a mystery, The Matters at Mansfield is just a shade above mediocre.  I solved the who and how (and guessed at the why) too soon.  As a comic novel, though, it's very good, especially for Austen fans.  Lady Catherine blusters off the page, Mrs. Norris makes a cameo appearance, and Bebris uses the visitors to the Ox and Bull as a sort of Greek chorus of gossip.  Bebris's first two novels leaned a bit too heavily on the supernatural for my taste, and while her third book, North by Northanger, was an improvement, it was largely forgettable.  With The Matters at Mansfield, Bebris has found the right tone, more than half-way through the natural life of the series.

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