Could Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice have been based on the courtship of Elizabeth Garrison and William Lacey, a Regency-era couple who appear to be the doppelgangers of the legendary Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy? The possibility is intriguing to Maggie Joyce, a 22-year old American working in England after WWII who hears rumors of the story of Elizabeth and William Lacey while touring Montclair, their palatial estate in Derbyshire whose similarities to Pemberley, the grand country estate in Pride and Prejudice seem to be more than a striking coincidence. As a devoted fan of Austen’s most popular novel, Maggie is curious to discover the truth. When she is introduced to Beth and Jack Crowell, a local couple with strong connections to the Lacey family, they gradually reveal to Maggie their own research through the Lacey letters, journals and family lore. As Maggie begins her own journey into the real-life parallel story of the Lacey/Darcy families she meets two young men, a handsome American ex-Army Corpsman Rob McAllister who survived his treacherous tour of duty as a bomber navigator over Germany and the Crowell’s youngest son Michael serving in the RAF. Drawn into the struggles of her own love story and inspired by an eighteenth-century version amazingly similar to Austen’s original, Maggie, like Elizabeth Bennet must choose if she will only marry for love.
A year ago I read and reviewed the self-published version of this book, Pemberley Remembered. Recognizing its strengths and weaknesses, I was pleased to see that it had been picked up by Sourcebooks and would be revamped and combined with a second book, the sequel that Simonsen had already completed. I see vast improvements from its original edition. The complicated storyline and vast historical details have been edited down, and the love story of Maggie, Rob and Michael brought forward. The storyline, characters, and subject are still intriguing, however as I mentioned in my first review, it is only the execution that could make this multi-layered story believable, entertaining and cohesive. It is still obvious from the historical references and antecedents that Simonsen did her research on Georgian and World War era English history as she includes stories about events, people and places to support her characters with aplomb. Searching for Pemberley reads like a documentary where subjects talk about their memories of people and events, or personal letters are read a-la the Ken Burns school of documentary film making. The narrative style is all about the characters telling and not showing how events and relationships unfolded. There is very little interactive dialogue. This is great for a fact-based documentary but tough for a historical love story. I usually prefer character-driven plots, so once I accepted that this novel was not about getting into the character’s head or their interactions, I quite enjoyed it. Like the epistolary novels of Jane Austen’s time, the style of Searching for Pemberley maybe its greatest limitation.
Written with respect for Jane Austen and a passion for history, Simonsen has combined two genres into a bittersweet war-time drama encompassing the tragic elements of the devastation of war, not only on the men and women that bravely served but the friends, family and loved ones that they came home to. The references to Pride and Prejudice will enchant Janeites as they remember favorite passages and compare plotlines. (It might even motivate a few readers to read the original) To be quite candid, it was hard for me to fathom that the genius of Jane Austen needed any prompting to create a story. To countermand, I just imagined it as a “what if” story and it softened the sting.
4 out of 5 Regency Stars
Searching for Pemberley, by Mary Lydon Simonsen
Trade paperback (496) pages
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