Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Darcy’s Story by Janet Aylmer (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: March)

on March 31, 2013

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200If I tell you that I’m starting this post at 8.10pm on 31st March (happy Easter, by the way!) and that I finished reading Darcy’s Story just over 2 weeks ago on 15th March, you might guess that I’ve been putting off sitting down to write this review. My feelings about this book were mixed, and I was surprised because from the research I did before compiling my list (which wasn’t much, but I did do some) it seemed to have been very well received. But overall I couldn’t help feeling disappointed.

Perhaps I should begin at the beginning. The action, as one might expect, begins in the summer prior to Bingley’s move to Netherfield and the opening chapters of Pride and Prejudice. The opening sentence is well thought out and reflects Jane Austen’s own opening, both in style and tone:

It is a consequence of possessing an income of ten thousand pounds a year that a man may order his life to his own liking, and choose his own society.

This line does foreshadow most of the action of the novel, from Darcy’s point of view, as his behaviour is justified mainly as taking advantage of the privilege he has to choose where he goes and what he does, as well as – crucially – whom he sees. Darcy is at Pemberley, reflecting on his life, and some of his family history as described, as well as his close friendship with Colonel Fitzwilliam (whose own circumstances are also explained at this point, and there’s a family tree in the back so you can understand just who is related to whom, and how). During the first two chapters he reflects on his concern for his sister, his awareness that his aunt, Lady Catherine, not only feels that it’s time he was getting married but that her daughter would constitute the perfect spouse – and his lack of enthusiasm for either of those plans – and his memories of his previous, distasteful dealings with Wickham. This detail is obviously all necessary if the book is to stand alone (although, to be honest, I can’t imagine anyone choosing to read it who hasn’t read Pride and Prejudice, because – well, why would you?) but delivered in a slightly clunky way. Once this is out of the way, our hero journeys to Ramsgate to make his infamous surprise visit to his sister, just in time to prevent her from eloping with Wickham. In Aylmer’s version of events he has had some warning from Georgiana’s letters that this is on the cards (although names are not mentioned) and this is his main reason for going to visit her at that particular moment. Personally I prefer the idea presented by Austen that he just wanted to surprise her and fortuitously chose to do so at the right moment, which reveals to Lizzy and to the reader a hitherto unseen side to his character of the family-loving, generous and slightly impulsive man he can be when he chooses. Here, although a vague plan to visit at some point has been mentioned, the driving motivation is certainly the “horrible thought” which occurred to him on reading the letter (just after a lengthy memory of his previous problems with Wickham).

However, despite my objection to his motivation at that point, there was at least some element of originality in that early section, which I’m afraid I was not to find again for some time. Once Darcy had dispensed with Wickham, hoping once more to be rid of him for good, things became a little dry. Still shaken from his experience, he meets up with Bingley in town and agrees to visit Netherfield with him, whereupon we find ourselves in more familiar territory. There’s a little mention of how he finds Caroline quite witty but has no ideas of marrying her, but very little else in the way of new information and I found myself wondering what the other reviewers I’d read had found praiseworthy. To be honest, though, when I think back to their comments, “very faithful” was the over-riding conclusion. And let’s face it, this kind of book is going to be very faithful if the majority of it is the same as the original! For so keen has Aylmer been to preserve the mood and tone of Jane Austen’s novel (she describes this concern in an author’s note at the start of the book, which I read afterwards) that she has ended up copying almost verbatim all the scenes in which Darcy and Lizzy appear together. Whole conversations appear transplanted, and to make matters worse, whereas in Pride and Prejudice the conversation is interspersed with Austen’s insights into the characters’ thoughts (Lizzy’s, mostly, but not exclusively), in Darcy’s Story there is very little of substance to expand upon the speech.

