This Pride and Prejudice variation asks readers “What if Elizabeth Bennet had accepted Mr. Darcy’s first proposal?” After reading this question in the book’s description my first reaction was, ACK, why would she?
Like the two other novels by this author that I have read, the story begins on familiar ground at a certain point in Austen’s novel and then quickly takes a left turn—changing the course of the plot and the characters’ lives. In this case, it starts at a very critical moment, the first proposal scene when Mr. Darcy so arrogantly assumes that the less-socially-endowed Elizabeth Bennet would jump at the chance to accept his generous offer of marriage. Reynolds’ Lizzy is still repulsed by the thought of this man as her husband and frozen with disgust. Since Austen’s last sentence in Elizabeth’s refusal contains the title of this novel, I was all anticipation of reliving Elizabeth’s famous put down:
“From the very beginning — from the first moment, I may almost say — of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immoveable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
But no—this is where the road veers and Reynolds’ twist begins. Darcy misinterprets Elizabeth’s hesitation as acceptance and kisses her, witnessed by his cousin Col. Fitzwilliam and a gamekeeper. Unaware of her true feelings, Col Fitzwilliam congratulates Darcy while a panicked Elizabeth spins the reasons in her mind why she cannot deny it: her reputation has been compromised and if she does not marry him the future happiness of her family, and her sister’s prospects will be dashed. Trapped, she cannot decline and agrees to marry him.
Their one-sided marriage begins on rocky ground. Wrought with misunderstandings: his cold indignation and her fear and depression, Elizabeth is hindered in her attempts to fit in and learn her new duties as mistress of Pemberley. She is not allowed to be very useful—in fact, anything she does seems to anger and annoy her new husband. After Mr. Darcy is involved in a life-threatening riding accident she dutifully cares for him day and night until she is past exhaustion. During his illness, she comes to realize that she really does love him and tells him so when he is finally conscious. They are reconciled until the laudanum wears off and he returns to his sour and confusing self. When she learns from a servant that he is leaving for London, even though he has not fully recovered and fit for travel, she is crushed blaming his dislike of her. While he is away she learns of her younger sister Lydia’s elopement with George Wickham and their subsequent marriage, facilitated by her husband. She is thankful to him for helping her family out of this devastating scandal, but he again misinterprets her gratitude for wifely obligation and not love. Her unhappiness continues until she reaches the point where she feels the only solution to their dilemma would be her death—relieving him of the disgrace of her inferior connections and releasing him to marry another.
One thing that readers new to variations must embrace immediately is change. The point in re-inventing the plot in a “what if” is the experience of revisiting beloved characters in new scenarios. You are not reading a sequel or a continuation of Austen’s story, but a re-imagining of what her characters might do if the action changed. Logically those characters would exhibit the same personality traits that Austen awarded them, but that can be changed too. Just think of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. You are not in Kansas anymore. If you are open to change and can accept tinkering with Austen’s creations and complete changes in her plot, then variations are for you.
In this sub-genre of Austen paraliterature Reynolds reigns supreme in her level of creativity and fluent prose. She is very skilled at crafting tension between lovers and can think up innumerable ways to keep them apart to prolong our anticipation. Her ardent love scenes were passionately rendered, reaching the blushing point for me every time.
One of the major challenges I found with the premise of this story is that I did not like Reynolds’, Mr. Darcy. He was not the honorable man that Austen had crafted, nor a man that I was attracted to. He had duped Elizabeth into marrying him (albeit ignorantly) and he is pretty oblivious to his wife’s feelings, misreading her kind intentions continually. Or so it would appear on first impressions. The couple is continually at crossed purposes, going in circles of misunderstanding and rejection, to a glimmer of brief reconciliation, then back to total despair and unhappiness. After about the third time I was as depressed as the heroine. Once I got over my fixed notions of how Austen’s characters should deport themselves and accepted Reynolds’ alternate universe for Elizabeth and Darcy, I began to enjoy their twisted, tormented souls. It was like Jane Austen morphing into Charlotte Bronte, even though neither author would approve of each other’s style.
This audio edition of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: The Last Man in the World was aptly read by Rachel E. Hurley with entertaining variations in voice to character and scene. Reynolds has crafted a clever love story and applied familiar characters to suit. That dear reader is what variations are all about. If you are prepared to be taken down the yellow brick road, this is a great introduction to the genre.
4 out of 5 Regency Stars
Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: The Last Man in the World (A Pride and Prejudice Variation), by Abigail Reynolds, read by Rachel E. Hurley
Audible Audio Edition (2013)
Digital, unabridged (6 hrs and 27 min)
Cover image courtesy of Audible © 2013; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2013, Austenprose.com