Have you ever read a book that culminated in such a passionate love/hate relationship that you were compelled to read it again to understand what it was that evoked such a profound reaction? I have. Like failed love affairs, I can remember each of them in an instant: Wuthering Heights, Tess of the D’Urberville’s, Mansfield Park, The Wings of a Dove, and Anna Karenina. I am now adding Unequal Affections to my “bus accident” list.
While some may foresee this question as a polite warning of a negative review lurking in the shrubberies, I have no wish to influence you either way—yet—but rather keep you in suspense, “according to the usual practice of elegant females.” Bus accidents are terrible, tragic, things, and terribly hard to look away from.
This Pride and Prejudice “what if” starts out one-third of the way into the original novel at the pivotal moment when Mr. Darcy proposes to our heroine Elizabeth Bennet. This scene contains some of Jane Austen’s most brilliant dialogue revealing two protagonists so totally at odds with each other that we cannot see how they could possibly end up as a loving couple by the end of the novel. Mr. Darcy begins…“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” He then proceeds to explain how he loves her against his will, against his reason, and even against his character. Insulted by his prejudice against her family, appalled by his injustice towards Mr. Wickham and angered by his part in separating her sister Jane from Mr. Bingley, she finalizes her refusal by proclaiming that he was “the last man in the world whom [she] could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
While Austen sets up the moral and romantic conflict firmly, Ormiston chooses an even more challenging path. Her Elizabeth has not made previous declarations about marrying only for love or exhibited her strength of mind by refusing the proposal of the odious Mr. Collins. The reader only knows her Elizabeth from this proposal scene forward. Though her Lizzy does not like Mr. Darcy any more than Austen’s, she will consider marrying without affection for the benefit of her family and chooses to delay her reply by asking for time to consider his offer. We now have an optimistic Darcy following her back to London where she is staying with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. Under pressure, Elizabeth seeks the counsel of her aunt who of course points out the pros and cons of the alliance. Within two weeks she accepts his proposal. Darcy is ecstatic. Elizabeth is resolved. She will be the mistress of a grand estate and the wife of a proud and arrogant man. Can she learn to love him, and will her love humble him?
The majority of the narrative now unfolds back at Longbourn, her home in Hertfordshire. Darcy takes up residence nearby at his friend Bingley’s estate of Netherfield and visits Elizabeth under the close observation of the Bennet family, whose members he abhors. If anything will test his love, his resolve, and his willingness to change, it will be one month in the Bennet household. Each of the family members has their turn: Mrs. Bennet with her endless prattle, Mr. Bennet with his lack of guiding presence, Mary with her sermonizing, and Kitty and Lydia with their dangerous fixation on officers, resulting in a family conflict that may fracture his desire to marry Elizabeth forever.
Pride and Prejudice “what if’s” have dominated Austenesque sequels for the past several years. Starting with established characters and plot, they take a left turn in a new direction allowing for an intriguing fantasy. Readers of Austen’s classic can now experience beloved characters faced with new impediments before they earn their happily-ever-after. If you are comfortable with change, creativity, and the possibility that they may act outside of Austen’s sphere, I highly recommend them.
Because there are now so many authors writing in this sub-genre, be prepared for crossover plots. They are inevitable, and readers who know of Abigail Reynolds’, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: Last Man in the World, will be concerned that Unequal Affections may have been influenced by this novel. Be not alarmed, madam, on receiving this warning, “by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments.” While the premise and launching points are identical, the remainder of the plot is wholly unconnected.
I was duly impressed with Ormiston’s command of the Regency-era language and social context. They are her strongest accomplishments. She builds solid, endearing characterizations revealing an acute understanding of Austen’s characters. Some readers will be happy to know that the romantic tension was held in suspense almost until the last page. While I commend her extensive vocabulary, I found her pacing off. Scenes were too long at some points slowing down my interest, and her choice to play out two-thirds of the book in the Bennets drawing-room became as painful to Darcy as it did for me. As a debut novelist, she shows bright promise that will develop with time and guidance.
Complex, intriguing and romantic, Unequal Affections will be one of those novels that you must read more than once to fully understand why it is so compelling. There are certain parts that will annoy you and others that will compel you to continue. Exhibiting these dualities is what makes for memorable fiction. You won’t forget this one for a long time.
4 out of 5 Regency Stars
Unequal Affections: A Pride and Prejudice Retelling, by Lara S. Ormiston
Skyhorse Publishing (2014)
Hardcover (352) pages
Cover image courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing © 2014; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com
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