Before Mr. Darcy’s Little Sister (2010), Miss Darcy Falls in Love (2011), Georgiana Darcy’s Diary (2012) or Loving Miss Darcy (2013), or any of the other numerous Pride and Prejudice sequels elevating Georgiana Darcy to main character, there was Presumption: An Entertainment, by Julia Barrett (1993). Of all of the minor characters in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy’s younger sister is the logical choice to continue the story. She has many points in her favor. Being young, beautiful, wealthy, and accomplished she is certainly heroine material—and living at Pemberley with her brother Fitzwilliam and sister-in-law Elizabeth does not hurt either.
The first Pride and Prejudice sequel ever published, Pemberley Shades (1949), also continued her story. What could go wrong in this scenario you ask? Well plenty, if the author takes the liberties that Barrett does—but that does not mean the story is not enjoyable—if you can abide change, and the characters acting in conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, or lady. I will hint that the title Presumption foreshadows more than mirroring Austen’s use of verbs in her own titles.
Published the same year as another early Austenesque sequel, Pemberley: or Pride and Prejudice Continued, by Emma Tennant, Austen fans must have been agog to see two books available at the same time. Since there were very few Austenesque novels before them, and even fewer still in print, they were forging virgin territory. It appears that the media was surprised too and Presumption received some early rave reviews: “An elegant emulation and continuation of Pride and Prejudice. . . . Jointly composed by two admirers of Jane Austen, the book often achieves crisp replication of her style. . . . Presumption shows how sequel-writing can, like parody, be a sharp exercise in literary appreciation.”—Peter Kemp, Times Literary Supplement. Wow! Any author would be thrilled to receive such praise from the esteemed London newspaper that Austen mentions in P&P and read herself. In the pursuit of more backstory, I read reviews at Amazon.com. They are more recent, but the general public was more critical and at times abusive. This was not surprising considering that someone was tinkering with Austen and her beloved characters.
I first read Presumption in 1999, and like Pemberley: of Pride and Prejudice Continued, my first impressions were not as favorable as I had hoped. As I explained in my previous review of the later, you must put yourself into the shoes of a reader pre-P&P 1995 (Austen Renaissance), because everything in the Jane Austen universe changed dramatically after the airing of the A&E/BBC mini-series starring Colin Firth. It altered the way we think of her as an author and introduced her writing to many new readers—now primed and ready to consume anything Austen related—including the new burgeoning Austenesque sequel genre. In this year of Pride and Prejudice’s 200th anniversary of publication, in addition to re-reading the novel, I wanted to re-visit many of the early sequels. So here we are—and back to Georgiana Darcy and her romances.
On the eve of Georgiana’s coming-out ball, we are reintroduced to many of the original characters from Pride and Prejudice, and a few new ones too. It has been two years since the marriage of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. The couple is very happily married, but because of her previous social standing, Mrs. Darcy feels the slight of relations and Society and is overcompensating by elaborate plans for Georgiana’s coming out party at Pemberley. Mr. Darcy is focused on improvements to his estate and has hired a young architect James Leigh-Cooper who has arrived and is staying at Pemberley for the duration. Also on the guest list are Darcy’s imperious aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her sickly daughter Ann who have chosen to stay with family friend and neighbor, Sir Geoffrey Portland of Denby Park, while they are in Derbyshire. The majority of the story involves Georgiana’s choice of suitors while orbiting characters such as Elizabeth’s married sisters Lydia Wickham and her husband George, Jane, husband Charles, and his sister Caroline Bingley and others.
While Barrett writes in a style of the period, it is at the same time modern and accessible. I found myself laughing quite frequently at not only her wit but at her blunders. She trips up on facts quite frequently that readers in 1993 may not have caught, but modern and savvier Austen readers today will notice in a flash: Georgiana is 17, and should be 19 according to my calculations; Elizabeth is called both Lizzy and Lizzie (oh my); and other tidbits that I will let you discover. Just let them pass and enjoy the story. Unfortunately, Barrett broke the cardinal rule of Austenesque fanfiction: do not, DO NOT, have Austen’s character acting outside their established personalities. (Spoilers: avert your eyes and skip if you are squeamish. Elizabeth’s Aunt Phillips, obliging hostess and head gossip of Meryton, is imprisoned for theft? And, Caroline Bingley, who strove every day to be higher in her station, elopes with a penniless scoundrel?) Yes, characters can change and grow emotionally, but within reason, please. The plot is rather thin, and blunders aside, my second reading improved my opinion over-all. As an early effort, I admire Barrett’s bravery and wit. But, in comparison to the four recent Georgiana sequels mentioned at the top of this review, Presumption lives up to everything that its title alludes to.
3 out of 5 Stars
Presumption: An Entertainment: A Sequel to Pride and Prejudice, by Julia Barrett
University of Chicago Press (2nd ed 1995)
Trade paperback (238) pages
Cover image courtesy University of Chicago Press © 1995; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2013, Austenprose