Recently I was offered the opportunity to review Goodly Creatures by Beth Massey for Austenprose. I knew this book was generating a good deal of discussion in the JAFF world.
I’m always up for books that are labeled “controversial” as they are great conservation starters. What could be more interesting than a book that stimulates discussions and sparks minds?
A life altering event inextricably links a fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Bennet to Fitzwilliam Darcy while simultaneously creating an almost insurmountable divide. This Pride and Prejudice deviation takes the reader on a journey through a labyrinth filled with misunderstandings, bias, guilt and fear – not to mention, laughter, animal magnetism and waltzing. As Elizabeth says, ‘she shed enough tears to float one of Lord Nelson’s frigates’ but as she learned from her father ‘unhappiness does, indeed, have comic aspects one should never underestimate.’
Though the path for our protagonists is much more arduous than canon, the benefit remains the same; a very happy Janeite ending for these two star-crossed lovers. Along the way there is retribution, redemption and reward for other characters – including a few that recall players in two grave injustices as written by Ms Austen in ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ These grievances prompted this long-time struggle for women’s rights to write a tale that provided these women vindication.”
NOTE: For those that do wish to read the book, I encourage you to stop reading my review. I’m discussing the novel openly which may lead to their being spoilers you wished you hadn’t read.
Those that are familiar with Pride and Prejudice will notice several differences from the original text right off the bat. The first difference is that the events of the first half of Goodly Creatures take place five years before the original, so the characters are younger than we are used to. Additionally, Darcy has entered a marriage of convenience with his cousin Anne de Bourgh. Mr. Bennet is also going blind and heavily relies on Elizabeth to help him with handling the correspondence and finances of Longbourn. I’m pretty liberal with my Austen fan fiction reading, meaning I’m open to the majority of different scenarios that authors come up with. None of the above really bothered me as far as changes go. If anything it excited me to see how Darcy and Elizabeth would overcome the obstacle that is Anne.
The majority of the discord that surrounds this works seems to stem from the character of Edmund Fitzwilliam. He is also one of the major reasons for my dislike of the novel. Edmund is Darcy’s cousin (Col Fitzwilliam’s older brother) and is the subject of much of this initial conflict of the first section of the book. He enjoys watching Elizabeth at the theater because of her childlike features.
“This chit was just the way he liked them – tiny and not at all womanly. Her face, what he could see of it, was dominated by large, expressive eyes, the way children’s are before they grow into their features – eyes so very appealing. How he would delight in seeing them helpless.” (p 25)
Edmund’s fascination with the childlike qualities Elizabeth exhibits would be enough to make me uncomfortable, but there is more. Anne mentions that she sees Edmund’s fascination with Elizabeth and “it did not surprise her. During her time spent with him over the winter, she had noticed his preference for the very young.” (p 29)
I’m going to come back to these quotes in a minute, but in order to make my point I need to explain more of the plot. Anne strikes up a friendship with Elizabeth (which we later find out is behind Darcy’s back) because she enjoys Elizabeth’s confidence and personality. She feels that she can learn how to grow a backbone with the friendship of this witty young woman. One afternoon Anne picks Elizabeth up from the Gardiner’s townhouse in London and is brought back to Darcy House. Anne “goes to get a dress to show her,” essentially leaving Elizabeth alone. Edmund walks in and Elizabeth quickly realizes all is not right. The door is locked and he pushes her into the next room with him, which is his bedroom. It’s quickly realized that Anne helped orchestrate the event of getting Elizabeth alone with Edmund to “visit her.” Edmund rapes Elizabeth and then leaves her. In Despair, Elizabeth leaves the house and runs into Darcy, who follows her home (because he’s worried about her). He has no idea of the events that have transpired that afternoon but realizes something isn’t right. About 2-3 months after the rape Elizabeth finds herself with child. When her aunt and uncle reveal their increasing suspicions, she asks them, “How is it possible to have a baby if you are not married?” (74) My heart instantly broke for this re-imagined version of Elizabeth Bennet; moreover were the passages that followed in which she blamed herself for the rape. Claiming that it was her “silliness and pride” that allowed for it to have happened. Not only does Elizabeth blame herself, but her aunt and uncle chastise themselves for what they believe were digressions in their chaperoning duties. This was shocking. Where is the blame for Edmund, or Anne for that matter?
