Epistolary novels were all the rage in the late eighteenth century prior and during Jane Austen’s early writing career. One does not run across novels written in letters very often today. The fact that characters do not meet face-to-face is restrictive and can be a challenge to readers.
Thaw, by Anniina Sjöblom harkens back to Austen’s first epistolary format before she re-wrote Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. Not only is it a novel written entirely in letters, it is told in the first-person by one character—Elizabeth Bennet—and is a variation on Austen’s classic tale. With all of these unconventional restrictions and plot changes, one does not know what to expect. If this complex hook is not enough to get your attention, dear reader, then you are not paying attention.
The story begins with a letter by Elizabeth to her sister Jane from London on Christmas day. It is one month after the ball at Netherfield and Elizabeth is married to Mr. Darcy. Their marriage, however, is not the HEA that we imagined after Austen’s classic tale, but a patched-up business due to a devastating scandal. While walking near a frozen pond, Elizabeth’s misstep lands her in the icy waters. Injured and freezing, Mr. Darcy rescues her and returns her to her family, but not before a local resident witnessed the mishap and is telling a different story. Elizabeth’s reputation is ruined, and Darcy, being an honorable man, agrees to marry her. Neither is happy about the forced marriage, yet agree that they must marry.
So, there is no longer three-quarters of the story that Austen wrote. No departure of Darcy and Bingley to London. No Mr. Collins proposing to Lizzy and then later to Charlotte. No trip to Kent by Lizzy and the first failed proposal by Darcy. No trip by Elizabeth and the Gardiners to the north on holiday where they visit Pemberley, and no reconciliation of Elizabeth and Darcy after Mr. Bingley proposes to Jane. Just jump straight to Elizabeth as Mistress of Pemberley writing long missives to her Aunt Gardiner and her sister Jane about her miserable existence as the wife of a surly, disagreeable man. That is the big leap-of-faith part for readers in this variation. You will need to disarm reproof and just go with it.
As Elizabeth writes letters to her family, she also recounts events from the correspondence that she has received, so we do know what is happening at home at Longbourn with the Bennet’s and in London with the Gardiners. The author has cleverly placed Easter eggs throughout so that readers can connect to the original story. She has also borrowed quotes from Austen’s personal correspondence, and her other novels to spark our attention. As the winter progresses at Pemberley and turns into spring, Elizabeth and Darcy’s icy behavior toward each other thaws, a nice tie-in to the title. They do come to an understanding and deep love. I will keep you in suspense on how that happens, according to the usual practice of elegant females.
Thaw is a curious exercise in craftsmanship. It took a brave writer to attempt this challenging format and a good deal of skill to pull the elements together. However, whenever you create a variation, the hook and the jumping-off point need to be believable or you will lose your reader’s confidence in your story. Elizabeth falling into a pond and Darcy rescuing her was a nice twist, yet I craved much more detail about the event, her father Mr. Bennet’s reaction, and specifics on what they were accused of doing by the local gossip to satisfy my curiosity. In addition, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet is a very strong character and not easily persuaded into doing anything that she does not want to do. She acquiesced into accepting the forced marriage far too quickly. At this point, she disliked Darcy immensely and believes that she could never marry without love. Her stubbornness would never let her be frightened by the will of others, and her “…courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.” She is fierce and unflinching. That is why she is one of the most memorable characters in English literature. I believe that she would have weathered the social storm and been content to be a spinster if need be. That is very unromantic of me, but there it is.
Regardless of my objections to the pivoting point of this variation, if you can move beyond, it is a lovely novella. Traveling along and witnessing the gradual transformation of Elizabeth’s heart was a delightful journey. Sjöblom has an understanding and appreciation of Austen that is commendable, and I look forward to reading a full novel in her hand.
4 out of 5 Regency Stars
Thaw, by Anniina Sjöblom
Quills & Quartos Publishing (December 13, 2019)
Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (136) pages
Cover image courtesy of Quills & Quartos Publishing © 2019; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2020, Austenprose.com