Category: P+P Variation

Review: Expectations by Frances Murray (2012) [Trad]

Posted September 4, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in P+P Variation, Review / 2 Comments

A strange little book, which picks up a couple of years after Pride and Prejudice finished, and ties up all the loose ends with elaborately double-tied bows. It’s beautifully written, badly punctuated and varies in tone from sublime to merely dull, but it has two incomparable assets: the humour is glorious and it makes a hero of Mr Bennet. These may not be unconnnected.

Here’s the premise: Phoebe Parker is the spinster eldest daughter of a niece of Lady Catherine de Burgh, who married a naval officer against the wishes of her family and was subsequently cut off. When her husband dies, she struggles to manage, but eventually, her other two daughters are safely married, and a neighbour and friend has found positions in the navy for the twin boys. But the outfitting of two young men at once is beyond Mrs Parker’s means, so as a last resort, she writes to Lady Catherine for help. Lady C comes up trumps, and provides all their clothing and equipment, plus a small allowance, but she wants something in return: she asks for Phoebe to become her companion for a year, since her daughter, the sickly Anne, has died. Phoebe, a practical and intelligent soul, is happy to oblige because she feels she will derive endless amusement from the forthright Lady C. But of course, Mrs Jenkinson, the former governess and companion to Anne de Burgh, is not at all pleased by this usurpation of her role.

The Rosings parts of the book are not terribly exciting, with some rather dull business about setting up a school. However, there are fun interactions amongst the characters. Phoebe makes a friend of Charlotte Lucas, Mrs Jenkinson plots, Colonel Fitzwilliam falls in love and Mr Collins is a buffoon, as always. Lady Catherine is very much herself, but it’s a more nuanced and interesting Lady Catherine than the caricature in the book.

But then things take a more serious turn. There’s an outbreak of scarlet fever around Rosings, which carries off poor Charlotte Collins, whose epitaph must surely read: ‘she had a miserable life, and then she died’. It seems unfair, when authors have absolute power of life and death over their characters, to kill off one who deserved better and leave the idiotic Mr Collins alive and well (there were plot reasons for it, but not very plausible ones, even though it led to one of his silliest ever conversations).

The other significant death is that of Mrs Bennet, one whom I’ll not mourn quite so deeply. Or at all, in fact, much like Mr Bennet himself, who sees himself released from the cage of matrimony and swears he’ll never marry again. Well, we know how that’s going to end, don’t we? He sets off to visit Pemberley and various old friends, which he’s never felt able to do before, not wanting to inflict his silly wife on too many people. And along the way, he meets up with Phoebe, who shares his sense of humour.

I haven’t read too many P&P variations, but from reading a lot of blurbs, it seems to me that a great many of them start with the death of Mr Bennet, Mr Collins inheriting Longbourn and the Bennet ladies out on their ear. I must say, I totally enjoyed the idea of Mr Bennet the happy widower, pottering about the country from daughter to friend to other daughter, and generally living the life of Riley. His freedom dissipated much of his bitterness and just made him very funny. Every scene he was in simply fizzed with energy and his sardonic wit, and several times he got the better of Lady C simply by being way, way cleverer than she is. He was utterly awesome, and I’d have married him in two seconds flat. Lovely man, and it was wonderful to see him as a hero.

Phoebe… well, she came across as something of a shadow of Mr Bennet. She was clever, too, and witty and sensible, and she deserved her hero, but she was just a shade colourless by comparison. For those who want to see old favourites, there’s a fair bit of Darcy and Elizabeth, a little of Jane, Bingley, Kitty and Mary, although I have to confess I totally enjoyed Mary’s development (she decided what she wanted and took charge of making it happen with admirable determination), and the delightful Mr Lacey. By the end of the book, almost everyone is married (even Mr Collins finds a second wife) and producing babies left, right and centre (I liked the word-play in the title, encompassing both Mr Collins’ expectations, and the baby-producing sort).