“Surely not too much of a problem?” I can almost hear you responding. “Darcy doesn’t appear that much in Pride and Prejudice, there’s plenty of scope for the rest of the action, in which the two protagonists are apart.” And you’re right – Darcy doesn’t appear that much (unusually, for a hero, but true). And there is plenty of scope, but unfortunately, Aylmer doesn’t make the most of it. Not at first, anyway, although things do pick up, but sadly I can’t say I saw anything which I found worth remarking on between page 12 (when Darcy decides to go to Ramsgate) and page 102. 90 pages of nothing much. It’s not awful, but then again, most of it was written by Jane Austen and the parts in between – when Darcy is away from the central action of the original novel – are very short and uneventful (most of the time Darcy is thinking about Lizzy and then thinking how inappropriate it is to think about Lizzy). Then comes the point at which – following his utterly disastrous proposal at Hunsford Parsonage – Darcy decides to write to Lizzy and account for the two main criticisms she has leveled at him: that he was instrumental in separating Bingley from Jane, and that he has unjustly denied Wickham of the life and income intended for him by Darcy’s father.

Darcy tossed and turned through all the dark hours, composing in his mind a letter that might remove her admiration for Wickham and at least absolve himself from unreasonable prejudices as far as Miss Jane Bennet was concerned.

I rather liked that idea, that – still smarting from the unexpected rejection and hurt by her confusing accusations – he is partly motivated by the idea that he can “remove her admiration for Wickham”. He has seen that way the object of his loathing and the object of his affection have become close to one another in Meryton, and has no idea that Lizzy has since “got over” Wickham after the transfer of his affections to Mary King. His jealousy, intensified by the fact that it’s of the one man he considers worse than any other, is a driving force behind his letter. He also still considers himself completely innocent at this point when it comes to Jane and Bingley, and it’s only later in the novel when his character has developed that he understands how wrong (and hypocritical) he was to interfere, which he demonstrates by suggesting a return to Netherfield but then leaving Bingley to make his own decisions regarding his future with Jane.

The second half of the book is an improvement, and although still quite short, the section in which Darcy seeks out Wickham and Lydia in London is by far the best. It draws on the relationship with Colonel Fitzwilliam established at the start of the book and goes into some detail about his dealings with Mrs Younge, Wickham and Lydia and the Gardiners, his efforts to conceal his errands from the Bingleys (who are his houseguests) and the continuing change of attitude and behaviour he is undergoing as his love for Lizzy deepens. Afterwards, Darcy dashes back and forth between London and Netherfield, unsure of where he stands with Lizzy until his visit from Lady Catherine, when she describes her unsuccessful attempts at Longbourn to gain assurance that Lizzy will not marry Darcy (which, he later says, “taught [him] to hope”). I was really looking forward to this conversation, an opportunity for an open stand-off between nephew and aunt as he finally rejects her plans for him, but I was distracted by Lady Catherine’s apparent knack for recalling and repeating a conversation word for word, as Aylmer returned to the business of transcribing swathes of dialogue from the scene in the “prettyish kind of a little wilderness” at Longbourn. It’s a good scene, I know, and Lizzy has some cracking lines, but Lady Catherine doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who would take the trouble of keeping in mind the exact words of someone she considers so far beneath her and capable of “polluting” Pemberley’s shades. Surely this would have been better as reported speech, followed by the more dramatic conclusion as Darcy tells her his intentions. As it was, by the time the fateful moment came, it was an anti-climax. After Darcy’s initial refusal to comply, we are told that his aunt kept on at him for fifteen minutes. I’d have preferred to read more of that than her uncannily accurate report of her conversation with Lizzy!

