[Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Lauren at Kid Champ for letting me borrow her “Thundertome” idea for this review series. – TL]
When I first got my Android-enabled phone, I searched for something to read on it during a long 45 minute subway commute. A Google search for “free ebooks” took me to Google Books and their app, and I downloaded two books by Jane Austen, one I’d never read before (Sense and Sensibility), and one I’ve read so very many times over the years: Pride and Prejudice.
The first time I read Pride and Prejudice was outside of a school context, and while the text was somewhat unwieldy to me, I really loved the story of these two mismatched lovers who have to get over themselves before they can really appreciate each other and fall in love. Over the years, I’ve read the book hundreds of times, and I was looking forward to reading it all over again. As I turned the pages on the touch screen with my thumbs, the finer details of the story sunk deeper into my brain and I began to gain a new appreciation for the story. Which, of course, lead to my next thought: How can I read more?
The great thing for fan-fiction authors about Jane Austen’s novels is that they’re currently in the public domain, which means that anyone can take her setting, characters, stories, add on to the story, and actually stand a reasonable chance of having it published by a reputable publishing house. There have been versions where the characters are dealing with a zombie apocalypse, a continuation that features a lot of Regency-era sex, and even one where Mrs. Bennett is a stereotypical Jewish mother.
However, I wasn’t interested in any of those, not yet at least. I wanted to read something as historically accurate as possible,and as true to the original characters as one could get without hijacking Austen using a time machine. After reading lots of reviews, I finally settled on two Kindle books, which I quickly purchased and started reading the next day:
I read Assembly first because the premise intrigued me more. As a female writer, I have problems with writing from a male perspective and I really applaud those writers who are great at writing characters who are an opposite gender. I really wanted to see how Aidan portrayed Mr. Darcy’s internal conflict over his growing feelings for Elizabeth, as Austen herself only writes near the beginning of Chapter 12, “She attracted him more than he liked.”
In Aidan’s book, Darcy is properly the cold and frosty gentleman that Austen shows him to be, and she even adds a hint of crushing superiority, as seen in this description of the attendees of the assembly:
There was no beauty, conversation, or fashion to be found in the entire room save among those with whom he had arrived. Rather, he was surrounded by the common, the dull, and the trite, that class of the barely gentrified whose idea of conversation was no more than gossip — and that of the vulgar sort of which he was the current object. Darcy could not help but compare his present circumstance with the last time he had been to Tattersall’s in search of a suitable new Thoroughbred stallion for his brood mares. Then and there, he privately vowed to purchase no more horseflesh at auction.
She also explains his friendship with Mr. Bingley by introducing the idea that they met after Darcy overheard some men at his gentleman’s club planning a cruel joke on Bingley; their friendship sprang out of Bingley’s true good nature. There’s also the idea that Darcy sees himself as Bingley’s mentor; this is borne out by some great scenes later in the novel where the two are in the gentleman’s parlor at Netherfield and the former is passing along all the stewardship lessons that his father taught him.
I also can find nothing out of tune with Austen’s novel in how Aidan characterizes Darcy’s relationship with his sister or his opinions of Miss Bingley’s marriage designs on him (though she doesn’t comment on the fact that Austen makes it clear that Darcy wanted Bingley to marry Georgiana). Some of my favorite parts of the beginning of this novel involve Darcy’s internal monologue, as in this passage where he’s trying to figure out more of Elizabeth’s personality:
No, Miss Elizabeth Bennet was not impressed with the London sophistication of Miss Bingley or Mrs. Hurst, nor did she appear to feel the necessity of inveigling her way into Caroline’s good graces, as most of her neighbors were doing this very moment [while paying their social calls]. Instead, thought Darcy with dawning comprehension, she found Miss Bingley’s manner objectionable! Far from cultivating her, she had, by the drollery in her eyes, assigned her a place among the ridiculous, as one might do with an amusing but slightly mad relation. Having satisfied himself on what Miss Elizabeth Bennet was about, Darcy found the discovery to have engendered two equal and opposite emotions, which struggled manfully in his breast. The first was to stiffen in indignation at the impertinence of the lady in judging her betters. The second was an impulse to laugh in agreement with her assessment. A twinkle had almost reached Darcy’s eye when he was struck with the remembrance that Miss Bingley was not the only resident of Netherfield who amused Miss Elizabeth Bennet. The twinkle was ruthlessly suppressed as he considered again her manner toward himself.
His further thoughts lead him to conclude that Elizabeth overheard his infamous “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” remark, and his response to it is to think of it as a challenge:
If she had chosen to sulk, he would be bound [to apologize], but as it was, she had elected to draw swords. Darcy looked up again and found Elizabeth Bennet at the side of her elder sister, both of them looking at a portfolio of Miss Bingley’s latest sketches. A bold move! He smiled to himself. I understand you now, but I fear you are not up to weight if you think to play that game with me! The smile was now accompanied by a satirical eye as he bent to the task of discovering more fully his adversary’s qualities.
I think that this interpretation of how Darcy found himself thinking more about Elizabeth concurs nicely with the original Elizabeth-spoken interpretation:
The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them.
