This is my third selection for The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge 2013, our year-long event honoring Jane Austen’s second published novel. Please follow the link above to read all the details of this reading and viewing challenge. Sign up’s are open until July 1, 2013.
If you can, take yourself back to 1993. Some of you reading this review were not even born yet, so bear with me. Imagine the Jane Austen universe pre Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy emerging soaking wet from Pemberley pond in the 1995 A&E/BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice. No dripping Darcy. No thousands of Jane Austen-inspired prequels, sequels and inspired-by novels and self-help books brimming book shelves at your local bookstore. No buy-it-now button at your favorite online retailer. No INTERNET for that matter! You have read Pride and Prejudice (multiple times) and seen both the adaptations: the1940 movie starring Laurence Olivier and the 1980 BBC mini-series starring David Rintoul on Masterpiece Theatre. You are violently in love with Jane Austen’s novel and know of no one else who shares your obsession—and then one day you are in a bookstore and see Pemberley or Pride and Prejudice Continued, by Emma Tennant. You stare at it in total disbelief. Could someone else continue the story of your beloved Elizabeth and Darcy? Could you be back at Pemberley again?
Now that you have a closer understanding of the environment that Tennant’s brave foray into Jane Austen sequeldom entered in 1993, and what anticipation the reader might have felt, you will have a greater appreciation of its tepid reception. When the vast majority read this book they delusionally expected Jane Austen, again. How could they possibly not be disappointed? By the time I read it in 2002 it had gotten a bad rap all-around by media reviewers and pleasure readers. My first impressions were not positive either. Now, after eleven years of reading numerous Pride and Prejudice-inspired novels that have been published in its wake— I have re-read it with an entirely new perspective—with an open heart and a sense of humor.
It has been almost a year since the happy day in which Mrs. Bennet got rid of two of her most deserving daughters. Elizabeth Darcy nee Bennet is learning the ropes of being the chatelaine of Pemberley House while obsessing over her insecurities and lack of producing an heir. Her dear father has died and his entailed estate of Longbourn has passed on to his cousin Mr. Collins and his wife Charlotte. The displaced Mrs. Bennet and her two unmarried daughters Mary and Kitty have taken up residence at Meryton Lodge, their new home not far from Longbourn and neighbors Mrs. Long and Lady Lucas. Elizabeth’s elder sister Jane and her husband Charles Bingley have purchased an estate in Yorkshire thirty miles from Pemberley. After four years of marriage they have one daughter and another on the way. Thoughtless younger sister Lydia, her ner-do-well husband George Wickham and their four children are continually in debt and an embarrassment to Elizabeth and her family.
The holidays are approaching and the plans for the annual festivities will include gathering family at Pemberley for Christmas and a New Year’s Ball. Besides Georgiana, Mr. Darcy’s younger sister, the guest list is growing out-of-control. Even under the care of her capable housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds, Elizabeth is overwhelmed. Included are Elizabeth’s family: some welcome and others not. Mrs. Bennet, Mary and Kitty will make their first visit to Pemberley. Jane will also journey with her husband and his sisters Miss Caroline Bingley, Mrs. Hurst and her husband. Elizabeth’s favorite Uncle and Aunt Gardiner have let a house nearby so that the unwelcome George Wickham and his family can visit with Mrs. Bennet. Also on the guest list is Mr. Darcy’s officious Aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh who disapproved of Darcy’s choice of bride but seems to have mended the fence enough for an extended stay. Arriving with her is her unmarried daughter Anne and the heir to the Pemberley estate, a distant cousin of Lady Catherine, Master Thomas Roper. Shortly before Mrs. Bennet is to depart for Pemberley she reveals to her friend Mrs. Long that even though Mr. Bennet departed this life but nine months ago, she intends to marry Colonel Kitchiner, a cousin and a crush from her youth whose father was a business partner of her father in Meryton. She has invited him to Pemberley as well—so it is a full house of unlikely companionship for its new mistress.
Any fans of Pride and Prejudice will recognize the irony of the guest list. The back story from the original novel and the combination of personalities is a set-up for the conflicts that inevitably arrive even before the guests do. Tennant has fudged on the facts from the original novel which were a bit off-putting. I remember being irked by this the first time around, and the second time did not sit as well either. Jane and Elizabeth were married on the same day in P&P, yet she chose to have Elizabeth marry Mr. Darcy four years after the original event—and how could any author writing a sequel or any historical novel set in the Regency-era not understand the ins and outs of British primogeniture? Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s cousin Thomas Roper, also the cousin of Mr. Darcy’s mother Ann, could not be the heir to Pemberley. If so, it would mean that the Darcy family and his mother a Fitzwilliam were related in earlier generations. This is possible but highly confusing to the reader who may understand the English inheritance laws, or not.
Quibbles in continuity and cultural history aside, my second impressions of Pemberley or Pride and Prejudice Continued were much more favorable—at least I didn’t despise it anymore. With the exception of Elizabeth Bennet being overly angst ridden and atypically un-spirited, I enjoyed Tennant’s characterizations of the delightfully dotty Mrs. Bennet and the slippery Bingley sisters. My biggest disappointment remained with the male characters. We see all of the action through Elizabeth’s eyes, and since she is uncertain and overly grateful of Darcy’s love, their relationship is strained and unpleasant. He is proud again and given nothing to say, and she is too unprejudiced to do anything about it. Tennant excelled most with her new creations: Mr. Gresham, Thomas Roper and the hysterical Col. Kitchiner who rivals the odious Mr. Collins (thankfully not invited to Pemberley) in the role of buffoon.
I appreciate Tennant much more as a writer than I did at first reading. It was interesting to put Pemberley into a wider perspective after many years. She was helping to create a new genre in which many would follow. This first attempt, though seriously flawed, merits some respect and congratulations. It is a must read for any ardent Austenesque fan, but most will be disappointed.
3 out of 5 Regency Stars
Pemberley or Pride and Prejudice Continued, by Emma Tennant
St. Martins Press (2006) reprint
Trade paperback (226) pages
Cover image courtesy St. Martins Press © 2006; text © 2013 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose