I normally steer well clear of derivative fiction having heartily disliked Letters From Pemberley by Jane Dawkins. However, I had been lured back to this subgenre of novels by Pamela Aidan’s excellent series “Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman”.
This book, however, was a disappointment. Although some aspects of it I enjoyed, particularly the descriptions of travel across the Alps in Regency times (did you know they fitted sleigh runners to carriage wheels when in thick snow?), there were so many other parts of the book that I found annoying that I was relieved the finish the book and certainly won’t bother reading any others by this author if they’re of a similar ilk.
I suppose the main problem with writing books that are semi-sequels to great literature is that your characters are fixed. Elizabeth Aston avoids some of the difficulties by dealing with the next generation of characters – Darcy and Elizabeth’s five daughters. I imagine there will be a novel per daughter, and this is the second of them, I believe. “Mr Fitzwilliam” is the Colonel Fitzwilliam of Austen’s novel, although his character seems rather different than in the original. Apart from that Austen’s characters don’t appear in person although they are mentioned. This was a wise move as it theoretically helped the book to stand on its own merits.
Except it didn’t, as it didn’t have enough. When reading a follow-on to a classic novel, even if the characters are different members of known families I expect the overall feel and tenor to be the same. But this is not like reading another Jane Austen or a Georgette Heyer novel. Here sexual morality is very different – our heroine lost her virginity to a gentleman just before he got engaged to someone else. What would have been a complete and utter social disaster is glossed over – partly because everyone else seems to be at it. I don’t know of the truth of behaviour in Regency times in England, although I suspect that upper class women were careful to retain their virginity for marriage, but as Austen’s characters never showed a whiff of bad behaviour except for Wickham and Lydia I felt this really didn’t work. Would honourable Mr Darcy’s daughter really have behaved like this? And then the rest of her behaviour carries on in the same vein. She marries an entirely unsuitable man (wouldn’t her father and mother have dissuaded her?), then runs away from him and ends up agreeing to ‘live in sin’ with another man once she is a widow. She also has a brief moment of glory masquerading as a castrato at the opera in Venice; somehow I think Austen might be turning in her grave at that one! The wildness in Alethea’s character would work well for a novel set with a different cast of characters but for me it was wrong in a Darcy family novel.
I was also, throughout the book, unsure of the accuracy of the historical detail. Obviously Jane Austen was writing in her own time, but Georgette Heyer was a master of this period and you knew you could trust her; I was less sure of what I was reading in Aston’s work. The comment about the sleigh runner on the wheels piqued my imagination but I have no idea if it is historically accurate or not; I hope so, but I don’t know, and that irritates me. It felt rather more like a modern story to me with all the ‘modern’ ideas such as homosexuality, problems within marriage, love connections without the institution of marriage. While there is certainly nothing wrong in considering these themes within books, I wasn’t sure that a book in the Austen tradition was the right vehicle for this.
The hero, Titus Manningtree, was portrayed interestingly and he was a reasonably well-rounded character, except for the fact that the quest that drives him for the first two thirds of the book (trying to discover a family heirloom Titian painting) completely disappears once he discovers his feelings for Alethea and we never hear about it again. This is a bit messy in terms of tying up loose ends as we don’t know what happened to the painting – unless it appears in another book. I for one can’t face the agony of finding out.