Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Beresfords by Christina Dudley

You may have wondered where I've been lately. Well, I had a netball injury which left me in hospital! I'm home now, but mostly chair bound for the next few months. I'm not happy about that at all, as you can imagine, but at least I can still read. Here is a review that I wrote before I was hospitalised but didn't get the chance to share with you.

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Book Cover - 'The Beresfords' by Christina Dudley
Last year, to celebrate the bicentenary of ‘Mansfield Park’ I embarked on a Mansfield reading challenge and found that there were slim pickings. I read a few Mansfield Park inspired books but they were all young adult. ‘The Beresfords’ is an updated version of Mansfield Park set in the 1980s and although our main character, Frannie Price is 14 when it begins I wouldn’t categorise it as YA.

Frannie went to live with her Aunt Marie’s family at age 6. Frannie’s mum was a drug addict, and so had brushes with the law and social services and Frannie’s aunt by marriage, Aunt Terri (the Mrs Norris character) suggests to her brother, Paul (the Sir Thomas Bertram character) that it would be the morally upright thing to do to bring his wife’s niece to live with them. Paul has 4 children from his first marriage, Tom, followed by Jonathan (Edmund), Rachel (Maria) and Julie.  Marie, Frannie’s aunt, is their step-mother. Marie has been in the Beresford children’s lives for around 13 years when our story begins and the Beresford children’s birth mother isn’t that interested in them, so they see Marie as their mother. Marie is very indolent, in a vague, ineffectual way, and though she is fond of them, she doesn’t put herself out much for anybody at all, so the raising of the children has mostly been done by Paul Beresford’s sister, Theresa, aka Terri or Aunt Terror. The only person who actually sees her as a terror is 14 year old Frannie, who Aunt Terri is always finding jobs for, when she isn’t reminding Frannie how much she owes her relatives.

Frannie is an interesting character. She’s so awkward, gauche and crushingly shy. She utterly adores Jonathan, who is the only person in the family who actually seems to care for her at all or see her as a person. Her other step-cousins resented her from the first, finding her uneducated and slow compared to them. They are all older than her, she’d had limited education before she’d come to live with the Beresfords and they are all academically more able than her. Jonathan dreams of becoming a pastor, and has instilled a lot of his beliefs into Frannie. The rest of the family are regular churchgoers but they only attend church because their strict father insists on it, it’s all lip-service. Tom is wild, always sneaking out to drink, and he’s gone away to college, where he has a pretty good time. One day, he brings home some friends from college, twins Eric and Caroline Grant (the Crawford characters). They are sophisticated and irreverent, and the Beresfords are immediately attracted to them, probably because they are just so different.
‘We’d never heard conversation like this before, and you could see us all draw nearer, like neighboring stars being sucked into a black hole.’
From the sidelines, Frannie resentfully watches as Caroline Grant casts her spell over Frannie’s beloved Jonathan while Caroline’s brother Eric toys with the affections of both Rachel and Julie, despite the fact that Rachel has a boyfriend, star of the baseball team Greg. Since Frannie is so overlooked, she is rarely noticed, which gives her an opportunity to watch the whole group closely. Although she is naive she sees the manipulations and the charm offensive that the Grants are pulling on the Beresfords, and mistrusts them accordingly.

