The Other Mr. Darcy by Monica Fairview

Why are so many writers determined to find love for Caroline Bingley? She’s so horrible in Pride and Prejudice! Is it an extreme desire to have a happy ending for all? Why not a little love story for Lady Catherine then? Wait—I lay claim to that idea. Or is it that Caroline is smart, and we have a natural sympathy for her and want to believe that, really, she has a good heart?

Whatever Fairview’s reasons are, this Caroline Bingley is not the one we love to hate. This book opens with Caroline sobbing because “her Mr. Darcy” has preferred and thus married Elizabeth Bennet. In Pride and Prejudice, of course, Miss Bingley sought to marry Darcy for his wealth and status, so his choosing another should not logically feel to her like her heart is “breaking.” In P & P, Jane Bennet/Bingley finally understands that Bingley’s genuine kindness is very different from anything residing in his sisters; here, however, Jane wants Caroline’s company at Pemberley (where they are travelling to provide comfort to Elizabeth who, in yet another text, struggles to conceive and carry an heir). There are several references here to the plan to separate Jane from Bingley in P & P being entirely Darcy’s, despite our knowledge of Caroline and Louisa’s role. Why the changes? Because making us like Caroline (which we can only do if Fairview changes her from what she is in Austen’s novel) is a prerequisite to Caroline’s finding a happy romantic ending—and for us wanting her to find it.

Fairview’s strategy is fairly simple: in addition to altering a few facts from the original, Fairview adds some details to make sense of Caroline’s reserve and coldness.  We learn about her parents (close bond with her father who was “made” a gentleman by the mother’s desire to inhabit that part of society and who was unable to marry the woman he really loved), her education (her instructor told her to flatter men constantly, which fails her with Darcy), and her instincts for self-protection. Fairview also tones down Elizabeth’s spunk here to enable Caroline to shine a bit. Elizabeth is unwell for most of the text, and even when we see her, her comments are uncharacteristic at times (she actually reacts to a reasonable concern about her desire to travel with “Fiddlesticks”), and she does not joke nearly so much as we would hope (especially about Caroline’s increased attentions to her). The most significant part of the strategy is that Fairview has shifted most of Caroline’s vituperative spite and mean littleness to her sister, Louisa, a new widow who speaks and behaves much less well here than she does in P & P, which isn’t saying much. Louisa absorbs the “yuck” factor, so Caroline can be a likeable heroine. Louisa is shockingly more like Lydia than any other character, and we expect more based on her age and supposedly correspondent maturity.

Mostly, it works. Fairview invites comparisons between Caroline and Elizabeth, the heroine who got the first Mr. Darcy, on several occasions. She is embarrassed by the poor etiquette of a silly sister. She thinks she despises a man who actually is just the one for her. She contemplates marrying Colonel Fitzwilliam. She even says something she really shouldn’t have said (or thought) and wounds Darcy #2 because of it. He, in response to her refusal to think well of him says, “This, then, is your opinion of me!”

Darcy #2, by the way, is our Darcy’s cousin. He’s American and believes in the values of laughter, freedom, and marrying for love; in short, he’s Elizabeth (besides the American part). That similarity facilitates an interesting parallel between a conversation here and a pivotal one in P &P. Here, American Darcy and Caroline argue about what constitutes a gentleman (versus a lady); Elizabeth’s role is played quite well by the new Darcy, who begins his work on Caroline, much as Elizabeth (but less deliberately) began hers on Darcy—through laughter. The text says that with one such episode, “some of the ice inside [Caroline] began to crack.”

When finally she thaws, she—and we—find a resolution that is perhaps not entirely suitable for the original Caroline Bingley, but nonetheless fulfilling for this new one.

Published in: on December 21, 2009 at 6:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

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