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Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continued, by Linda Berdoll

Title: Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice ContinuedMrDarcy
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.

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Duty and Desire, by Pamela Aidan

Title: Duty and Desire
Author: Pamela Aidan
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 320 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 2.5 stars

If my complaint with the first book in the series is that it follows its source a little too nearly, my complaint of the second is entirely at the other end of the pendulum’s oscillation. Duty and Desire starts off in a promising mold — we are in unknown territory here, a period of Darcy’s life which neither Austen nor the BBC covered, and so Aidan is freed from her tethers. Unfortunately, she takes that opportunity to veer off into a very strange land. While the first third of the book is what you would expect — Darcy at Pemberley, learning about his sister’s reformation, seeing to his tenants and his family, and so forth — the last two-thirds seem to come from another planet.

In an afterword, Aidan states that she was inspired for this section of the book by Jane Austen’s satire of Gothic romance, Northanger Abbey. Not having read that book, I can’t comment as to how near or far her imitation is, but coming in the middle of this series, it’s a bizarre and jarring left-hand turn. Mr. Darcy, attempting to banish Elizabeth Bennett from his mind, makes the impromptu decision to join some old schoolfellows for a house party. Most of the characters are fairly interchangeable and indistinct, making it difficult at points to determine what anyone’s motivation is. The exception is the half-Irish half-sister of Darcy’s host, Lady Sylvanie, whom Aidan takes pains to point out to us at every opportunity is fairy-like in appearance. Darcy is both captivated and mystified by her, and though Aidan clearly wants to set her up as a point of tension and suspense, it’s hard to believe that Darcy could really be tempted by her when he so clearly mistrusts her. Things spiral out of control when a strange sacrifice appears at the standing stones on the manor — a dead pig trussed up to resemble a child. And so suddenly this Regency comedy of manners veers sharply into a supernatural mystery. It’s very odd and very discordant — and what’s worse, it never pays off. The ultimate resolution is strange, under-explained, and unsatisfying.

The book also occasionally verges into very preachy territory, particularly with regards to Georgiana, who attributes her maturation to the influence of a very religious companion, the widow of a minister. Georgiana pushes Divine Providence at Darcy, prompting the narration to expound at length on matters of 19th-century Christian theology. This isn’t surprising when you learn a bit about the author, who is very much influenced by her faith. Very nice for her, and perhaps for a great many of her readers, but not to my taste. Though Aidan clearly paints Darcy’s and Society’s disapproval of Georgiana’s fervent religious awakening in a negative light, I’m rather on their side, finding the whole thing somewhere between unnecessary and obnoxious. I don’t mind religion as part of a historical plot — because, obviously, religion is a force that has shaped so much of human culture and which plays a significant part in many historical figures’ lives. What I mind is when it feels more like the author shoving a religious interpretation at the reader, not just part of the story.

Though I first read these two books a few years ago, I was never moved strongly enough to purchase the final installation in the trilogy — and honestly, I don’t know if I will be so moved anytime soon. It isn’t that I think it would be bad — there are just so many other books on which to spend my hard-earned cash, and, well, this doesn’t approach anything near the top of the list.

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An Assembly Such as This, by Pamela Aidan

Title: An Assembly Such as This (Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman #1)
Author: Pamela Aidan
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 255 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 2.75 stars

This book is fanfiction. I don’t say that disparagingly — I’m very positive on fanfiction, as is natural, since I’ve been writing it for fifteen years myself — but that is, absolutely, what it is. It’s not a re-imagining, it’s not “inspired by” — it is fanfiction of Pride and Prejudice. What’s more, it appears to be fanfiction derived more from the 1995 BBC miniseries than from the book itself. Whole chunks of the book read like a narrative of the film, with little augmentation on Aidan’s part.

An Assembly Such as This is the first in a trilogy of books written from Mr. Darcy’s perspective, and it begins just where the film does — with Darcy arriving with his friend Mr. Bingley at Netherfield. From there, we roll through the events of the first third or so of Pride and Prejudice — the country gatherings, Jane Bennett falling ill at Netherfield, the promised ball, etc — getting Darcy’s view on matters rather than Elizabeth’s. There is some interest to this — we get a bit more insight into both the Bingleys and the Darcys as families and about the connections that bind them. We see more of Caroline Bingley’s machinations, and learn more about Georgiana’s troubles. But the main point of switching the perspective — getting more of Darcy’s internal monologues — could use better execution. We do get to see him grapple with his feelings for Elizabeth, but there’s not a lot of depth to his self-analysis. The best word for it is probably “aimless”. Or perhaps “bland” — Aidan doesn’t really fill Darcy in as an exciting, attractive character. He seems rather normal and pedestrian — it’s hard to see from her augmentation precisely what there is to fall madly in love with.

My ultimate verdict is: Inoffensive if uninspiring. If Jane Austen fanfiction fluff is what you’re after — and I say that with no judgment, because sometimes fluff is absolutely what you want to reach for — then this is the book for you. If you want something rather more inventive, well, there are plenty of romance novel authors out there happy to oblige you.

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