Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Diana Birchall: Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma

The Austen sequel seems to be a genre of its own nowadays, and surely a tricky one to pull off. A sequel is likely to have little appeal outside the fan community, on the one hand; and to cause disgust and outrage within it, on the other. As a rabid Austenite myself, I was profoundly traumatised by one rotten apple of a Pride and Prejudice sequel (which shall remain nameless) when I was 14, and have been firmly in the ‘disgust and outrage’ camp since then. In fact, since then I haven’t touched another sequel with a ten-foot pole, so I was understandably wary when I was asked to review this one.

Twenty-five years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy and Elizabeth are a loving middle-aged couple with three grown-up children: Jane, who resembles her namesake aunt; younger son Henry, a likeable and upstanding clergyman; and the eldest son Fitzwilliam, who’s a bit of a dull dog, mostly interested in hounds and horses. The Pemberley household is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of two of Lydia and Wickham’s eight children – who turn out to be two very pretty young women. Mr and Mrs Darcy are worried, and rightly so. Sweet, shy, and bullied by her mother, Cloe falls in love with Henry (strong echoes of Mansfield Park in this plotline), but is determined to become a governess; and the brash, beautiful Bettina… well, it would be more appropriate to ask, what does the brash, beautiful Bettina not do? Following her mother’s footsteps, she disgraces herself and her family by running off with Fitzwilliam – and then, as the couple don’t marry, she disgraces herself even further by going – gasp! – on the stage. Infuriating but plucky, she is perhaps the most interesting and original character in the whole book, though Cloe’s storyline is the Dilemma itself. Everybody likes Cloe, but with a family like hers, how could she possibly be fit to marry a gentleman?

After the very first chapter, I was ready to breathe a sigh of relief. I agree with Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book that Birchall’s love and respect for Austen are obvious from page one, and Birchall writes in convincingly Austenish, well-turned sentences. In her review of The Paradise Will Kirsty wondered why Regency romance writers tend to write in a Heyer-pastiche style – and I agree. But in a book like Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma, I think the Austen pastiche – if done well – is an essential part of the experience. I also agree with Simon that everybody has their own idea of Austen’s characters, so even if you enjoy a book like this, you’ll end up feeling dissatisfied by certain aspects of it. It takes only a bit of Googling to find some readers spluttering in indignation that Darcy and Elizabeth are all wrong, which is inevitable. I personally thought Mr and Mrs Darcy were beautifully done, but was surprised to find Kitty so sour and Lydia morphed into her (now deceased) mother; and Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr Collins easily slip into caricatures of themselves. I was delighted by Birchall’s treatment of Mary, however, who I always thought was shortchanged by Austen. This older Mary is a bookish widow who would have felt at home in Gaskell’s Cranford.

This is a very good speculative homage, then. But is a good homage enough to make a good book? At 212 pages, the book is a short, quick read – but it is a bit short on plot, too. The sweet central romance – and even the audacious but compelling Bettina – are both forced into the background while the older generations and gossip about absent friends take centre stage. This is understandable, as most people are reading the book because of the older generations in the first place, but a stronger plot would have served the book well nonetheless. There is a good deal of authentic-sounding dialogue that seems to be there for no other reason than for the pleasure of reading authentic-sounding dialogue. And if it’s done well – why not? But if even the writing of Austen herself isn’t enough to send you into raptures, this probably isn’t the book for you.

I’d love to read another historical novel by Birchall – especially one that has no connection to Austen at all. Without the iconic Elizabeth, Darcy, Lady Catherine, Mr Collins, et al. overshadowing them, the Bettinas and Cloes of the writer’s imagination could really come into their own.

Final Verdict (channelling the Critical Review): Even though one of the characters runs away to be a loose-living actress in London, this sweet book has, for the most part, the kind of strong moral core that ought to make it perfectly acceptable in polite society, and should pose no danger of corrupting influence to young ladies of tender years. For married ladies, Mrs Birchall paints a most exemplary picture of conjugal felicity, and must be commended for presenting domestic life in such an appealing light; – a much-needed corrective, indeed, in these degenerate times.

Sourcebooks  2008  212 pp.  paperback  ISBN: 1402213336

The author’s website is at www.dianabirchall.net and she blogs at www.lightbrightandsparkling.blogspot.com; and there are other reviews of Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma at:

11 comments on “Diana Birchall: Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma

  1. Lisa
    June 15, 2008

    I’ve heard so much about this book. I can’t resist reading it. It would be a treat just spending time with Darcy and Lizzy. I love your Final Verdict btw.

  2. Ellen Moody
    June 15, 2008

    I don’t know why you didn’t link in my review:

    http://server4.moody.cx/index.php?id=852

    I agree the book is conservative in spirit (I said so in my review), and also found Diana’s Mary a delight. _Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma_ seemed to me the result of much writing, rewriting, and revising. That’s where it gets its Austen richness from. Another sequel (as rich textually) in a very different spirit (say going to _Persuasion_) is possible.

    Ellen Moody

  3. Leena
    June 16, 2008

    Lisa, yes – just spending time with your favourite characters is a treat in itself, I agree. That was why I didn’t mind the later Harry Potter books being so long and waffly, and why I keep wishing Austen had had more waffly tendencies 😉

    Ellen, thanks for this – I would have linked to your review, but I didn’t find it. (Or rather, I saw the link on Google, but got a blank page when I tried to load it.) Will rectify the oversight asap.

  4. Lisa
    June 16, 2008

    That’s quite some list of links you have there already, Leena. I take it the book has been doing the rounds of the blogosphere!

  5. Ellen Moody
    June 17, 2008

    Dear Leena,

    Thank you very much. I apologize in turn if I was too abrupt or sounded miffed. We had been having trouble a few weeks ago with my site taking a long while to download; we’ve rectified that.

    This is a fine literary blog, and if I haven’t linked it in before to mind, I will do so now.

    Ellen

  6. Moira
    June 18, 2008

    I wish I liked Jane Austen more, I really do. Somehow, I just can’t get the HANG of her …

  7. rosyb
    June 18, 2008

    Moira – you don’t know how relieved I am to hear you say that…:)

  8. marygm
    June 18, 2008

    Me too (in a whisper) I feel like one of those people looking in the window at the Jane Austen party, convinced that it must be great fun if only I was into that kind of thing.

  9. Jackie
    June 18, 2008

    Leena, your Final Verdict took on an Austenian flavor, which was amusing. I would think one would definitely have to like the original characters and author to enjoy this book(unlike some of my fellow Book Foxes, I do like Austen), so I think I’ll be reading it eventually.
    Moira, I don’t think Austen is dark enough for you. She’s so fluffy compared to the Brontes.

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This entry was posted on June 15, 2008 by in Entries by Leena, Fiction: historical and tagged , , , .

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