So, finally, the book draws to a close. Darcy and Lizzy finally reach an understanding, he applies to her father (who is unsurprisingly taken aback but equally unsurprisingly agrees) and they are engaged. A nice touch just prior to the wedding is Darcy’s idea to take Lizzy to London, where she can stay with the Gardiners and he can see her every day, away from the difficulties and distractions of Longbourn where Mrs Bennet is going into overdrive making preparations for the weddings. Lizzy gets to spend time with her favourite people – her father and her Aunt Gardiner – as well as her fiancé, and to get to know her future sister-in-law a little better, and to visit the London house where Darcy consults her on refurnishing the rooms which used to belong to his mother and which he is now pleased to be allocating to his wife. Unfortunately, though, this final happy episode was marred for me by an unexpected reference to sex. Darcy discovers that Lizzy had received her first proposal from Mr Collins and, while Lizzy makes light of it, displays a struggle of emotions on his face. When pressed by Lizzy to explain himself he responds:

“It is the thought of Mr Collins and you … of him having the right to … No, it does not bear thinking about!”

which causes his poor fiancée to blush, not surprisingly, before managing to take control of the situation in her own way. I felt deeply uncomfortable myself, on reading it, because it’s both unnecessary and unrealistic. I can see that Aylmer wanted to portray more of Darcy’s feelings for Lizzy in anticipation of their marriage, but I can’t believe that this kind of a conversation would take place between an engaged couple at that time. If it were necessary to the plot for Darcy to experience this reaction, it should have been described as a thought, rather than spoken out loud (and if he had said it, Darcy would have said “his”, not “him”!).

In summary, this book was, in the main, well-written and faithful to Austen, but I can’t help but feel that it compares rather unfavourably with the likes of Amanda Grange’s Mr Darcy’s Diary. Whilst Aylmer has taken a more serious, and mostly more authentic, approach, the result is somewhat dry and the reader takes away little more of Darcy than can be gained from Pride and Prejudice (and a lot less of everything else). I found the original plot sections sparse and uninspired and I’ve read online fanfic which is more imaginative. I can see how it might have achieved initial popularity, being published in 1996 in the wake of Darcy-mania after the broadcast of the 1995 BBC series, but there’s little doubt that it has since been superseded by other retellings and re-imaginings.

What I should mention, however, in closing, are the illustrations, which are quite interesting (my edition being The New Illustrated Darcy’s Story from 1999). These line drawings, by Hugh Thomson, were created for the 1894 edition of Pride and Prejudice. Most depict scenes from the book, but some are more whimsical, such as the one showing Bingley, surrounded by little cupids, in a tug of war with his sisters and Darcy as they seek to detach him from Jane, and one of a lady holding a piece of paper in one hand and a pair of scales in the other, which I think is intended to illustrate Lizzy’s feelings as she attempts to reconcile Darcy’s version of events in his letter with the previous histories she has heard! I’d love to show you the final page, to close with, but out of concern for copyright (and having heard scary stories about legal pursuit and online photos recently) I shall have to content myself with describing it: picture, if you will, a cupid, seated on a classical-looking plinth, his bow in his lap and his left hand resting on it. His right arm, inexplicably, is wrapped around the neck of a peacock on whose breast he rests his head, as the bird looks down on him (with a slightly menacing air, I think, but then again I’m of the opinion that all birds are evil), and the tail feathers of the peacock curve round underneath the pair, framing the words THE END.

Thankful for…

Getting all my preparations done for everything I was doing last week!

A happy morning on Good Friday when 28 children came to church to make an Easter garden and hear about the Easter story

The 30+ adults who worked hard to help me make that happen

A chance to rest over the holiday

Jesus being alive!

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2 responses to “Darcy’s Story by Janet Aylmer (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: March)

  1. Carol Settlage says:

    Thank you for this wonderful review… I so enjoyed reading it, and it corroborates my feelings almost exactly, when I read the book a long time ago, though much more articulately expressed than I ever could!… I’m sorry I don’t have the edition with the lovely illustrations, at least!

    • northmum says:

      Thank you for your kind comment! As I’d heard the book was quite popular I was a little worried my review was going to be met with the wrath of all the fans, so it’s good to know I’m not alone in my response! Some of the illustrations (although sadly not the more bonkers ones!) are in google images if you search for Hugh Thomson and Pride and Prejudice, there’s quite a peacock theme going on!

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