Let’s go back to the first quotes I mentioned. It’s obvious from the start that Anne knew Edmund had a thing for Elizabeth and for young girls. Anne claims that she only thought Edmund wanted to talk to Elizabeth, yet it’s honestly not possible for Anne to have made the astute observation that her cousin enjoys young females, yet think he just wanted to talk to Elizabeth alone. Being the daughter of Lady Catherine, don’t you think she would know the rules of propriety that do not allow men and woman to be alone in a room un-chaperoned? The transgressions and lack of discipline that these two characters display made it more and more difficult to read Elizabeth’s self-admonishments about her own behavior. NO. It is NOT your fault that you were raped. All rape victims should know this, and be told it continually until they believe it. In Elizabeth’s case she’s told she can marry Edmund or have her child raised by her aunt and uncle as their own. The decision is eventually made that Darcy and Anne will raise the baby as their own, giving Elizabeth a small fortune in exchange.
Darcy too has reservations about his cousin’s preferences for younger girls. So imagine my surprise when a 15 year-old Elizabeth Bennet shows up at Darcy House to inform them all about her pregnancy and has to deal with the scowls coming her way from Darcy, as he concludes the fault of the rape was hers by thinking that her “poor behavior was probably the result of improper and haphazard training…”(p 91) Even with all evidence to the contrary he places the blame on the wrong person.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that for that time period, women were blamed in cases of lost chastity, whether or not it was rape. Men were the head honchoes of the world and could do whatever they wanted. I applaud Massey for bringing this point up. My confusion lies with why this is being told as a Pride and Prejudice variation? Why are the characters we know and love being changed into these unrecognizable people just so attention can be given to a serious social issue and how it was dealt with in Georgian times? I feel that the characters are being molded and changed to fit this story that essentially has no place in Pride and Prejudice. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make others aware of the difficulties women faced during this time, but I don’t see its place with these characters.
Not only were the changes of the characters bothersome to me, but there were times where the story veered off onto other tracks which made no sense in the general context of the overarching plot. Elizabeth is at one time given a history of the Irish Revolution. I’m not sure what that had to do with the rape plot, or helping her find love with Darcy, or anything else for that matter. Rather, it read like passages from history novels thrown in a story influenced by Pride and Prejudice.
The final nail in the coffin was when Edmund seemed to want to make Georgiana his next victim.
“Little Georgiana had also come to the forefront with this newest addition to the household. For the first time he noticed his eleven-year-old cousin’s appearance. She was very different from the baby’s mother but still another delightful variation of an appealing little girl. Miss Elizabeth had been a joyful, intelligent and impertinent sprite with whom he could engage in a battle of wits and ultimately defeat. Georgie was more like a spirited thoroughbred colt – all legs and a long elegant neck – waiting for someone to break her in.” (169)
I literally was almost physically ill after reading that passage.
As a book reviewer for over two and half years now I’ve come to realize that books fall into three categories: books you like, books you don’t like, and books you can’t finish. Unfortunately Goodly Creatures fell into the latter category for me. I’m not here to write a review bashing the novel or the author, but lay claim to the feelings I had that led to me being uncomfortable enough not to finish the book. In addition, it is not my intent to discourage anybody else from reading this book either. I’ve spoken with others who mentioned that they enjoyed it—everyone has their own tastes to discern from. I look forward to continuing my journey in the JAFF world and discovering new books and new authors that appeal to my tastes.
Since I didn’t complete the book I feel it’s unfair for me to give it a rating.
Goodly Creatures: A Pride and Prejudice Deviation, by Beth Massey
Trade paperback (636)
Book cover image courtesy of CreateSpace © 2012; text Kimberly Denny-Ryder © 2012, Austenprose.com