Friday, August 27, 2010

Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma – Diana Birchall

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!


  1. Thank you so much for the very thoughtful review, Hayley, which I read together with your Murder at Mansfield Park one. An interesting thing to do, reading two "Austenesque" books (as they're rather unpleasingly called) at one go. Provides food for thought, and I appreciate your gallant effort to overcome, or at least deal justly with, your anti-sequel(Pride and) Prejudice! I have to admit, though, that I myself share your feelings and can't bear most sequels. Why, then, did I write them? Well, first of all, I wrote Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma back in 1994 when there weren't many around. It was the year the atrocious Emma Tennant Pemberley was published, and that was why publishers didn't want to publish "another sequel," so that Mrs. Darcy didn't get published till years later! Long story; bad timing. It seemed like a fresh and interesting experiment to do then, and I very much enjoyed writing it and studying Austen's style, but you definitely picked up on the part I actually enjoyed most - writing Bettina! She does have more life than the other characters, and the lesson here for me as a writer may be that she's livelier because she is *mine,* and not someone else's, even if that someone else is Jane Austen. Anyway, so many sequels have come along since, I've suffered from sequel fatigue the same as you. The vampires and monsters are a trendy one-joke idea that I'd have hoped would have disappeared by now. Where will it all end? Well, I do have an Austenesque story coming out in a forthcoming Random House anthology, but it's not a sequel or fanfic, it's a funny story about Austen herself. The novel I'm working on now has nothing whatsoever to do with Austen, however, and is about suffragettes. Time for a vacation!
    I will close with an Austen quote relating to your comparing sequels to olives:
    "The idea of the olive branch perhaps is not wholly new, yet I think it is well expressed."

  2. Greetings Desperate Reader,

    I enjoyed this post and its critique of the idea of Austen sequels, and to a certain extent I agree with many of your views. One of the dangers of reading an Austen sequel is finding that your interpretation of events and characters did not line up with the author's. I have had the same expereince, which, I suppose, is why I decided to write my own.

    However, I did not write it with an eye toward parroting Jane Austen. I am a different writer with a different voice, and I have to be true to that. I wrote my sequel for the pure pleasure of doing so and to pay homage to one of my favorite writers at the same time. Well, and I was tired of reading about the same characters again and again.

    Writing Charlotte Collins was a fun experience and I wanted to share it with others. I'm glad that it sounds like an interesting concept, even if you decide not to read it.

  3. Ps. Warning: My book is not about Charlotte divulging information to Lady Catherine about Darcy and Elizabeth. If you'd like to read that story, you'll have to write your own sequel. *wink*

  4. I really enjoyed Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma (and reviewed a while back) but it is the only one of the such sequeals I have been able to stomach. There were some fine Austen-esque turns of phrase and some exciting new characters like Bettina, as you mention. But I wold rather read new work by such a talented writer rather than be aware of how Austen-like or Austen-unlike a book is a every turn. You've nailed why I don't like such sequels too.

  5. Diana, thanks for commenting, I'm looking forward to your suffragette book coming out. It's a period in history that fascinated me, yet one that I don't come across in fiction very often - sounds like a treat to me.

    I had a brief conversation with Lynn Shepherd and you both say almost exactly the same thing about being happiest with *your* characters. For me as a reader it was the bits which I felt were most *you* that made the difference between thinking 'This is a nice read' and 'I really want to read more of this author'.

  6. Jennifer, really interested to read what you have to say especially because when I heard about 'Charlotte Collins' I made assumptions about what it would be about - in my mind the story of a woman who's made her bed and has to lie in it. I've always admired Charlotte's pragmatism and wondered how an intellegant woman would manage with Mr Collins day to day.

    Before writing this post though I looked for a synopsis and of course found my ideas are just that, yours are completley different, and sound like a lot more fun.

  7. I really enjoyed your review and commentary. I liked "Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma" because it manages to stay true to my somewhat particular "ear". Birchall's writing is closer to Austen's own polished, shapely elegant prose than that of other "sequallists."

    I'd put Birchall on top in terms of satisfying the reading "ear" of somebody who loves the burnished prose, the tone, the style of Austen. But I also think that the perhaps necessary brevity of the novel and its large cast of characters leaves one wanting more. Yes, I wanted more Bettina but I also would have liked more of most of the characters. Perhaps Birchall felt obligated to give a sort of "family reunion" sense--which is delightful on one hand. One the other, some characters don't get the space I would have liked.

    I continue to love your blog!