A prequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Vanity and Verity tells the story of an earlier generation’s courtship of two young ladies who later figure prominently in Austen’s classic tale. Lady Anne Fitzwilliam and her sister, Lady Catherine, the daughters of the Earl of _______, go to London for a season and meet George Darcy and Sir Lewis de Bourgh. We know from the outset that they do marry, and the Darcys have two children, Fitzwilliam and Georgiana, while the de Bourghs have one daughter, Anne, but how they get from meeting to altar is the story that Waters spins for our entertainment.
Along the way, there are plenty of misunderstandings, sufficient to make one wonder how they are going to get together in the end. Waters employs significant parallels to Pride and Prejudice, and the sisters are even more different in personality than Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. The misunderstandings between Lady Anne and her Mr. Darcy are similar to those between Miss Elizabeth Bennet and her Mr. Darcy: they both wrongly attribute the views and characters of those around them to the other, and it takes some time to unravel the truth. Pemberley plays a role in bringing about mutual appreciation. There are many other circumstances taken from nearly all of Austen’s novels and brought deftly into this story, in a way which will bring enjoyment to Austen aficionados as they find each new one, like treats or Easter eggs. Yet each bit is not gratuitous: it helps to develop the characters and move the plot forward. How Waters takes all of them and weaves them into a new story is quite remarkable, clearly the result of much thought.
One thing I particularly enjoyed, in part because I was so curious as to how it might come about, is how Lady Catherine’s character develops into an intolerant self-appointed arbiter of opinion and advice on every subject, and how different she must be from her sister. In the beginning, she is simply young, ignorant, and rather foolish; by the end, her character is irretrievably fixed (and ridiculous).
The secondary characters are well-developed, and some quite amusing. The girls’ aunt, Lady Charlotte, is particularly consistent, nearly unable to put a coherent sentence together, comparing every gentleman unfavourably to her own son, but generous and cheerful. However, if the novel has a fault, it is that nearly every character is foolish, saving only Lady Anne, Mr. Darcy, and Mr. Darcy’s sister. The almost unrelieved parade of silly persons comes perilously close to becoming tedious, but they are all amusing and serve well as a foil to Anne’s good sense and developing good judgment.
But what sets this novel apart from so many other Austen-inspired novels is Waters’s true-to-Austen narrative voice. The vocabulary, structure, development, pacing, and even punctuation are all firmly eighteenth-century. And like Austen’s novels, there is not a lot of action, the story revolving around the sometimes mundane activities of a small circle of people. Yet I cannot help thinking of a quotation by W. Somerset Maugham about Austen:
Nothing very much happens in her books, and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next. Nothing very much does and again you eagerly turn the page. The novelist who has the power to achieve this has the most precious gift a novelist can possess. – Ten Novels and Their Authors, 1955.
Originally written in the mid 1990s, Vanity and Verity has been recently self-published by the author in eBook format. Serendipitously, it was first offered to me years ago but I did not read it then because I find it very hard to read anything lengthy on a computer screen. However, I did save it, and when I got a Nook eReader recently, copied it over with the intent of reading it soon. By coincidence, Laurel Ann contacted me about reviewing it. In the interest of full disclosure, I must state that I am acquainted with Waters, having met her more than a decade ago on a literary mailing list and later in person, though we haven’t communicated in several years.
Many readers who, like me, are very particular about the lack of polish generally found in self-published books in the past, no doubt question whether to invest in this book. They should rest assured that this novel is far above the level of every other Austen-inspired novel I personally have read.
4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas. She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility: An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).
© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose