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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Miss Price goes to Washington

Jane Austen has been a semi-regular presence in the New York Times Book Review’s weekly “By the Book” feature, in which noted authors talk about the books they like best.

But this week’s column, featuring acclaimed science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, may be the first in which Austen has been prescribed as executive reading material.

Asked which book she would require the president to read, Le Guin answers, “Poor man. Something as far as possible from Washington, D.C., and noisy self-righteous jackassery. Mansfield Park, maybe?”

Though I take Le Guin’s point – Mansfield Park is a novel that values quiet, steadfast virtue over the loud self-promotion that seems de rigueur in political circles – her suggestion got me thinking along completely different lines: Mansfield Park goes to Washington! What an Austen fanfic that could be! The novel is filled with morally questionable characters who would fit perfectly in a story set in the halls of the Capitol.

Let’s see: Fanny Price is a Jimmy Stewart-type idealist whose blue-collar upbringing in a down-at-heel Long Island town leaves her feeling out of place amid the Ivy League graduates she encounters as a staffer in the office of Sir Thomas Bertram, a pompous, silver-haired senator who has chaired the same second-tier subcommittee on national park policy for decades.

She’s pursued by Henry Crawford, the junior senator from Sir Thomas’ state, a born politician who conceals his ruthless pursuit of self-interest under a smothering blanket of charm. Mary Crawford, adept at behind-the-scenes manipulation, manages Henry’s next campaign. Edmund Bertram is an inner-city high school teacher whose students are rallying to close the trash plant polluting their neighborhood. Meanwhile, the polluters have hired the bustling, sycophantic Mrs. Norris to lobby for their disreputable cause. A big set piece involves preparations for a skit to be performed at the annual Gridiron Club dinner.

OK, some details remain to be worked out, but you see? Practically writes itself.

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