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Monday, September 29

The Darcys and the Bingleys: A Review of a Jane Austen Sequel

I am always in a quandary when I write an Austen sequel book review. How much should I reveal of the plot before spoiling it? Should I write for the Jane Austen fan who enjoys reading sequels regardless of the quality of the research or should I keep a larger reading audience in mind?

I make these statements before reviewing The Darcys and the Bingleys because my sense is that if you cannot get enough of these two Pride and Prejudice couples, then you will love this sequel. But if you have only read that classic novel once and you are looking for a stand-alone book, this one might not quite fit the bill, for there is an assumption by author Marsha Altman that the reader already knows a great deal about the characters and the history of the era.

Let me go on the record as stating that Jane Austen’s novels are inimitable. Those who dare to write sequels to her classics are brave souls. They must run the gamut of Janeites, many of whom can quote reams of Jane’s words forwards and backwards without pausing to take breath. Marsha Altman, the author of The Darcys and The Bingleys is one of the brave.

In her first novel she closely follows Charles Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy as they prepare to wed the Bennet sisters. Readers are treated to the preparations before the nuptials and the arrival of familiar guests, such as Lydia Wickham and her husband. She is welcome but he is not, and his cheekiness in accompanying his wife to Netherfield is met with funny but deserving results. Readers of my reviews know that I am no great fan of Jane Austen sequels, so it took me a few moments to warm up to this book. But with the arrival of the wedding guests, I found myself chuckling and getting into the fun spirit of things. We are treated to a cameo of Mr. Hurst which I found hilarious and re-meet familiar characters like Caroline Bingley and Mr. Collins. I rather like the description of the relationship between Miss Anne de Bourgh and Mr. Darcy, who are great friends but who are not attracted to each other romantically. Anne comes off as a smart woman with a mind of her own who chooses not to countermand her strong-minded mother, Lady Catherine. This puts a different and interesting spin on her character, and I will never quite view Anne as an insipid spinster again.

We are also made privy to the easy banter that exists between Lizzy and Darcy, and of the innocent but heated yearning between Bingley and Jane, who must wait until her wedding night to have her passion awakened fully. Darcy, a man of the world, has his own concerns, such as finding private time with Elizabeth, but he has no qualms about their first intimate moments, for he possesses a secret weapon – a book from Bombay that he inherited in great secrecy from his father.

Before Bingley consults Darcy at length about this book, Ms. Altman (in the above photo) introduces their back story and how they met during their student days at Cambridge. I found the novel’s emphasis on Bingley’s thoughts and actions refreshing. In Pride and Prejudice he remains a cheery enigma, but Marsha fleshes him out from the moment he meets Darcy to their joint suspicions of the Irish earl who wishes to marry Caroline.

Marsha in no way tries to imitate Jane Austen’s style, and her tone is modern and breezy. However, once in a while her characters words and actions seem spot on, as in this instance when Mr. Bennet visits his beloved Lizzy at Pemberley a few months after her marriage:

“Your mother and sisters are in Brighton admiring all the officers from a very respectable distance. At least a foot, I told them, though I have no idea if they will abide by it. I would have said at least thirty feet and bought your mother a pair of looking glasses, but she would not have it. They will arrive closer to the holiday, though I challenge even Mrs. Bennet and Kitty to fill these immense hallways with their squalling.”

We also learn more about Bingley’s relationship to his sisters, which I found touching and believable:

They were not an affectionate family. At least, they had not been in years, since Bingley’s sisters had entered society. He had vague recollections of being depressed at the prospect, because suddenly Louisa and then Caroline were all grown up, and he was left to be the only child in the family for a few more years, perhaps the loneliest in his life. And then he went to Cambridge, and when he came home for his father’s funeral, he was the man of the house, not the little brother, and one of his sisters was married and the other quite expecting to marry as soon as she found someone suitable. They still had their moments of treating him as their baby brother – three years Caroline’s junior and five to Louisa – but he, Charles Bingley, master of Netherfield and their London townhouse, controlled their fortunes, however graciously and unwittingly.