I think all of the modern updates of 'Mansfield Park' that I’ve read have been young adult reads, and although you can see the events of 'Mansfield Park' they’ve not been anywhere near as complex. This was very different in that respect, I felt that it was easily the most faithful update that I’ve read. Frannie was so similar to Fanny Price – overlooked, seen as lesser by her stepcousins (here lesser in age and intelligence rather than social status) and by virtue of them all being so self-absorbed she is completely overlooked. In some respects she is quite ignorant and she is quite black and white in her judgements of people, but with her view of the Grants unobstructed by any attention to her from them she is able to make shrewd judgement of their characters. The downside for me of Frannie being so close to Fanny is that it took me a long time to engage fully with the book. Frannie isn’t really an engaging character! In ‘Mansfield Park’ there is a third person narrator making wry observations and intelligent comments but here it’s all from Frannie’s narrow and naive point of view which wasn’t as engaging.  Frannie is also very isolated which for me didn’t work quite as well in a modern setting. In ‘Mansfield Park’ Fanny doesn’t have much choice of companions. Her cousins aren’t interested in her, Fanny isn’t out in society and she would have had very little opportunity to meet people of a suitable class. Frannie could have met a much wider range of people, and if she wasn’t able to find many friends in school, she had other opportunities through church. Frannie comes across as quite a cold individual which makes her a little less likeable than Fanny Price, who had far less chance to find people to care for. Also, I felt that Fanny’s main weakness, being overly judgemental and not taking into account people’s backgrounds, is a fault that Frannie shared but never really overcame.

As I mentioned above religion plays a part in this book which people may not be expecting in a modern update. However, in my opinion it’s entirely fitting; in ‘Mansfield Park’, Mary Crawford is aghast at the thought of Edmund becoming a clergyman, and the difference in their spiritual viewpoint would be sure to take some bridging and compromise, and here it’s no different. Frannie being raised in an environment where religious teachings are given prominence also helps account for her attitude, which by modern standards is quite conservative. Conversely, rebelling against their religious upbringing also explains some of Rachel and Tom’s behaviour, and the fact that they keep it so secret from their father.

Once I got past the first third or so of the book I was really gripped, and very impressed by how closely the relationship dynamics followed ‘Mansfield Park’. Frannie’s feelings were represented well, and I thought some of the things which may not have made sense in a modern update without tweaking were well-accounted for (such as Eric Grant suddenly noticing Frannie as an attractive girl – here it’s because he hasn’t seen her in a few years and she has changed quite a bit in that time and suddenly seems grown up to him). As I said, this is easily the most faithful update of Mansfield Park that I’ve read and what comes parcelled with that is that the cast of characters aren’t the most likeable you’ll find, though I felt differently to some of them compared to their characters in MP. Aunt Terri is always nipping away at Frannie but she’s not the horrible woman that Aunt Norris is, and I always had a soft spot for the Crawford that I didn’t find for Caroline Grant, though I still managed to find some pity for her brother! If you’re looking to read a modern update of 'Mansfield Park' I’d certainly recommend this one, and I’d rate it as 4½ stars.

4.5 star read

6 comments:

  1. I've never read a modern adaptation of Mansfield Park, so thanks for putting this one on my radar. Hope you're feeling better!

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    1. I'm getting there, thank you Anna! I was glad to read this book. All the other modern versions I've read have been young adult. My favourite of those was 'Whatever Love is' by Rosie Rushton http://babblingsofabookworm.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/whatever-love-is-by-rosie-rushton.html

      However, I thought 'The Beresfords' was a more complex read than that one.

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  2. It seems very nice! I think "Mansfield Park" has a great potential for retelling, and so Fanny.

    p.s. Hope you feel better:)

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    1. Thank you Carmen! It's not hurting very much now, but I can't bend down or carry anything which really cuts down what you can do!

      This is a really good book, and while I like YA adaptations of it, it's nice to read something more complex.

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  3. Oh I think my first comment must've been eaten! ;) I'm so glad you enjoyed this one, Ceri! I know MP and Fanny are not faves of many. I found myself really enjoying this adaptation - it felt very faithful, but not forced. I think I did end up liking Frannie a bit more than you did, I think I felt connected to her, in my high school years I was very quiet, isolated, and naive. She definitely is a difficult and atypical type of heroine.

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    1. Hi Meredith! I definitely agree, it was very faithful, but it really worked, and sometimes if things are too faithful they don't work in a modern context. I thought the author did a really good job with it.

      Maybe you're right re Frannie, I didn't feel I connected with her, but in MP I never managed to connect with Fanny Price either, much as I appreciate the book. I think MP is an interesting book in that the cast of characters is not particularly likeable for the majority of the book, more so than her other books I think.

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