In the early 19th century, Jane Austen wrote Mansfield Park, a novel that is usually less known to the public, unlike, say, Pride and Prejudice. In the late 20th century, in 1985, Joan Aiken wrote Mansfield Park Revisited, one of her `sequels' to Jane Austen's books. In this particular book, Joan Aiken attempted to `update' the original novel by having its characters develop more modern social attitudes, thus keeping true to Jane Austen's `proto-feminist' literary spirit, as well as imitating her writing style and literary approach.
The initial tie between the two novels is the end of the original Mansfield Park, where, among other events, Maria Rushworth nee Bertram runs away with Henry Crawford and Fanny marries Edmund. In addition, Fanny's only sister, Susan, also moves to Mansfield from her home in Portsmouth and becomes one of the characters. That is where Mansfield Park Revisited starts, as Joan Aiken tried both to adhere to the spirit of Jane Austen's novel and to introduce more modern notions of relations between men and women into her work. In fact, Fanny and Edmund are notably absent from the main bulk of Mansfield Park Revisited, most likely because their absence is a necessary device for that novel's plot. However, Edmund and Fanny are also probable manifestations of Austen's ideas in Mansfield Park, namely those of a demure and wholesome woman and more educated and sophisticated, yet equally wholesome man. Joan Aiken, however, had to remove these manifestations to clear the field somewhat and start her own novel, starring Susan as the new female leading character, who is more self-assured and smarter than Fanny, yet about as good in running Mansfield Park. For contrast, the authoress also `re-introduces' Tom Bertram, the new owner of the Mansfield Park property, for old Sir Tom dies at the beginning of the new novel and now it is Tom, who is in charge, and does not do any better than how he did in the original... In other words, Joan Aiken reverses the usual power scheme of the early 19th century, giving the readers an incompetent man vs. a competent woman - yet that is just the start.
Before we get deeper into this, here is a quotation where Joan Aiken's true diversion from Jane Austen becomes visible-
"[...] Maria, it seemed, had a violent partiality for this Henry Crawford; nevertheless, she committed the supreme folly of marrying another man, a man of far greater fortune who commanded neither her affection nor her respect. It seemed that Mr Crawford had not reciprocated Maria's feelings; yet she must have had hopes of him for when, wearied out by impatience and incompatibility, she finally left her husband, it was to Mr Crawford that she turned. But he, according to Mrs Norris, rejected her wholly, badly informing her that he did not love her, had never loved her, that he loved another; in short, he turned her from his door.
(Mansfield Park Revisited, pg. 59-60)
Here, then, is the version of the elopement told to Susan by Mrs. Osmond. While keeping true to the letter of Jane Austen's narrative, she not too subtly shifted the accents on the power centre of this conflict, re-arranging the blame and making Maria the actively guilty one of the two, whereas before, in Mansfield Park proper, it was the other way around:
Henry Crawford, ruined by early independence and bad domestic example, indulged in the freaks of a cold-blooded vanity a little too long. Once it had, by an opening undesigned and unmerited, led him into the way of happiness. Could he have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman's affections, could he have found sufficient exultation in overcoming the reluctance, in working himself into the esteem and tenderness of Fanny Price, there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him. His affection had already done something. [...]
Curiosity and vanity were both engaged, and the temptation of immediate pleasure was too strong for a mind unused to make any sacrifice to right: he resolved to defer his Norfolk journey, resolved that writing should answer the purpose of it, or that its purpose was unimportant, and staid. He saw Mrs. Rushworth, was received by her with a coldness which ought to have been repulsive, and have established apparent indifference between them for ever [...]
In this spirit he began the attack, and by animated perseverance had soon re-established the sort of familiar intercourse, of gallantry, of flirtation, which bounded his views; but in triumphing over the discretion which, though beginning in anger, might have saved them both, he had put himself in the power of feelings on her side more strong than he had supposed. She loved him; there was no withdrawing attentions avowedly dear to her. [...]
(Mansfield Park, pg. 351-2)
When put one after another, the two quotations clearly show two different literary goals for the two books. In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen wrote a socio-romantic comedy, generously tinged with criticism of her contemporary society. That criticism - among other things - set the urbane and `artificially' sophisticated Mary Crawford against the wholesome and demure Fanny Price. From another point of view, however, Jane Austen wrote still a relatively traditional novel in which good triumphs over evil, loosely speaking. After all, in Mansfield Park - just as in other works of Austen - there are no villains whether one judges literary villainy by the standards of works of Shakespeare or of modern authors. There are `wicked' people and people who would probably be considered shallow by modern standards, but all the same, everybody has some sort of good, if not redeeming, qualities (like Henry Crawford) and everyone has a shot at a happy end (like his sister), by Jane Austen's will, if nothing else.