As the much anticipated wedding night approaches, Darcy shares passages of the book - the Kama Sutra - with his good friend. If you have a bawdy sense of humor like me you will enjoy these rather funny scenes. One must suspend disbelief, however, and simply enjoy the ride that this book provides, for as my wise counselor Lady Anne remarked dryly: “The Kama Sutra had not yet been translated into English during this era and I doubt that a sophisticated man like Fitzwilliam Darcy would need salacious illustrations to show him how to please a virgin in bed.”

Try as I might I could find no earlier reference to an English translation of the Kama Sutra before the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton made the attempt in 1883 with his colleague, Forster F. Arbuthnot. Earlier versions of these sacred texts were written in Sanscrit and came without illustrations. The original intent of these ancient compilations was not eroticism per se, but a combination of pleasure, spirituality, and virtue in the hope of a attaining a secure and rounded life. Critics of Burton’s translation felt that it skirted pornography. His translation held sway for nearly a century, influencing our thoughts about the book. Knowing these details, I kept asking myself as I read Ms. Altman’s scenes: “How would Darcy and Bingley gain any useful wedding night information from a book written in a foreign tongue that might or might not be illustrated?” And here lies the crux of the matter. If you are a stickler for historical accuracy, this plot device will fall absolutely flat. But if you love pop culture in all its manifestations like I do, then you will find this passage amusing:

[Bingley] was flummoxed by the illustration and read the description several times before finally saying, “This cannot be very gentlemanly.”

"But it does work - quite well.” Darcy was so at ease. Was he basking in the glory of watching Bingley squirm and blush so hard he might pop out of his skin at any moment? Or was he recalling fond memories of the past?

The Bingleys and Darcys embark on several months of honeymoon bliss aided by a book that had yet to be translated or illustrated. :) They then settle into their respective homes. (The Bingleys move from Netherfield within months of their marriage, since Charles can only stand Mrs. Bennet’s interference for so long.) We wait along with the two happy couples for the arrival of their first-born children in the second part of the book, and in the third section we become privy to a mystery: Is the Irish nobleman who wishes to marry Caroline Bingley a suitable candidate for a husband? And what role does Dr. Maddox, who is called upon to take care of Mr. Hurst, play in Caroline’s life?

On the surface Lord Kincaid seems like a perfect suitor for Miss Bingley, but her brother Charles cannot bring himself to approve of the match and he solicits Darcy’s help in uncovering the truth about the Irishman. Darcy sets out to learn more about the mysterious earl and challenges him to a friendly fencing match at his club. Regency gentlemen elected to gamble, hunt, or fence when taking each others' measure, and while Marsha chose the right battleground for Mr. Darcy and the earl, I found her fencing passage strangely devoid of sweat-inducing action.

Kincaid could remain aggressive himself, but he had not yet seen Darcy aggressive, and he did not know the ferocity with which he would be attacked.

The ferocity never really came, for Marsha did not use the sport's militaristic language to its full advantage. Fencing’s robust verbs and descriptive terms like “en garde, froissement, glise, assault, attack, riposte, lunge, feint, and the blade movements of thrusting, cutting and slashing” were missing, and thus Darcy’s and Sinclair’s fencing match lacked the heart-stopping, can’t-wait-to-read-what-will-happen-next suspense that I expected.

But I quibble, for Marsha’s plot keeps twisting, and she still had a few surprises in store for Fitzers and his brave Lizzy and Bingley and Jane that kept me turning the pages. This book was written to fulfill a desire in P&P fans to learn more about Jane Austen’s characters. While Marsha is spare in her physical descriptions of time, place, and character, I kept reading the book wanting to find out how the plot would develop. If you simply cannot get enough of Pride and Prejudice’s characters, then this book will more than satisfy you. (And it is a good first effort. Keep writing, Marsha.) If you want great writing that will transform your world, well, then turn to the incomparable novels of Jane Austen. No one does it better.

Read this fascinating account of the translation of the Kama Sutra, Chapter 25, The Life of Sir Richard Burton (image at left) by Thomas Wright, 1905.

Read Laurel Ann's review of the book on Austenprose here.

Read my interview with Marsha Altman at this link.

And don't forget to leave your comment here to win a copy of The Darcys and the Bingleys from SourceBooks. Contest ends October 1st.

Posted by Vic, Jane Austen's World

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