I have a few minor quibbles. The Bingleys have apparently settled in Derbyshire, but surely the book places them in the next county to the Darcys? And there’s something funky with the ages. Phoebe’s twin brothers Peter and Horatio are to become midshipmen at 19, when 12ish is usual, Mary is seemingly still only 17, and Mr Collins is only 24! A clergyman couldn’t be ordained before the age of 24, and this book is set several years after his ordination. It was also odd that he made so much of Phoebe being older than him, when Charlotte had been even older.

But none of this interfered with the sheer joy of seeing Mr Bennet let loose to scatter his wit in all directions, so despite the dull patches and the commas scattered as randomly as salt from a shaker, I loved this enough to give it five stars.


Review: Unequal Affections by Lara S Ormiston (2013) [Trad]

Posted June 8, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in P+P Variation, Review / 4 Comments

This is only the second P&P variation I’ve ever read [*], and possibly the most expensive ebook I’ve ever bought, but it’s hard to imagine there will ever be anything to top it. The author took two characters we feel we already know well and peeled back layer after layer to reveal every last fascinating nuance of their characters. It’s a virtuoso performance. Perfection.

Here’s the premise: apart from a brief prologue with Bingley, the story opens precisely in chapter 34. Darcy has just made his first, insulting proposal to Elizabeth at Hunsford Parsonage and is waiting complacently for her acceptance. We know how that went in the book! But instead of impetuously rejecting him out of hand, Elizabeth stops to think. He loves her! And loves her so well that he is prepared to make for himself the sacrifice that he deterred Bingley from, and marry into a family beneath his own, in wealth, social status, education and manners. He will put up with her hideous relations for her sake. She realises that she will never again have such a good offer, she can rescue all her family (including herself) from poverty and provide herself with a man who feels an overwhelming passion for her. So she asks for time to consider the offer.

Obviously (because the story would be no different from the book otherwise) she accepts him. They spend a little time in London, where he realises that she has relations of whom she need not be ashamed (the Gardiners), and she realises that amongst his social equals, he can be perfectly agreeable. It’s only when the main characters move back to Longbourn and Darcy bumps up against the disaster that is Elizabeth’s family that things begin to fray around the edges.

This tips the story straight into a maelstrom of discordant emotions. Where Austen is relatively dispassionate, Ormiston brings the muddled feelings of the protagonists to centre stage. Darcy is overwhelmed with love for Elizabeth, but still the proud, supercilious man he is in the early part of the book. He knows intellectually that he has to make sacrifices for Elizabeth, but he thinks it will be a short-lived difficulty, and that as soon as he can whisk her off to Pemberley and away from her awful relations, everything will be wonderful. And Elizabeth is torn between gratitude – he loves her! – and the cold fear that she’s only marrying him for material advantage, and what sort of foundation is that for marriage anyway?

So yes, this is all about the angst, the swirl of awkwardness that is bound to surround two such different people, from very different worlds, marrying for very different reasons. But Ormiston gets wonderfully under the skin of both of them. Elizabeth’s perky self-confidence is gradually stripped away as she begins to realise the enormity of what she’s taken on, and the challenge of keeping Darcy happy, not just through the honeymoon period but for a lifetime. And yet she feels the full force of the power she has over him, of knowing that she has only to smile or lift one eyebrow to bring him to her side.

As for Darcy, we see a side of him that, frankly, never emerges in the book. We see his weaknesses and yes, his vulnerability, on full display. He is tender, gentle and determinedly passionate, and honestly, I’d have married him in a minute, I can tell you. The book softens Darcy and erodes his pride, but it never reduces him to this desperate shell of himself. And yet Ormiston never once made me feel that this was anything other than the Darcy of the books. We just see him exposed in all his complex layers. It’s an awesome performance.

The way they tiptoe around each other is brilliantly drawn. They really know very little of each other’s characters and beliefs (and that was absolutely how it was in the Regency – society combined to keep men and women apart until they decided to marry, so this delicate little dance is spot on). There are two steps forward and one back, meetings when everything goes smoothly and other times when one or the other is cast into despair, wondering what on earth they’ve got themselves into. There are kisses, quite a lot of kisses, actually, but every one is different and the circumstances that lead to them and the consequences of each one are fascinating. But Darcy is utterly steadfast in his love for Elizabeth, and that love (combined with Elizabeth’s outspokenness and willingness to meet him halfway) eventually rips away every last shred of pride. He begins to understand what he has to do to be worthy of her, and she begins to appreciate just what a wonderful man she’s found.

