From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
Readers of Pride and Prejudice often compare Charlotte Lucas unfavorably with Elizabeth Bennet who bravely resists financial and familial pressure to accept a proposal from the comically inept Mr. Collins, the man who stands to inherit Longbourn upon her father’s death. While nothing but the deepest love will induce her into matrimony, her closest friend Charlotte decides that she does not have the luxury of waiting for love and quickly catches Mr. Collins on the rebound. Lizzy’s bold refusal stirs our hearts; Charlotte’s pragmatic and calculated choice elicits feelings of resignation and dismay. But I’ve often thought that Charlotte is unfairly maligned by readers, who seem to expect her to possess courage equal to that of Jane Austen’s daring heroine. Could a P&P-inspired novel offer Charlotte something other than a loveless marriage of convenience?
Molly Greeley’s debut novel The Clergyman’s Wife explores Charlotte’s married life in the village of Hunsford. The main storyline takes place three years after Charlotte becomes Mrs. Collins. Her life is quiet, comfortable, and secure, though she must endure visits to Rosings Park from time to time. Housekeeping, parish duties, and raising her infant daughter, Louisa, keep Charlotte busy. While this is the life Charlotte chose, the opening pages of Chapter 1 hint at her well-concealed malaise:
“Behind me on my writing desk, a fresh piece of paper sits ready. The salutation at the top—Dear Elizabeth—has been dry for some time. I never feel the quiet uniformity of my life as fully as when I am trying to compose a letter to my friend…There is always the menu to plan, the accounts to balance, the kitchen garden to tend. I embroider a great deal more than I used to, and my designs have improved, I think. But descriptions of embroidery do not an amusing letter make.” (8)
It is not until Charlotte meets Mr. Travis, a neighboring farmer drafted into service by Lady Catherine to make improvements to the gardens at Hunsford Parsonage, that she recognizes the degree to which she has resigned herself to a lack of friendship and intimacy. Charlotte and Mr. Travis become friends through a love for gardening and books. Shared humor, much of it at Lady Catherine’s expense, strengthens their growing bond. When they meet outside the village’s circulating library, Mr. Travis questions Charlotte:
“Are you reading something improving?”
I turn. “Not at all, though I shouldn’t admit it.” I hold my book out for him to see.
He leans forward and examines it, turning it open to the title page. “A novel?” he says, something teasing about his tone. “You’re right, you should not admit to it.”
“Fordyce’s Sermons was unavailable.”
He laughs outright, head back and throat exposed above his neck cloth, and I am shocked by my own pleasure….
“I suppose,” he says slowly, dryly, “this is actually rather…apt.” He looks at me again, brows raised. “Patronage, Volume One?”
Dismay rises inside of me, and then our eyes meet and I see his quiet amusement—and suddenly I am laughing, loud and gasping, as helpless against the force of it as a rowboat against a gale. (85)
Charlotte finds herself thinking of Mr. Travis more frequently than a happily married woman should. While she recognizes the impropriety of her feelings, she is infused with a quiet joy knowing that another human being understands and cares about her. With Mr. Travis’s encouragement, she returns to sketching and drawing, an activity that she abandoned when she married. This creative spark adds to her love of the surrounding countryside’s natural beauty, where she walks frequently. Similarly, engagement with people outside of Rosings Park and the parsonage helps her grow more comfortable in her role as the rector’s wife. Charlotte befriends several other Hunsford locals including Mr. Travis’s elderly father and Mrs. Fitzgibbon, a poor widow. Instead of visiting them out of a sense of duty, she comes to appreciate their kindness and wisdom. But as she begins to come into her own at Hunsford, she also grows more apprehensive about her feelings for Mr. Travis. The old Charlotte planned to live without emotional intimacy, content to send her husband out to putter in his garden as much as possible, but can the new Charlotte live this way?
One of the strengths of Ms. Greeley’s writing is her nuanced character depictions. The challenges that Charlotte and others face reveal achingly human weaknesses and vulnerabilities. As Charlotte’s emotional maturity grows, she comes to better understand her husband and can even forgive Lady Catherine’s single-minded devotion to her sickly daughter, if not her arrogant pronouncements and lectures at the tea table. Equally strong are the author’s scene building and descriptions of rural Kent. Ms. Greeley’s vivid narrative “pictures” take the reader along with Charlotte through the changing seasons.
“When the quiet of my life threatens to deafen me, I go walking in the woods around Rosings. …When I look up, all I can see is the great stretch and spread of the trees above me. At my feet, on either side of the dirt path, the ground is covered in soft dark moss and tender ferns, still curled tightly. The delicate faces of spring violets peer like reticent children from around the roots of trees. Though I am nowhere near as intrepid a walker as my friend Elizabeth, I feel pulled outside on days like this, when I wake to the stifling closeness of the parsonage walls…In my own home, and at Rosings Park, I often feel diminished. Out here, though I also feel small, it is in the best sense of the word. I am part of the world here, humbled and expanded all at once.” (28-29)
Charlotte’s life as a young woman in Meryton and in the early days of her marriage are revealed later in the story arc, but I do not want to spoil these poignant scenes for potential readers. Fans of Elizabeth and Darcy will enjoy the happy couple’s visit to Rosings Park for Lady Catherine’s annual harvest ball. Colonel Fitzwilliam also makes an appearance later in the story, bringing his fiancee to meet Lady Catherine and hopefully receive her stamp of approval.
I savored The Clergyman’s Wife and found myself looking forward to each opportunity to return to Charlotte’s story. The slower pacing matches the interior quality of much of the novel. This quietly powerful tale may not appeal to readers preferring more idealized romance and fast-paced drama, but I found The Clergyman’s Wife to be a rewarding read. Charlotte Collins finds a fuller life and a greater sense of worth than she could have dreamt of in Pride and Prejudice. Molly Greeley reveals there is indeed a habitable region that exists between the extremes of fairy-tale romance and loveless marriage while remaining faithful to the tenor of Jane Austen’s original.
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
The Clergyman’s Wife: A Pride & Prejudice Novel, by Molly Greeley
William Morrow Paperbacks (2019)
Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (304) pages
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Cover image courtesy of William Morrow Paperbacks © 2019; Text Tracy Hickman © 2019, Austenprose.com