From the desk of Jenny Haggerty:
In Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Darcy wrote that post-proposal, world-altering letter to Elizabeth Bennet, telling her the truth about charming Mr. Wickham’s duplicity, I was as shocked and shaken as she was, but due to the discretion of the characters, readers get just a bare outline of what went on between Wickham and Darcy’s sister Georgiana. What exactly did happen and how did it come about? One can’t help being curious–or at least this one would like details–so when I discovered that Melanie Kerr’s novel Follies Past centers on that event I eagerly began the book, hoping it would be an Austen-worthy story with wit, appealing characters, and maybe even a wedding.
Follies Past has three heroines and opens with none other than Caroline Bingley. She and her brother are on their way to Pemberley, and while this will be her first time meeting Darcy, Caroline is already determined to marry him, even contriving things so their arrival coincides with the flattering light of early evening. By the end of the visit, Caroline is sure she is well on the way to an engagement, but back in London, she becomes distracted when she falls hard for another man. He has no title or estate, but he’s disarmingly handsome, they share a wicked wit, and he’s focused on her in a way she realizes Darcy never has. The power of their attraction gives her second thoughts about marrying a man she “loves” mainly for his wealth.
True to her P&P characterization, Georgiana is painfully shy and the idea of mingling with London society overwhelms her, so Darcy allows Georgiana’s dearest, slightly older school chum to accompany her on a visit to the city. Clare, the story’s third heroine, is principled, sweet, genteelly determined, and sometimes conflicted. She loves reading novels but believing they are bad for the soul she throws all of hers away before the trip, planning to set a good example for Georgiana. Georgiana looks up to Clare and they adore each other, but their situations are very different. While Clare has a highborn grandfather, she is also the daughter of a military man and without much fortune. Unlike Georgiana, she has limited marriage prospects and as the book goes on her story becomes prominent.
When the trip to London reunites Georgiana and Wickham, who Georgiana adored as a child, it is Clare who is alarmed by Georgiana’s growing and, Clare thinks, inappropriate attachment. Darcy would set things right but he’s out of town inspecting properties with Bingley. Georgiana becomes distant and secretive so Clare decides she must do something, but what? There is no one around she can trust to help or advise her. Going to London is a wonderful opportunity for Clare, but being strictly brought up she feels distinctly uncomfortable around much of that city’s society, especially Darcy’s black sheep London cousin, the now ailing Lord Ashwell. Darcy has assured Georgiana that the vile rumors circulating about him are just gossip, but might Darcy be blinded by family loyalty? Desperation to protect Georgiana forces prudent Clare to put herself in the company she would avoid under any other circumstance.
I found so much to enjoy in Follies Past, including the sympathetic portrayal of Caroline Bingley. She’s the same character we met in P&P, but with more insight into her character I felt moved by her story. Passages describing Caroline falling in love are the most convincing in the book, without being lewd they practically sizzle.
Playing small but important roles in the story is Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s taciturn daughter Anne, and what a treat to get to know her–she’s a closet naturalist! Get Anne going about insects and she has lots to say. Anne also retains her P&P persona, but now that author Kerr has her talking we learn she has plans for her life and isn’t the pawn of her mother that everyone, including Lady Catherine, thinks she is.
Even Wickham gets a touch of tenderness from Kerr. We see him thwarted in love (yes, Wickham in love!) and with his hopes to lead a settled life dashed when Darcy (justifiably) denies him the living. It’s possible to (briefly) feel a little sorry for him.
I felt the foiling of Wickham’s elopement plan happened abruptly, once everyone was in place it resolved in a few paragraphs and Georgiana let it go very easily, but by then Clare has become the heart of the story. The steps Clare took to help rescue Georgiana, and how those actions affect her future bring about a very Austen-worthy happy ending. Follies Past delighted me so much I actually cheered out loud a few times while reading.
5 out of 5 Stars
Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, by Melanie Kerr
Petticoat Press (2013)
Trade paperback (280) pages
Cover image courtesy of Petticoat Press © 2013; text Jennifer Haggerty © 2014, Austenprose.com
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