The title of the book tells the story – these two start out with unequal affections, Darcy so overwhelmed with love that he would do anything, absolutely anything, to win Elizabeth. He just doesn’t quite realise what it will take. And he’s utterly confident that he can make her love him in the end. How he comes to realise that, perhaps, that might never be possible and face up to the prospect, and how Elizabeth’s own feelings come to change forms the bulk of the book. The plot actually follows the book rather well, although with some obvious differences, since Darcy and Elizabeth are now engaged. But there are certain scenes and even phrases that come straight from the book, and the divergences are all perfectly logical.

There are plenty of Pride and Prejudice variations that are only tenuously rooted in the book. This is not one of them. This feels like the real Darcy and Elizabeth, but seen from a completely different angle. Much of what they experience here they would have gone through anyway after the wedding – that awkward getting-to-know-you phase of marriage. Here it all happens beforehand in brilliantly realised detail. Austen purists could safely read this and feel they were only adding to their understanding of the couple. And it’s not just the main characters that are perfectly drawn – I heard all of them speaking in the voices of the actors in the 1995 version, that’s how real it felt. It’s a crying shame that Ormiston seems not to have written anything else, but one perfect book is a fine legacy. Five stars.

[*] The other was Thaw by Anniina Sjöblom, which was also wonderful, in a different way.


Review: Sanditon by Jane Austen and Another Lady (1975) [Trad]

Posted April 5, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in P+P Variation, Review / 2 Comments

Well, that was fun! I’ve been hoping to read this book for ages, since it’s touted as the definitive version of Sanditon, Jane Austen’s unfinished work, but I was waiting patiently for it to come out in ebook form. But a clear-out of the loft produced a box full of old Georgette Heyer paperbacks, and amongst them this Signet book from 1975, the pages yellowed and brittle with age. I haven’t read a dead tree book in years, but this was one I couldn’t resist.

There was another reason for reading it, too, since I’m working through a rerun of the 2019 TV version, and it was an interesting comparison. Or rather, there is absolutely NO comparison. One is light-hearted, witty, elegant and charming. The other is… well, I’m tempted to say pointless. But enough of the TV version. This review is about the book.

Here’s the premise: Charlotte Heywood is taken up by Mr Tom Parker and his wife after the Parkers’ carriage suffers an accident outside the Heywood house. She is to stay with them at the small seaside town of Sanditon, which Mr Parker is busily trying to turn into a fashionable resort like Brighton, complete with sea bathing (from bathing machines!) and splendid views and lots and lots of bracing fresh air. Lady Denham is the other prime mover in this venture, and the first few chapters introduce an array of other characters: Mr Parker’s brother and sisters, hypochondriacs all; Sir Edward and Miss Denham, the impoverished aristocrats; Clara Brereton, the poor relation; wealthy mulatto Miss Lambe and her entourage; and finally, briefly glimpsed, the presumed hero of the book, Sydney Parker, yet another brother. That was as far as Jane Austen got, so everything else comes from the imagination of Another Lady.

Most of these characters are reasonably well defined from the start, but one is a complete enigma – Sydney Parker. Jane Austen tells us virtually nothing about him, so he’s a blank slate. Another Lady does a terrific job of making him a likable and very heroic hero, while also making him darkly enigmatic at times. He’s one of the most original characters I’ve come across, and I totally understand why Charlotte finds him so compelling. I find him compelling, too! This is one of those rare cases where all the other characters agree that Sydney is a charismatic, charming and intelligent man, and he actually behaves that way. I get so tired of Regency authors telling us that a character is clever when they continue to do blindingly stupid things, so it’s very pleasant to be able to say that Sydney really is clever. His cleverness trips him up sometimes, but he’s clever enough to get himself out of the mess.

