The young bachelor enters a room filled with young ladies, all of whom are eyeing the invitations he holds in his hands, fully conscious that there are not enough invitations for all them. They straighten their postures and smooth their gowns as their chaperones hold their breaths. They all listen as the butler recounts the ladies’ accomplishment points from the recent foxhunt expedition and tea party, shares viewer ratings, and explains that a number of them will be eliminated from the competition and sent home. The bachelor steps forwards and begins to read aloud the names of the young ladies that he has decided will stay.
You’re right in thinking that the above description is of a reality television dating game show but it’s a far cry from anything like ABC’s The Bachelor for the sole reason that it’s not set in the twenty-first or twentieth-century. In fact, it’s 1812 and Chloe Parker is competing against seven other women for the attention of Mr. Wrightman, heir to the gorgeous Dartworth estate, along with a $100,000 prize. Thus is the premise of Karen Doornebos’ debut novel Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, which follows a Midwestern, divorced mother with a failing antique letterpress business who decides to participate in a Jane Austen-inspired television documentary only to discover, upon her arrival to the beautiful English countryside, that it has just been transformed into an early nineteenth-century reality dating show. Rather than return home, Chloe Parker, a lifelong member of the Jane Austen Society, decides to trader her cellular phone for a lady’s fan for a chance to snare the handsome Mr. Wrightman and the much-needed prize money.
Chloe decides to do her best and ignore the constant filming, eager to immerse herself in Regency England life. She is thrilled to discover that she has a chaperone, a maidservant, and her very own collection of Regency gowns. The excitement soon fades, however, upon discovering that she is not allowed to use deodorant, can only bathe with water once a week, and can do very little without the permission of her chaperone, to name a few. More importantly, Chloe finds that the rigid social hierarchy of Regency England goes against everything she believes in. She is appalled by the treatment of her maidservant, Fiona, and other service staff by their so-called social betters and nurses a well-justified hatred for competitor Lady Grace who never fails to point out that Chloe, cast as an American heiress, doesn’t really belong in English high society. To top it off, Chloe and her chaperone, Mrs. Crescent, both have a serious interest in winning the prize money: with a failing business and a recently promoted ex-husband who wants to increase his custody rights for their daughter, Chloe needs to rebuild herself while Mrs. Crescent is trying to raise enough money for her son’s surgery.
Even being courted by Mr. Wrightman becomes a point of complication – she is, after all, competing with other women for his attention – because she soon begins to have feelings for another man on set – the younger Mr. Wrightman who is not set to inherit anything from his family’s estate. Not set to inherit anything and, yet, Chloe finds that he has other attractive features – he’s kind and funny and, besides, there’s something odd about the elder Mr. Wrightman even if Chloe can’t quite put her finger on it at first. Before Chloe can emerge as a real winner, she must figure out what really matters and what kind of person she wants to be in a society so strictly defined by standards that can seem wholly alien to us now as modern readers.
Definitely Not Mr. Darcy put me in mind of Michael Winterbottom’s film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, a film-within-a-film that pits eighteenth-century England alongside a twenty-first-century one. There’s something intriguing about contemporary filmmakers and production crews, with their cellular phones and headsets, moving seamlessly amongst elaborately dressed ladies as they take their tea and politely converse about the weather. There are numerous texts that transport us back into Regency England, or that stay firmly in the here and now but are obviously inspired by the past, but rarely do we have texts where old world actually coexists with new. We have an obvious fascination with the past and it’s refreshing to see this fascination manifest itself in creatively modern ways even if we must tread into the world of reality television. (Although, I’ll be the first to admit, if a reality television dating game show set in Austen’s era actually existed, I would probably watch it.)
This fascination, however, oftentimes goes hand-in-hand with the act of romanticizing and Doornebos is clever enough not to get swept up in the glamour of Regency England without pointing to its downsides as well. Chloe’s schooling in the ups and downs of life in Regency England is refreshing and a nice counterbalance to all the texts out there that lament modernization at the expense of pretty gowns and strict social decorum. But Doornebos doesn’t merely point to the lack of deodorant and running water as downsides to that era; strict rules limiting a woman’s mobility and a mock hanging of a young girl, punishment for stealing a loaf of bread, for instance, showcase Regency England’s dark side. It’s not for nothing that Mr. Wrightman presents invitations during the Elimination Ceremonies for the number of invitations a young woman received during the social season of eighteenth and nineteenth-century England determined which balls she would attend, which young men she would be introduced to, and so forth. In other words, it determined the very course of her life.
Doornebos’ novel is witty and, most importantly, refreshing but it must be confessed that elements of the plot and some themes are underdeveloped and its twists are predictable. As stated above, however, it is Doornebos’ first novel and technical weaknesses can easily be forgiven especially in light of its refreshing perspective on a familiar era. A great escape to the world of ball gowns and breeches, Doornebos gives us a fantasy/reality that will delight those who want a Jane Austen-inspired excursion into Regency England, warts and all.
4 out of 5 Stars
Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos
Berkley Trade (2011)
Trade paperback (384) pages
Cover image courtesy of Berkley Trade © 2011; text Aia A. Hussein © 2011, Austenprose.com