I’ve had this book for a year – it was a present from Diana (we’re members of the same online reading group and I definitely consider her a friend, which is by way of a slight disclaimer before I go on) and I should have read it long ago. When it arrived I thought it would be perfect Christmas reading, and then it was August again. Diana sent it to me after a longish tirade on my part about sequels and prequels (not dissimilar to the one below) and after my ‘Persuasion’ reread the time seemed ripe for exploring what for want of a better description I’m going to call fan fiction. It seemed only right to put a bit of effort into the business which is why I read ‘Murder at Mansfield Park’ too.
‘Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma’ takes us to Pemberley 25 years on; Elizabeth and Darcy are a happily married couple with three grown children enjoying an altogether satisfactory life until a charitable impulse to invite the less fortunate Lydia’s two eldest daughters for Christmas promises to turn everything upside down. Bettina is truly her parent’s daughter, bold, vulgar, and pushing, Cloe on the other hand seems to be something of a cross between the young Elizabeth and Jane, the sort of young woman no one would really object to having in the family. Sadly for the Darcy’s it’s Bettina who first manages to extract an engagement out of the elder Darcy boy, and then runs off to be his mistress. Will the better suited Cloe and Henry manage to get over the obstacles presented by such an amoral sister?
Rachel from Bookssnob commented that she couldn’t stomach the idea of Austen sequels, and I’m not dissimilar – so why you ask read two in a week? Well I used to hate olives, but I’m coming round to them now, and because often these books sound interesting – there’s a new one out in a week or two ‘Charlotte Collins’, and she’s a character who fascinates me; John Sutherland suggests that it’s Charlotte who tells Lady Catherine what’s going on between Elizabeth and Darcy in answer to the question ‘Who betrays Elizabeth Bennet?’ I don’t like to believe it but the evidence does point that way... But I won’t be reading this book or any others like it in the foreseeable future.
The thing is that I found myself having the same problems with ‘Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma’ that I had with ‘Murder at Mansfield Park’. The character that really came alive for me here was Bettina, she’s not necessarily likable (although I suspect I’d like her more than her sister) but she’s interesting. Instead of marriage she settles for lovers and a career on the stage. The family want to rehabilitate her in a cottage but she’s having none of it, her way she can have fun as well as independence, avoiding in the process the unhappiness and struggle that marriage to a feckless drunkard has caused her mother. It quickly became Bettina’s story I wanted to read. Cloe sets out to earn her own keep as well, but as a governess to the Collins family which means she eventually finds herself at Longbourne – her mother’s childhood home, but as an employee rather than a family member in a situation which makes it clear how precarious life could be for women of humble means.
My other problem is that books which use another authors cast really bring out the obscurantist (lovely thesaurus alternative for pedant that I’m going to try and casually work into conversation whenever I can from now on) in me which doesn’t improve my reading pleasure. I don’t want to find myself asking if something rings true or not, I want to be happily immersed and oblivious, and I can’t do that if I’m constantly comparing to Jane Austen, or when I’m comparing to my own very fixed ideas of what the future would have held for much loved characters. In short it’s still a genre that eludes me though I’m now prepared to admit that there are some decent books in it even if they’re not for me. So Diana, if your work here isn’t quite through, you have at least dispelled the worse of my prejudices!