The blurb describes Charlotte as ‘Jane Austen’s most captivating heroine’. That’s a bit misleading, because we don’t really know much about Jane Austen’s Charlotte at all, so this is really Another Lady’s Charlotte, and yes, she is rather captivating, a very practical girl who makes an interesting counterpoint to the flighty and up-in-the-boughs Parkers, with their constant schemes. She is also a very well brought up young lady, who gently reproves Sydney whenever he seems to wander into misguided territory. In fact, to begin with, she seems to disapprove of him rather thoroughly, as a frivolous chap with a mischievous or even a bad streak. But of course she comes round nicely.

The plot, such as it is, meanders about rather charmingly, with a visit to neighbouring resort Brinshore and some whimsical efforts to collect seaweed. Towards the end, it veers into melodramatic territory, seeming like one of the more extreme Georgette Heyers before resolving itself neatly and without fuss. A lovely read, and although it has too much focus on the romance to ever pretend to be an authentic Jane Austen, and the language never rises to her sublime heights (in particular, Another Lady never comes close to capturing Sir Edward’s pompous and long-winded verbiage), I enjoyed it enormously. Five stars. Thoroughly recommended.

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Review: Thaw by Anniina Sjöblom [Trad]

Posted February 2, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in P+P Variation, Review / 0 Comments

This book enchanted me from start to finish. I don’t normally read Jane Austen fan fiction (JAFF), but if it were all up to this standard, I’d never read anything else. The book is an imagining of Pride and Prejudice which veers off even before the Netherfield ball. Elizabeth indulges in one country walk too many, and has to be rescued by Mr Darcy. When rumours start to fly that compromise her reputation, Mr Bennet calls upon Mr Darcy to do the honourable thing – and he does. Now, there must be a million JAFF books that start off with Elizabeth forced into marriage with Darcy by one contrivance or another, but the author makes this feel completely believable.

And here’s the (possibly) unique feature of this book – it’s entirely written in the form of letters from Elizabeth to either Jane or Aunt Gardiner, the two people to whom she can safely confide her innermost feelings. We never see what they write to her, although we get hints of it in her replies, and there is (I think) only one brief letter to another character at the end. So everything depends on the author capturing Elizabeth’s personality accurately, and this she does brilliantly. She recounts scenes that, while not quite the same as those in the book, yet evoke the familiar, and in the sharp-tongued, witty manner with which all P&P fans are familiar. This really feels like Elizabeth writing, and especially so because it captures so much of the wit of Jane Austen. I laughed out loud, a lot. It helps that the author ‘borrows’ little phrases from the lady herself, not all of them from P&P, and thus creates an awesome Easter egg hunt for aficionados (although there’s a full list at the back). The other characters are also true to canon, and Darcy, in particular, is very well drawn.

The development of the romance between our hero and heroine follows the pattern of the original book — strong dislike on Elizabeth’s part, the slow recognition of some good qualities in Darcy, confusion over Wickham’s story, the revelation of the truth of that, and then the disaster of Lydia’s elopement that seems likely to destroy any hope of a happy ending for the two. And this is the clever part, because the author seamlessly weaves in events directly from the original, events that are somewhat modified and some events and characters that are entirely new, and it all feels perfectly natural and as if it could, in fact, have happened in exactly that way. Some things from P&P don’t happen at all here, such as Charlotte Lucas marrying Mr Collins, and others, like Jane’s romance with Bingley, do happen but in a somewhat different way. I found it all very ingenious.

Obviously, the epistolatory style imposes some constraints. There’s no dialogue, and dramatic moments are conveyed solely by Elizabeth’s heartfelt and often very acerbic words. This gives the reader a certain distance from some of the events, but to be honest, I found that being ‘in Elizabeth’s head’, as it were, and hearing everything through her own biases, gave the story a greater intimacy than the original, and Elizabeth’s growing feelings for Darcy and his for her come across much better in this format.

This seems to be the author’s first published work, but I very sincerely hope it won’t be her last. I’ve rarely read such an accomplished debut. There is a very, very small smattering of Americanisms, but the only one that jarred was ‘passes’ instead of ‘dies’. Otherwise, the writing was a near-perfect evocation of Elizabeth’s character and Jane Austen’s style, and a brilliant and convincing variation on the P&P story. Highly recommended. Five stars.