There has been a flurry of interest around the blogs this week in Diana Birchall's sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Darcy's Dilemma, originally written in 1994 I think, so I hope this post won't tip you over into a bout of hyperdarcyitis, that would be vexing indeed. Harriet Devine has contributed her thoughts to the round of reviews of Diana's book and Diana herself is blushing away madly in California because here's the first point Harriet makes,
'Reports of Jane Austen's death must have been greatly exaggerated -- she is obviously alive and well and living in California. And at last she has decided to publish her long-awaited sequel to Pride and Prejudice.'
Let's cut to the chase, no time to mess about, because Diana and I have had some hilarious e mail conversations this week.
I mean is nothing sacred?
An American writer has had the audacity to take a revered chunk of our finest English literary heritage and plump up a sequel.
And why not I hear you rightly cry?
But how very dare she will cry others.
I've been doing some background reading on the unholy tug-of-war that seems to have raged down the years between the Janeites claiming Jane Austen for popular culture and the academic literary corps hanging onto her for grim death and their own purposes. As Claudia L. Johnson elaborates in her excellent essay Austen Cults and Cultures in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen , ' the process by which academic critics deprecate Austenian admirers outside the academy'.
It's all terrifying but when you've had cause to read or study Pride and Prejudice in whatever guise, you do at least have a feel for the basics, the language, appropriate literary devices, the tone, what feels right, what sounds so completely out of place as to be ludicrous and many sequels that I've read have fallen into all the traps. To my admittedly lowly knowledge Diana doesn't fall into any of them and Mrs Darcy's Dilemma was a complete, very unexpected and surprising reading treat.
It's twenty-five years on, the Darcys and their three children are happily settled at Pemberley but the social demographics around them are shifting, Victoria is about to accede to the throne and life as Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam knew it is on the cusp of huge change.I don't want to give away a single thread of the plot because finding out exactly what hand life has dealt to the Bennet family and exactly which paths the children take in life is part of the joy of reading this book, quite a few little surprises in store.
There is so much to admire in the way that Diana handles all this that it's difficult to know what to flag up , but I particularly liked the way that she cleverly identified all those character traits we associate with the young Elizabeth and Mr Darcy and then has taken into account maturity and developed them further. Then very ingeniously all those traits are genetically merged and divided out amongst the DNA of the offspring. I leave to your imagination what to expect of one of Lydia's children and there are a few surprises amongst the Darcy brood too. Nor will I divulge who has to face up to the inevitable audience with Lady Catherine de Burgh, suffice to say Diana doesn't do the obvious.
Irony was of course Jane Austen's speciality and Diana doesn't miss a trick here, she has that mischievous and witty way with words, measured and accurate when it must have been so tempting to go completely overboard in twentieth century style.
Mr Bennett's brief death bed utterance absolutely priceless (sorry that might be a spoiler, Mr Bennett dies, but give him his due he must be getting on)
So what purpose can a sequel like this serve?
Well,I suspect this will be different for every reader but for me, as well as sating that incurable curiosity of the 'what happens next' variety I am now living proof that well-written books like this can bring reluctant or ambivalent Jane Austen readers back into the fold.
These books and their power to do so should not be dismissed out of hand.
The purists can and indeed may choose to leave this book to one side and that's absolutely their choice. However then there's the likes of me who admire but don't love, or what about those who may often feel themselves a bit excluded from the party? Nose pressed to the glass, gazing in through the brightly lit windows at everyone else dancing the quadrille and wondering what's so good about it?
Well we may all suddenly find ourselves hooked back into Jane Austen by default after reading Mrs Darcy's Dilemma.
Let me confess.No amount of cajoling by those who rate Emma highly has ever induced me to read it.
There I've said it
My name's dovegreyreader I'm fifty four (honestly) and I've never read Emma.
But this week I have picked it up. It's a bit of a moment indeed, and I am reading eagerly with refreshing new eyes for dialogue and all those clever little things that Jane Austen did which it's so easy to miss. There, perhaps I do have the sense and sensibility gene after all.
I have Diana Birchall to thank , so I think we should award her Honorary British Citizenship for at least salvaging the precarious reading reputation of dgr scribbles, let alone writing a truly worthy Austen sequel...if she wants it that is?