The Second Mrs. Darcy by Elizabeth Aston

Our Mr. Darcy is a distant relation of Octavia Darcy’s late husband, and George Warren, Caroline Bingley’s stepson, stands to inherit Octavia Darcy’s estate because of an entail. Sounds like a fairly familiar scenario thus far, but this novel, with many entirely new characters, also presents some situations we rarely see in the “sequels” (of which, technically, this isn’t one except in the sense that, chronically, it comes after the events of Pride and Prejudice).

The story begins, for instance, in India, where we learn about our heroine, Octavia, and also get glimpses of information about the “first” Mrs. Darcy (who has much the same mystique as Rebecca receives, to the worry of the unnamed wife of Max deWinter, in DuMaurier’s thriller). Like Max, Octavia’s husband rarely spoke of his first wife when securing her replacement, so the second assumes she is inferior in his view, only to suffer through such feelings before finally learning the truth (don’t worry: no boat murders here; it is a Jane Austen-themed work, after all).

Octavia, like our Lizzy Bennet years before, is tanned after a long voyage (here, home to England from India after the death of her husband), and has her would-be estate entailed on a man who hardly deserves it, but George Warren is evil and manipulative, rather than simply unctuous and pompous like Mr. Collins. Octavia has a sister with nerves like Mrs. Bennet’s and a sharp tongue like Miss Bingley’s. This sister has a daughter, Penelope, whose cough annoys her mother, as Kitty’s does in P&P, but we like Penelope right away (as does her aunt Octavia) because of her friendly nature, her managing to be kind despite her mother’s mean spirit, and her love of a man of whom her mother will never approve.

Height, of all traits, has long been a problem to Octavia. Everyone seems to comment on how much taller she is than a woman should be (wasn’t Lydia proud of her being taller than all her sisters in P&P? Since when is height, even in a woman, a negative trait?). This odd fixation is one Octavia cannot help but internalize as one of many reasons she did not enjoy her first season as a maiden looking for a husband several years before our story opens. Men, it seems, do not court women who stand taller than they do.

Enter Lord Rutherford. We know from our first glimpse to watch him closely: he is tall, and he reads. He is also single, but older than the usual man seeking to marry for the first time. He has a twin sister to whom he is very close, and a close friend who reminds this reader a lot of Charles Bingley. He also stays away from meaningful relationships with women because he has been hurt in the past and because women—and their grasping families—are mostly interested in his title.

Before you know it, you’re hooked. Whereas when you first started reading, you may have been waiting to see a familiar face (Mr. Bennet still lives at Longbourne, but we don’t really see him, even when we enter Hertfordshire for Octavia to stay with the Ackworths, whose home is built into the earth like Pemberley, and who are a delightful, lively, information-stocked couple vaguely resembling the Gardiners; it is Mr. Bennet, however, in a fun twist, who brings the news that Lord Rutherford is moving into Netherfield. The Gouldings are still in Haye Park, too, but most everyone else is Aston’s creation), but soon, you just want to know what will happen to these people, even if they’re new to you.

In fact, many of these are familiar names if you’ve read Aston’s other Darcy novels. The Wyttons, for instance, are one of Darcy and Elizabeth’s daughters and her husband, whose courtship we have followed in a previous tale. Pagoda Portal makes several appearances, too, and Lady Warren reappears in her usual state.

The names are intriguing. I often tell my students that the English name pool is much smaller than ours, consisting basically of George, Henry, Charles, John, William, Edward, and variations of those names, for men, and of a slightly larger pool for women. Imagine my surprise then, to find characters in Aston’s novel with names based on their birth order (Quintus, Septimus, and Octavia), names that reflect their character (Sophronia, Woodhead, Snipe, and Forsyte), and names that are just entirely new to me (Sholto, Poyntz, and Urquhart).

So while the character interactions we love in Austen reappear in new forms here (Octavia and Rutherford meet, for instance, as she’s rescuing books from his library, and they both have immediately negative first impressions of the other), The Second Mrs. Darcy is an intriguing tale in its own right, and one that, if the reader is patient long enough to keep track of the connections and care about the characters, will be a fulfilling read. It is also a tale in which the central figures for whom we are rooting are not the usual teenage/early 20s maidens and their slightly older heroes of the Austen novels, but, in fact, well-seasoned individuals who have seen what the world has to offer in terms of love, rejected any possibility of it in their own lives, and only later in life come to experience it first-hand. A refreshing alteration, then, for the 21st century reader :-).

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Published in: on August 15, 2010 at 9:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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