It has always been a deal-breaker in my relationships. It's impossible for me to love anyone who doesn't love (or at least admire) Jane Austen's least-loved novel, Mansfield Park, published 200 years ago. Why it's her most unpopular book remains a source of mystery to me. It's her sexiest one, without doubt.
I was 14 years old, brought up in a working-class family in a tiny house, full of love and life but noisy and chaotic. It was as far as you could imagine from the traditional image of Austen's world. I grew up adoring the Brontes: storms, wind, rain, Cathy and Heathcliff.
Austen didn't cut it for me. I agreed with Charlotte Bronte, who found her style anaemic: "What did I find?" she wrote after reading her novels, "a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers - but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy - no open country - no fresh air - no blue hill - no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses."
But then my odious English teacher refused to let me sit an English exam. I set out to prove him wrong. At night school, I discovered Mansfield Park - a story about a girl born in a small house and an urban community, not the Austen I was expecting. I fell in love. And it changed my life.
How wrong could Charlotte Bronte have been? Passion, eroticism, danger, illicit love and incest simmer below the surface in Mansfield Park. The anti-hero, Henry Crawford, is every bit as sadistic and sexy as Heathcliff; he just has more charisma (more sinister altogether) than Bronte's charmless hunk.
Of all Austen's novels, Mansfield Park is the one written on the widest canvas.
It's the only one to be called after the name of the house (Northanger Abbey was given its title posthumously by Austen's brother - she, in fact, called it Susan). This gives us an important clue. Austen does nothing accidentally.
Mansfield Park is not, as it is commonly misunderstood to be, a great old English country house such as Mr Knightley's Donwell Abbey or Darcy's Pemberley. It is a newly built property, a house erected on the proceeds of the British slave trade. Every literate person in Austen's time knew the name of England's most famous Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, and his contribution to the abolition of the slave trade. His landmark ruling in the infamous Somerset case signalled that on English soil, at least, no man was a slave. It was also widely known in polite society that Lord Mansfield had adopted his mixed-race great-niece, Dido Belle. Mansfield was devoted to Dido, left her a substantial legacy and confirmed her freedom in his will. She was beautiful, well educated and accomplished, brought up at Kenwood House in Hampstead alongside her cousin, Elizabeth Murray, who knew Austen and her family.
Austen found Elizabeth rather quiet and dull, but she was greatly interested in the story of Lord Mansfield's adopted black daughter. A young girl is brought up by wealthy relations at a large country house. Her status is ambiguous: is she a servant or a lady?
How should she be raised? Is the story of Dido Belle a shadow flickering in the background of Mansfield Park's Fanny Price, who rises from being the most lowly member of the household to being the best loved?
Mansfield Park was written immediately after Pride And Prejudice, and it seems to me that Austen set herself the challenge of creating a very different kind of heroine from Lizzy Bennet. What if a character like Lizzy were the anti-heroine - the witty, pretty Mary - and the heroine demure? Why not write a novel undoing the heroine-centred courtship romance?
Mansfield Park is perhaps the first novel in history to depict the life of a little girl from within. Fanny is 10 years old when she is uprooted from her loving but noisy home in Portsmouth, and finds herself in a mansion where nobody pays her the slightest attention. She is delicate in health and nervous; she shudders when she hears the footsteps of her stern uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram. She lives in the attic, which is cold and gloomy; her aunt bullies her unremittingly; her female cousins ignore her. Only her cousin Edmund takes an interest and she pays him back by loving him.
Some readers are disappointed by Fanny. She is not witty and not pretty. She is shy. Even the author's own family disliked her. Austen noted drily that her mother "thought Fanny insipid, Enjoyed Mrs Norris". But Fanny is clever, kind and watchful. She is spiritual, romantic and in touch with nature.
Readers who miss the point of Fanny Price miss the point of the novel. She is the filter through which we view the mesmerising Crawfords. They turn the big house into a theatre, and put on an erotic play called Lovers' Vows chiefly so they can flirt like crazy. Henry Crawford creates havoc and rivalry between the Bertram sisters, Fanny's cousins. Edmund, destined for the church, falls in love with Mary Crawford, and takes part in an inflammatory scene in which a pious, uptight clergyman is seduced by a coquette. All the time, Fanny is watching and despairing.
Fanny is consumed with sexual jealousy. The twist is when the villain Henry decides to seduce Fanny. But it doesn't work because she loves Edmund. Then, unexpectedly, Henry does fall truly in love.
When Fanny, who cannot think highly of a man who "sports with any woman's feelings", refuses Henry, she is punished by her uncle and sent back to grotty Portsmouth. This is a terrific section of the novel. Portsmouth comes alive as a bustling seaport. Inside the Prices' home, Jane Austen wanders into previously uncharted territory in her depiction of the lower-middle-class family.
Fanny's eyes are now open to the dirty reality of life without servants to clear up after you. She is horrified by the filth: "half-cleaned plates, and not half-cleaned knives and forks", dust motes circling in the glare of the sunshine, china "wiped in streaks", "the milk, a mixture of motes floating in thin blue". The descriptions are superb: this is Jane Austen writing with her corsets loosened.
Mansfield Park is a profound exploration of the duty of parents to shape their children's moral and spiritual development. It includes a father who is emotionally distant. It reflects on the importance of home, the nature of a good education, the alienation of sons from their fathers. At the centre of the book is a displaced child with an unshakeable conscience. A true heroine.
The True Story of Dido Belle, by Paula Byrne, is out now.