A lady’s reputation was everything during the Regency era, as we are so sanctimoniously reminded of by Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice after her sister Lydia’s scandalous elopement.
“…loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable—that one false step involves her in endless ruin—that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful—and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.” (Chapter 47)
Fallen, Jessie Lewis’ new Jane Austen-inspired novel, embraces this dictum and explores the predicament of a fallen woman and to what lengths a family will go to hide the truth to save their social standing. When that family is from wealth and circumstance, such as the Darcy’s of Pemberley, it makes the tale even more intriguing to those who enjoy Austenesque variations. We shall see what it takes to make a brittle reputation break.
The story begins cryptically with a prologue involving two unnamed men discussing the plight of a pregnant woman in their charge. She is crushed when she overhears that their decision will ruin her reputation. That leaves the reader immediately guessing and sets the theme of the story that will be interwoven throughout the narrative.
“Do not talk to me of scruples as though she overflows with them! Nothing you say will change my mind. I will not marry her.” (2)
Unlike many other Pride and Prejudice variations, Fallen sticks close to canon beginning as a retelling of the original text, scene by scene, yet changing it with tugs and pulls into a new direction. The arrival in the neighborhood of a single man of good fortune still stirs up the locals when Mr. Bingley lets Netherfield Park, bringing his family and his friend Mr. Darcy onto the scene. Likewise, Elizabeth Bennet and her family are soon socializing with them at assembly dances, parties at Longbourn, and at the ball at Netherfield Park. The militia is also newly encamped in Meryton bringing the introduction of officers to the Bennet family, including a particular favorite of Elizabeth’s, Mr. Wickham. Yet simultaneously there is also another arrival to the neighborhood installed in a local cottage adjoining Netherfield Park whose residents, a spirited young girl attended by an elderly nursemaid, present a mystery and prompt gossip when their connection to Mr. Bingley’s sister Caroline is discovered.
As we follow the story from heroine Elizabeth Bennet’s perspective, she is still the lively, opinionated, and independent young lady that we know and love from the original. Her introduction to Mr. Darcy still leaves her with a poor first impression of him, and his opinion of her only being tolerable and beneath his attention still angers her. Her sister Jane’s attachment to Mr. Bingley and their designed separation by Darcy also leaves a hole in Jane’s heart, riles the indignation of her sister, disappoints the grasping Mrs. Bennet, and provokes the ire of the reader. And, then there is Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Collins, the Bennet’s odious cousin and heir to the estate of Longbourn, their family home.
“That gentleman, it seemed, had taken their few frank exchanges at the ball the night before as proof that they were perfectly suited to be man and wife. In short, Mr. Collins had proposed. Elizabeth looked forward to a time when she might be able to laugh at it. For now, angry exercise was all she had at her disposal to banish her woes. (94)
Where the story really takes flight is when the plot moves to Elizabeth’s visit in Kent to stay with her friend Charlotte Collins at Hunsford, the rectory of the living bestowed upon Rev. Collins by his esteemed patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Darcy and Col Fitzwilliam are also in attendance staying with their Aunt Catherine at her estate, Rosings Park. Elizabeth, an energetic walker, enjoys exploring the park surrounding the estate, encountering Mr. Darcy on numerous occasions. Prejudiced by Mr. Wickham’s shocking account of the parentage of the young girl in the cottage, and his denial by Darcy of Wickham’s inheritance left to him by Darcy’s father, Elizabeth is cautious of his nature and intentions. Slowly her feelings change upon closer acquaintance until his arrogant proposal of marriage, resulting in a battle of words, bruised egos, and her rejection.
“Nausea turned to burning indignation that he had so carelessly and cruelly engaged her heart enough that she cared. For she did care. There was no denying it; the pain in her chest that had begun on the walk and not relented since was too piercing to have been caused by anything other than love.” (193)
Fallen is a wonderfully creative story—an interesting spin on the courtship of our dear couple, Darcy and Lizzy. I was particularly impressed by Lewis’s clever use of the mystery element of the parentage of the young girl and how she connected it to the characters in the story. She placed clues throughout which kept readers guessing until the jaw-dropping final twist. I also appreciated her astute understanding of the original text and Austen’s characters that close readers of Pride and Prejudice will notice. Her flowing prose was a joy to read, and her choice of unique words such as cavil, sans, panegyric, hauteur, imbroglio, and reproof, one of my favorite Jane Austen words, both amused and delighted me. The pacing was a bit slow in the first half of the story, and at points, I felt like it was a skilled exercise of retelling Austen’s original. However, the second half was well-plotted, brisk, and uniquely original. My experience in reading it was further enhanced by the audiobook, expertly narrated by Stevie Zimmerman.
Intriguing, singular, and innovative, Fallen will squarely place Jane Austen fans back into the original while making you think twice about the brittle reputations of early 19th century women. Lewis continues to shine as a word master of Austenesque fiction, and I hope you will add this exciting new novel to your reading list.
5 out of 5 stars
- Fallen, by Jessie Lewis
- Quills & Quartos Publishing (December 5, 2020)
- Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (380) pages
- ISBN: 978-1951033651
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Cover image courtesy of Quills & Quartos © 2020; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2021, Austenprose.com