Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma

Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma
Written by Diana Birchall
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma arrived courtesy of FedEx, on my desk at work a week or so ago and was a sore distraction as I kept taking a peek at the pages before resolutely shutting up the book to await the time for leisure enough to read it.

I have read sequels to Pride & Prejudice before and they varied wildly from boring to one which was positively soft porn and which I binned, but this book by Diana Birchall certainly does not fall into either of these categories and is excellent. She catches the ironic tone and rhythm of Jane Austen's language beautifully, no gilding the lily or overdoing it and I found myself totally absorbed within five minutes of opening up this delightfully produced book.

"Mr Darcy was, at fifty, very much as might have been expected from a knowledge of him at eight and twenty; a noble man indeed...magisterial bearing and dignified manner were more impressive than ever... yet his lips would relax in an indulgent smile that was good to see, his eyes would gleam with enjoyment and his face would look really handsome still, when he looked upon his wife...." who was " between forty and fifty years old and still a handsome woman known for her with and good humour....she was as much as ever the delight of Mr Darcy's mind and the beloved of his heart...."

The Darcys have three children, Fitzwilliam, Hugh and Jane. Fitzwilliam is rather a dull uninteresting heir to Pemberley and the quick wit and charm seem to have passed him by with both younger children having these attributes in abundance. His parents worry about him and how he will manage Pemberley in the future. Jane Bennett and Mr Bingley also have problems with their only child Jeremy, who is weak and lacks character.

Bettina and Chloe, two of Lydia's numerous children, are invited to Pemberley for a visit. Bettina is bold and strong willed and resembles her mother greatly, Chloe is reticent and more ladylike with a quiet grace. (It is difficult not to see a parallel here with the character of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park who, whether we love her or not, had strong principles and was essentially a good person, and the contrast to her two cousins, Maria and Julia Bertram).

Fitzwilliam forms a passion for Bettina and history repeats itself as they run off to live together in London. Bettina soon abandons him and we learn that she has even tried to add Jeremy Bingley to the list of her lovers, but though she ends up on the stage and is obviously destined to be a woman of notoriety, there is no sense of shame or embarrassment about her situation. Bettina is not going to share the fate of Maria Bertram, living in isolation for the rest of her life trying to expiate her 'sin'. Not she.

"...was it wrong to be a man's mistress? It was only nature and what was nature, made by God, could not be indecent....the mere fact of being married by a preacher cannot determine if one is a virtuous innocent woman...committing fornication does not make you bad, and chastity does not make you good"

After that little speech, I will admit I began to harbour a sneaking admiration for Bettina. After a rotten upbringing and nothing much to look forward to she has decided to go for it. Good for her.

A chastened Fitzwilliam returns home, is involved in a riding accident and during his slow recovery has time to ponder on his previous attitude towards Pemberley and his life in general. (Shades of Mansfield Park once more with the acquiring of maturity by Tom Bertram after his serious illness).

As well as satisfying ourselves to the continuing happiness of Elizabeth and Darcy and finding out how their lives progressed, we also have the bonus of meeting once again the ghastly gorgon, Lady Catherine de Burgh who now lives alone following the death of her daughter. No softness or mellowing for this lady, she is just as haughty, proud and unpleasant as she has always been. We also meet the ubiquitous Mr Collins who is as humble and obsequious as ever, though Lady Catherine has tired of his worn out courtesies. Mrs Bennett is no longer with us but we have a brief scene with Mr Bennett before he dies, where his wit is still very much in evidence. "I am glad you are here my Lizzy. I confess I have been in terror of joining your mother and hence I have kept off the eventuality as far as was possible". We reacquaint ourselves with Mr Bingley's sister and Kitty and Mary Bennett and was delighted to see that they still remain as unpleasant or as silly as they have always been.

Anybody who loves Jane Austen and who is eager to find out what happened "after the day on which Mrs Bennett got rid of her two most deserving daughters" will greet this book with eagerness and joy. I loved it.

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