Author Elizabeth Aston has become a nonpareil in the Austen sequel publishing industry. Her latest outing Mr. Darcy's Dream will be her sixth Pride and Prejudice continuation in as many years. With so many authors out there jockeying for position in this competitive book niche, she remains on top and true to her vision consistently offering amusing stories of Jane Austen's famous romantic couple Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy's children and families. A winning recipe if you mix it up right, so why does the namesake of this book Mr. Darcy not show up until the last three pages of the novel, and what the deuce does his dream have to do with anything?
Twenty-year old Phoebe Hawkins is handsome, well-born, and endowed with a fortune of fifty thousand pounds to the lucky man to win her affections. Unfortunately, her choice Mr. Anthony Stanhope has a bit of a bad rep prompting her father to reject his offer of marriage. Undaunted, Phoebe is certain that Stanhope is no rake until she witnesses his assignation with a notorious woman. Heartbroken and dejected, her clever ma'ma Lady Georgiana averts London gossip by devising a plan to send her to the country to her uncle Darcy's estate in Derbyshire until it blows over. Joining her is her amiable cousin Louisa Bingley whose failure to engage after three London seasons is a bit of flop. Their temperaments could not be more opposite. Quick to judge, Phoebe's free spirit challenges social stricture, while easygoing Louisa is as accepting of fate as her mother Jane Bingley seeing little fault in anything. Both feel the pressure to fulfill their family obligations with brilliant marriages yet neither have a clue as to why they have not succeeded or if they will ever find their own bit of happiness. Together they hope for a respite at Pemberley free from the pressures of thinking about men, while focusing instead on planning a summer ball while the Darcy's are abroad.
The young ladies arrive at Pemberley to see great improvements underway with the construction of a grand new glasshouse supervised by Mr. Darcy's estate manager Hugh Drummond, all part of Mr. Darcy's dream of modernizing Pemberley, (thus the book title). Educated as an attorney, Mr. Drummond is a bit of hands on manager after his stint as a 'Light Bob' during the peninsular war where he and Mr. Stanhope served under Wellington. Louisa Bingley takes a shine to him. Who wouldn't? When Mr. Stanhope arrives in the neighborhood on the pretext of visiting his married sister, Phoebe is resigned not to see him averting his persistent attempts until she must face the music. Add to this mix the return of devilish George Warren, step son of the condescending and censorious Caroline Warren nee Bingley, and you have your sinister element. When Mr. Darcy finally arrives at Pemberley to attend the ball, the story swiftly concludes as all the romantic misunderstanding and machinations have been resolved, but not to everyone's satisfaction.
Underneath this diverting historical romance, Aston has supplied us with perceptive commentary on early 19th-century life in upper class England where women's worlds were governed by men and social convention. Throughout the novel there is a thin thread of cynicism about marriage illustrated by Mr. Stanhope's unhappily married sister Kitty, "one day you'll realize you need an heir, and will propose to the nearest available girl, who will proceed to make your life misery.", and the fear of infidelity by Phoebe after witnessing the affects on her parent's relationship after their own affairs. These honest themes can be a bit leveling, but move this novel away from being escapist fluff. To lighten it up, Aston has supplied the requisite ensemble of secondary characters to add interest, but little humor: a peevish Frog governess, fussy and gossipy maids, an officious great aunt, a toady Minister, and a bit of espionage to keep the plot churning and our attention engaged. Overall, I found the tone of Mr. Darcy's Dream a bit dark and overshadowed with angst. When reading a sequel to the light, bright and sparkling Pride and Prejudice it is difficult not to compare the two, but in fairness to Ms. Aston this novel is so far removed in time and characters to the original that it is an entirely new entity. On its own merit I enjoyed it thoroughly and recommend it highly. As a continuation of a 'Mr. Darcy does something novel', well, that it debatable.