A Weekend with Mr. Darcy by Victoria Connelly

The cover promises “a charmingly written slice of warm-hearted escapism,” and it doesn’t lie. Though there are some awkward moments I just couldn’t accept as realistic, for the most part, the escapism works, and I was thoroughly entertained.

Cassandra’s famous line about Jane as a sister begins the story on a rather more sentimental note than we see for several chapters thereafter. After yet another twist of the opening line of P & P (must be so hard to resist trying one as a writer of a JA-based fiction, and it’s such fun as a reader to see some new ideas), we meet a college lecturer who sometimes reads for pleasure instead of grading essays and who occasionally has to fend off admiring male students. When she allows herself to think about her enthusiasm for all things Austen and realizes she is “in love with a fictional world,” I felt that the connections had hit just a little too close to home (9). Soon, however, the story shifts to more pleasant grounds—literally—as our heroine and the various other important characters converge for the weekend at the Jane Austen Conference in Hampshire. Once we realize what the secret of Katherine’s favorite living writer really is, we know what needs to happen, and the fun is watching how that develops.

We all enter these fictional worlds with a certain willingness to suspend disbelief, but this text went too far more times than was comfortable for this reader. When Katherine autographs a copy of her book for a student, his comment—“You don’t want to add a kiss?”—seemed unrealistic to me.  No one but the seriously socially impaired would say that. Similarly, I had trouble believing that a professor of English would comment to her new friend Robyn, who has just said she travelled from North Yorkshire, “A bit farther than me, then” when, of course, she meant to say “than I [have travelled]” (50). Later, she comments to Warwick that she’s “afraid us ladies can be a bit scary when we start talking about our heroes” (126). US ladies? Just what expectations are there for lecturers at St. Bridget’s College? For a good person, Katherine demonstrates some behaviors that seem inconsistent to me. Her treatment of Mrs. Soames, for instance, who, granted, is terribly unpleasant, borders on mean when she conspires to exclude the woman from her trivia group (136). She also seems to think all her students apathetic about great literature, which struck me as disturbing: not all of my students react to the texts I share with them as I would wish, but a good majority do . . . how could that be so different in a collegiate environment if the instructor is doing her job properly? (114) Katherine is also unbelievably rude when she first meets Warwick, who has accidentally rolled a suitcase over her toe—despite his “tall, dark, and handsome look” and the fact that he was helping an elderly lady (51). She judges too quickly—which I understood was supposed to parallel Elizabeth Bennet’s judgment—but it just felt snotty (51).

Warwick and Robyn’s behaviors gave me some pause as well, particularly when they take risks that seem unnecessary rather than exciting. Warwick may wish to use his knowledge of Katherine’s heart to win her over initially, but even once it’s clear she likes him, he does not tell her the truth, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me given that he is planning to reveal the truth soon to her. This foolishness becomes even more pronounced when someone who knows his secret announces her impending visit, but still, Warwick—an otherwise intelligent and amiable man—does not act wisely, and though I understand the mistake has to happen for the story to resolve as it does, it still didn’t seem like a believable choice to me. When Robyn is finally free of her primary burden, she is faced with an obstacle I had trouble accepting as realistic: is she ready for a new relationship? The answer seemed obvious to me (of course she is!), but not to her. And most glaring, Robyn, of all people, should know better than to date to marry Mr. Collins! (20)

My frustrations, however, could only exist in such form, because I came to care for these characters, and Connelly does that well. She has her finger on the pulse of a good subsection of Janeite enthusiasm, even turning up the phrase “the Jane Austen effect,” to describe the rosy feeling everyone seems to have when Jane Austen is around (99). She makes a strong argument in favor of literature and film that brings pleasure—without snobbery by purists who refuse to try other forms of their favorites; in fact, Katherine was first prompted to read Austen after watching the Olivier/Garson film, much as I was by the Paltrow/Northam Emma (101). Connelly really pushes the concept hard, with Robyn naming her collection of chickens after various characters (ex: “the pale gold was Miss Bingley because she had an air about her, and . . . looked down her beak at everyone else” 18) and Katherine naming her cats Darcy and Wentworth.

Trying to ‘figure out” who’s who is an interesting game here. Sometimes it feels like the two leading ladies could be Elizabeth and Jane, but other times, the male and female figures seem to reverse roles; when Dan’s “tousled head” emerges from the pool, for instance, “his bright eyes [are] sparkling from the exercise” (105). The parallel love stories could also be like Elinor and Marianne or Emma and Harriet, but I’m not sure Connelly ever completely resolves this for us.

She does give us the answer to the ‘tough” question at the trivia game, but I was bothered that only one person—including a college lecturer in Jane Austen—at a Jane Austen conference knew what Mr. Collins reads to the girls, when I think most people reading this review right now would have no problem identifying Fordyce’s sermons in some form or other (141).

We do find fulfillment in sufficient places, however—whether it’s the beautiful description of the human need for nature (“Pleasures like this didn’t change with the centuries. People still longed to feel the earth beneath their feet and the sun on their backs” 196) or the revelation that at least one Janeite (Carla) besides me collects Pride and Prejudice in foreign languages, even ones she cannot read (117). That alone was worth A Weekend with Mr. Darcy.

Published in: on October 19, 2011 at 8:27 pm  Comments (1)  

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