With this basis in place, the rest of the novel proceeds extraordinarily well, right up until Darcy and Bingley’s departure from Netherfield in Chapter 11—and where almost everything in Assembly falls apart. The inclusion of the character of Fletcher as Darcy’s valet was cute in Netherfield, but becomes a bit too much to deal with in these chapters as he takes a more prominent position in the narrative. And while I rather like the introduction of additional characters in the form of Darcy’s secretary Mr. Hinchcliffe and Darcy’s friend from university Lord Brougham, I felt betrayed by Aidan when she decided to mix in historical figures like Beau Brummell (and turn him into a more frightening Tim Gunn) and allude to the political climate of the day with the mentions of people like Viscount Castlereagh and George Canning, thus tempering my love for this book into a conditional acceptance. To me, even though we know that the book takes place during the Regency period, there’s something wrong with knowing more details about what year, and even though to be involved with or at least knowledgeable about such political affairs would be within the purview of a gentleman such as Mr. Darcy, it goes against so much of what I love about Austen’s work in that it’s timeless and apolitical.
There are two more novels in Aidan’s Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy, the second of which takes place entirely before his visit to his aunt in Rosings Park. In contrast, Simonsen’s A Wife for Mr. Darcy takes place in one book, and due to its premise, the events are different. My reading of the novel started well enough, beginning with a private apology from Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet for his uncouth remarks at the Meryton assembly. Simonsen skillfully interweaves lines from some of Darcy’s later speeches into the their little tête-à-tête, and the result is near-seamless and amusing:
“Your apology is accepted, Mr. Darcy. I appreciate that you took the trouble to come to tell me in person that I am more than tolerable,” Lizzy said, half laughing at his clumsy effort to repair any damage resulting from his comment.
Darcy winced at her response. “I can assure you that I find you to be much more than tolerable, Miss Elizabeth. You are a very handsome woman, and I might have had an opportunity to express such a sentiment if I had sought an introduction. However, I do not have the talent of conversing easily with those whom I have never seen before. I cannot appear to be interested in their concerns as others do, and I find I have little patience for the type of discourse one hears at these dances.”
“What type of discourse is that, Mr. Darcy?”
“The usual banter about weather and roads and other such things that are of little interest to me,” and leaning forward in his chair, he continued, “Whether it be Meryton or London, I hear the same conversations. A lady will comment on the number of couples in attendance at a dance, and the gentleman will respond by mentioning the size of the ballroom. And what, pray tell, do we learn from that exchange? One party is good with measurements, and the other can count.”
Simonsen also acknowledges Austen’s reasons why Darcy would be impressed by Elizabeth, and the scenes between him and Elizabeth when they meet again at the Lucas residence seem almost perfunctory. It isn’t until the Chapter 3 when everything goes completely off the rails with the introduction of Simonsen’s Georgiana Darcy. I couldn’t put my finger on what it is I didn’t like about her, and then it hit me during this exchange in Chapter 7, when she decides to attend the ball at Netherfield:
Georgiana, whose clothes were made by the finest dressmakers in London, laughed. “I am going to Netherfield for the purpose of attending a ball, not to shop in Meryton.”
“Forgive me. I am tired. As an aside, you may be interested to know that after the ball, Louisa and Caroline will return to town, and Mrs. Crenshaw will come to keep house for Bingley.”
“Mrs. Crenshaw and her little band of ruffians! The same ones who put mud in my riding boots? I am convinced that it was Athena who actually did the deed, but she was put up to it by those monster brothers of hers.”
“I can easily believe it. When Bingley leased the house in Surrey, I saw Athena throwing rocks at the ducks. For such a little girl, she was remarkably accurate.”
“Why does Charles put up with their obnoxious behavior?”
“He finds them spirited.”
“Spirited! If they were in my care, I would spirit them away to the nearest woodshed for a proper whipping.”
It was not long after this that I stopped reading the book and I haven’t been convinced I should return to it any time soon, as this goes completely against Austen’s description of Georgiana Darcy (through Elizabeth’s eyes): “Elizabeth, who had expected to find in her as acute and unembarrassed an observer as ever Mr. Darcy had been, was much relieved by discerning such different feelings.” (Translation: Georgiana is not nearly as outspoken as Darcy is.)
In writing this article, I’ve skipped ahead in A Wife for Mr. Darcy as well, just to be sure that I’m giving Simonsen and her novel a fair shake, and encountered more of what turned me off: allusions to the then-current political climate, breaches in etiquette and conduct during Elizabeth and the Gardiner’s visits to Pemberley. The final straw came in the form of this line of internal monologue when Darcy confronts Lydia about George Wickham: “Grabbing a wooden chair from the hallway, Darcy brought it into the room and sat opposite to Lydia, and he thought what a little shit she was [emphasis mine].” If I could get a refund on a Kindle book, I would.
So congratulations go to Pamela Aidan for this victory over Mary Lydon Simonsen in the world of Pride & Prejudice published fan fiction. And now I’m off to research how to remove and scrub a Kindle book from your library.