When a new Pride and Prejudice sequel lands on my doorstep, I freely admit that the Austen geek in me goes into adrenalin rush. Usually after the third chapter I can see the lay of the land. Is the language reminiscent? Are the characters respectfully rendered? Is the tone appropriate? Is the storyline plausible? By the second page of Pemberley Manor: Darcy and Elizabeth, for better or for worse my hopes soared. By the end of the third chapter, I was wholly convinced that if author Kathryn Nelson could maintain her premise I was in for one of the most original, compelling, and satisfying new intrepret- ations of Lizzy and Darcy after the nuptials that I have ever had the pleasure to read. My only fear was what might happen over the next 350 pages to change my mind!
The story begins where Pride and Prejudice ends, with the double wedding of the two Bennet sisters Jane and Elizabeth to their respective fiancés Charles Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy at Meryton Church. We are reunited with many familiar characters from Jane Austen’s novel as the respective families assemble for the ceremony. It is a happy day for the Bennet family, but the two Bingley sisters Caroline and Louisa find their new country connections deplorably low and the whole day exhaustingly tedious. Caroline’s indignity and spite will continue to eat away at her foreshadowing trouble for her brother Charles, his new wife Jane, and the object of her true venom, the Darcy’s.
After the reception at Longbourn, the Darcy’s and the Bingley’s depart for their respective honeymoons with plans to meet up later at Pemberley. The Darcy’s stay at a coaching Inn on route to Derbyshire, and there we experience their first days together and are surprisingly introduced to Nelson’s choice of direction and tone as she skillfully reveals a side of Mr. Darcy that I have long suspected, but other sequel authors have failed to perceive. The proud and arrogant man that Elizabeth Bennet married has a troubled past, confirming for me much of his actions in the original novel and why I have never thought that their happily-ever-after could just instantly happen because they declared their love and took vows. Hold on to your bonnets! If you thought that the Bennet family was dysfunctional, then just wait until you meet the Darcy’s.
We now know what Lady Catherine de Bourgh meant when she bragged about the true Darcy spirit. There is an oppressive presence haunting Pemberley Manor. Mr. Darcy’s deceased mother Lady Anne is not the elegant, proper and gracious woman that one would suspect as the Mistress of Pemberley. A seductive beauty with a “dangerous, demanding temperament,” she is similar to her sister Lady Catherine, but emotionally unstable, “frightening and confusing her son, and emasculating her husband.” It is her influence more than his gentle father that has shaped Darcy’s adult personality. Even seventeen years after her death, his childhood memories of his mother’s tyranny and its affect on his parent’s marriage plays havoc with his present happiness. As Darcy gradually reveals his troubled past to his new bride Elizabeth, she is not only challenged with the demands of becoming the new Mistress of a grand estate, but in helping him discover the missing pieces to his parent’s story that will free him from the past and allow him to find peace and happiness in their new life together.
Nelson has taken a huge leap of faith that readers will buy into her theory that Mr. Darcy’s broody and puzzling temperament is a product of bad parenting. Even though I am very guarded over liberties taken with Austen’s original characters, her presentation and language are so plausible that I understood her direction immediately. Since Austen does not delve into Mr. Darcy’s inner-thoughts and psychological motivations, we can only guess at his true nature by his temperament and actions in the original novel. He is an enigma to many, including himself. We can find further foundation in Nelson’s theory by re-reading this passage from the end of Pride and Prejudice which reveals more about Mr. Darcy’s past life than any other.
Painful recollections will intrude, which cannot, which ought not, to be repelled. I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child, I was taught what was right; but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately, an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing — to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight-and-twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! Chapter 58
Every foible that he mentions about himself in the above passage as a failing has been learned since boyhood. Human nature being what it is, it is no stretch of my imagination to believe that just because someone says that they have been humbled and changed by love, that it actually happens. Nelson has chosen to continue the story and explain the puzzling temperament of Mr. Darcy through the back-story of his spoiled and disturbed childhood. We see Darcy as an introspective man, buoyed by the love of Elizabeth and his new marriage, but compelled to search for answers. What transpires in Pemberley Manor is his quest to understand the past with the help of his new wife, family and friends.
Even though this deep psychological subtext may sound omnipresent, there are other intriguing elements to his novel that lighten it up. The evolving relationship of Darcy and Elizabeth as newlyweds is fascinating to watch. Nelson has captured the spirited, witty and energetic Lizzy Bennet that we so admire to a T. Amazingly, as I have mentioned previously, she also understands Darcy’s personality completely. If there were ever two souls of opposite temperaments destined to be better as a team, it was Lizzy and Darcy. Their conversations run hot and cold to downright hilarious. We also see familiar characters such as Caroline Bingley evolve beyond her bitterness and spite, shy Georgina Darcy bloom and catch the heart of a new beau, Jane as angelic as ever, her husband Charles Bingley finally have a revelation, and new characters introduced that blend in and add interesting depth.
Nelson’s skill with language is respectfully reminiscent of Austen, but not mimicy. The greatest complement that I can offer her to her style is that the density of her prose slowed me down to Austen pace, as I thought about each word and appreciated her choice. The story is compelling, with a haunting mystery suggestive of du Maurier’s Rebecca, and the extended tensions and anguish of Bronte’s Jane Eyre, all combined with a historical romantic fiction. Unlike Mr. Darcy who “has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise.” Pemberley Manor does have its faults, but they are meager in the comparison to its scope. After hundreds of pages of dazzling me with her brilliant psychoanalysis of human nature with Mr. Darcy, she starts off well presenting one of the villains as Caroline Bingley, then delivers an unsatisfying thud to the resolution of her character. Though I understood exactly there she was going in showing us the dark side of Darcy, he was a bit too tearful at times for my ideal masculine English iconic romantic hero taste, and as the novel moved along, I found it becoming more modern in style and progressive in thinking on how the characters thought and reacted. When more than a ghost comes out of the closet, I was a bit taken aback by the characters 21st-century response to it.
Because Nelson was taken a risk and presented a side of Darcy and Lizzy that we have not yet explored to this depth, there will be those ready to throw a few disapproving bricks through Pemberley Manor’s elegantly glazed windows. Regardless, I found her tale charming, intelligent and engaging; uniquely one of the most thought provoking and satisfying Austen sequels that I have ever read. Happily, the ending left a possibility for a prequel. I understand the author is in the throws of writing another book. Ms. Nelson, please be advised that I am heading to Minnesota to camp out in your back yard with protest signs reading “Write for Darcy” until the new prequel is completed. What time do you serve tea?
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Pemberley Manor: Darcy and Elizabeth, for better or for worse, by Kathryn L. Nelson
Sourcebooks, Landmark, Naperville, IL (2009)
Trade paperback (380) pages