Title: Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continued
Author: Linda Berdoll
Year of Publication: 2004
Length: 465 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read: Re-Read, though it had been so long that it might as well have been new
Rating: 3 stars
A quick glance at this book on GoodReads or Amazon will quickly reveal a rather vitriolic hate for it among many readers, voicing objections that are not wholly without foundation — but which I don’t necessarily share, either. I first read this book and its sequel ages ago, and honestly, barely remembered the details of them. I’ve recently had my interest in P&P spinoffs prickled, however, by the truly excellent Lizzie Bennet Diaries (which I intend to review once the series has ended). With that on my brain, I first re-read Pride and Prejudice itself, and then turned to Berdoll’s inventive sequels for further fulfillment.
I will confess from the start that, while I enjoy those of Austen’s works I have read, I am not a fanatic, nor have I completed her canon. As such, I suspect I am far less protective of the characters than other readers would be, and so the liberties that Berdoll takes with the characters don’t trouble me as much. I can empathize, however. I suspect those readers feel the same way about this book that I feel about the Pink Carnation series. For those readers, I suggest some other Austen derivatives which I found less engaging, but which they may find less offensive. I think these things are a very definite case of Your Mileage May Vary.
Berdoll sets out in this book to continue the story of Darcy and Elizabeth past the chastity of the altar. Happily, the couple well-matched in intellect and temperament find themselves likewise equals in passion. Berdoll devotes many pages to their exploration of “connubial bliss” — admittedly in a somewhat odd mixture of explicit details and coy evasions. Their honeymoon period is long indeed, with the couple seemingly unable to keep their hands off of each other. Beyond the bedroom, we follow the Darcys through the first few years of their marriage, and as much as Elizabeth has to adjust being mistress of an estate as grand as Pemberley, Darcy also has to adjust to sharing his life with someone. It’s fun to watch them negotiate that out, particularly given some of the wrenches Berdoll throws in their way. Much as they might wish to stay in their cozy privacy, there is a whole lot of world out there, ready and anxious to insert itself into the Darcys’ lives.
I think a lot of other reviewers, their heads spinning from the sauciness, miss some of the other things Berdoll attempts which are really quite notable. She doesn’t only address Austen’s lack of sexual experience; she also addresses Austen’s lack of social experience outside of her own sphere. However good a social satirist Austen was for her own class, her books don’t treat much with, well, anyone else. What she knew was the country gentry, and so that is what she portrays. Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife remembers that life in London was none so pleasant for those without funds or titles. It remembers that the Napoleonic Wars happened (an omission I always found particularly curious in Austen’s works, considering how much energy she does expend on officers and regiments). It remembers that infant mortality was high, as was maternal mortality; that disease and accidents could strike swiftly. It remembers that upper-class society at the time had no expectation that husbands would remain faithful to their wives.
Now, notice that I do say that these inclusions were “attempts” — I think Berdoll misses the mark sometimes, veering from historical authenticity into near-lurid melodrama and never quite finding the right balance — but even so, I think it admirable to give Austen’s work a mindful dose of reality. Darcy and Elizabeth have to weather all manner of tragedy, and if it is at times overwrought, it also gives the book a little more depth and nuance than you would find in a typical historical romance.
Berdoll also expands not only on other characters from Austen’s canon, but also on some new faces as well — and many of them characters from outside the Darcys’ social class. We get more insight into Georgiana, whom Berdoll eventually invests with the spirit to break free of her brother’s well-meant but undoubtably patriarchal dominance, into Colonel Fitzwilliam, always feeling a bit of a loose end, into Lydia’s unhappy marriage and into Jane’s domesticity. We also meet Pemberley’s housekeeper, Darcy’s valet, and various women from Darcy’s past. Berdoll will occasionally break off from the main narrative for a chapter in order to explore those characters. This is a writing style that I know not all readers will favor, but it’s one I like. I’m less concerned with a straightforward plot than I am explorations of characters, and so it doesn’t trouble me in the slightest to have a chapter that veers from the narrative to tell us the background of Elizabeth’s maidservant, of a French courtesan, or of a misbegotten stable boy. I like the diversions. They give more of a sense of a complete world.
One very valid complaint levelled at Berdoll is that she is over-enamoured of her thesaurus, and I confess the truth of it. She props up her narrative with an abundance of polysyllabic words and on contorted euphemisms for various body parts and functions. Even that didn’t bother me so much, though. It seemed far more heavy-handed in the first part of the book, and either I just got accustomed to it or it became more moderate as the book went on. I also think that, coming to this immediately after re-reading Pride and Prejudice itself, I was better armed to appreciate what Berdoll was attempting to do. The style is somewhere between a tribute to and a gentle mockery of Austen’s own (if you’ve read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, think of it as similar to that, only not quite as adeptly handled). With that in mind, I can forgive the verbosity to an extent. Plus, well, I like words. I tend towards the effusive (my mother, I suspect, would say “affected”) in my own speech and writing, so Berdoll’s style rarely rubs me the wrong way. There were only a few occasions where a sentence was so burdened that it irritated me; the rest of the time, I chose to relax and let the consciously antiquated diction wash over me.
All in all, I think this book comes down to a matter of taste — which leaves me unable to make a particularly good recommendation one way or the other. It will not be for everyone, and I don’t know that I would argue that it’s a good book even for those readers who will not take offence at Berdoll’s liberties. There are definitely flaws both in the aim and the execution. I found it entertaining, however. For a nearly 500-page book, it still moves quickly, and the characters are, if not totally in line with what Austen may have imagined or faithful to what her devotees would wish, still reasonably extrapolated from those origins. I suppose the best I can do is suggest that, if you think the book would interest you, read the first few pages on Amazon. From that, you should be able to determine whether the style will infuriate or amuse you.