When in 1985 Aiken `took over' from where Austen left off, the world had changed and consequently, Joan Aiken decided to show the beginnings of this change via Mansfield Park Revisited, starting with the basics of the original novel. For example, as quotations had previously illustrated, she re-invented the Crawfords and their relationship with the Bertrams (especially Henry's with Maria), and added several characters that were her own in order for them to show how the power dynamics between men and women began to change from the way that Austen used to describe them.
More importantly, Mansfield Park Revisited had changed the power dynamic in Mansfield Park, as initially, Austen's novel centers on Fanny, who had a big heart yet little education, and who embodies all the so-called traditional female values, including a meek yet virtuous character. However, Aiken's main story protagonist is Susan, who even in the original is smarter and livelier not only than her sister, but than Tom Bertram as well, thus shifting subtly the power dynamics more towards the women. Therefore, it means that Mansfield Park Revisited is a more modern pro-feminist novel than Mansfield Park.
Still, there are usually two sides to every development: just as Susan is more ambitious and less submissive than Fanny was, so Maria Bertram is much more active than in the original novel, finding herself a potential husband that has a much older, richer and promiscuous patron. Women becoming more active mean not only more heroines, but more villainesses too, and that is important. Wherein Jane Austen's works do not have any outright villains, Joan Aiken's do: as said before, Maria Bertram comes off very amoral in Mansfield Park Revisited, and Charlotte Yates is another character that has no likeable qualities, something that clashes with Austen's ideas. Joan Aiken's novel brought new ideas about the relations between the sexes, and while women did receive more power, they received the responsibility that came with it and not everybody dealt with responsibility in a proper manner.
However, can such examples be considered as serious deviations from Mansfield Park? After all, in her own time, Jane Austen herself was a more or less proto-feminist author herself; among her novels, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice shows clear steps in that direction. Still, Joan Aiken may have practically cleared away at least parts of Austen's original setting for her own and using the void left by Fanny and Edmund's departure as the first entry for her own ideas, moving away from the ideals of Austen's times and making them more modern. In particular, Susan no longer resembles a dream-girl of the 19th century and instead tends to speak her own mind, as do Mrs. Osmond and Mary Crawford, while the male characters are often judged by the ways of how they treat their women - something that did not manifest in Austen's novels.
Joan Aiken did keep some of Jane Austen's literary devices, including the latter's sly social satire, centered mostly on the Yates family, and although Susan is more vivacious and quicker on her feet than Fanny, Julia Yates and Charlotte usually manage to boss Susan around without much trouble, with Susan needing assistance, just as Fanny used to need. Tom too is very much his own self, and begins to change only at the end of the novel largely under the management of Mary Crawford, who, apparently, widens his mental horizons and helps to understand some things about life. Indeed, it is the final part of Mansfield Park Revisited when its differences from the prequel appear most sharply: there is a funeral, something that is readily avoided in Austen's novels, and in sharp contrast to Fanny's situation, Susan actually has the power to choose who she could, would, or ought to marry. This situation is highly unusual and very unlikely in Austen's times and may be Aiken's own invention.
Put otherwise, Austen may have been pro-feminist for her times, but Aiken brought forth more modern attitudes and opinions about the place of the woman in society and set them lose, especially in the last chapters of her book. Perhaps, however, this created a literary chimera of sorts: modern attitudes and opinions do not really integrate into Austen's world of the older ideas and ideals. When you compare Mansfield Park Revisited with Mansfield Park, these novelties do not fit in, no matter how much Joan tries to - her heroines such as Ms. Osmond and Mary Crawford come out almost like superwomen who cannot makes mistakes, especially in feminine matters, always ready to give Susan feminine advice, something that Austen's novels do not readily have.
Jane Austen and Joan Aiken wrote their novels in two different times, when the rules of both society and literature were very different, yet they wrote on the same subject: the relationship between men and women, and surprisingly they ended up with somewhat similar novels, the main difference being the subtle power shift between the genders. Yet perhaps the differences are not so great - both women shared a somewhat similar, feminist (proto-feminist in Austen's case) outlook on life and perhaps that explains the overlying similarity of the two novels despite their external differences.
Aiken, Joan. Mansfield Park Revisited. Great Britain: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1984
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Great Britain: VIRAGO PRESS Limited, 1989