Second Impressions by Ava Farmer

In form and style, this book is as much like the original as we could hope—so much so that doing anything but reading it as an incontrovertible sequel seems, at first, impossible, disrespectful, and silly. The lay-out, especially, makes the text seem like Austen’s own child, and the way the narrator presents the story—Mr. Bennet has lost his wife, whose nerves had not received “the compassion they merited after all” and all children but Kitty—looks and sounds like a Regency text would, down even to the first word of the following page appearing on the bottom of the previous page (1). The author is similarly credited as simply the author of another work (as Austen was, for P and P), and though the text consists of two volumes, rather than of three, it looks just like the title and introduction page of my (Oxford Illustrated) Austen texts. I actually did a double-take and checked the copyright date, but yes, 2011—it’s new.

Farmer tells us what has happened to our characters since we last saw them, and does so quickly. Charlotte has died “in child-bed,” Lady Catherine has advised Mr. Collins to let her family raise the child, and, in returning to Hertfordshire “for assistance and sympathy,” Mr. Collins finds Mary “his true partner in life” (2-4). Kitty, meanwhile, has becomes “less frivolous, less insipid, and more rational,” Jane is pregnant with her fifth—and increasingly dull and tired, and Darcy takes responsibility for their lack of fecundity (6-7). Georgiana is still single at 25, content to love Elizabeth, Darcy, and her cat, Blanche.

The text is as much about Georgiana as it is about any other character. We get background details of Georgiana’s childhood and George Fitzwilliam’s encouragement of his motherless young cousin. He has been awarded joint guardianship because his aunt and uncle recognized “his temperament and worth” (15). The explanation made me wonder why I have never before questioned why he, and not his parents or his elder brother, became the joint guardian. The narrator explains the effect of the Wickham betrayal on Georgiana’s character (though I had trouble accepting that Darcy says so little to her that she actually thinks “everyone in the world [knows] the depths of her frailty and imprudence” [19]). She’s also poorly understood by people who should know her well; both Colonel Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth have brief moments of sudden clarity about Georgiana’s sentiments, but we’re left rather in the dark about how that suddenly occurs after them not understanding for so long.

We also learn more about Anne and Lady Catherine. Farmer incorporates Austen’s views into her own descriptions, for instance with the development of Rosings. Sir Lewis wishes not “to dissipate his entire fortune in a fruitless attempt to insult nature completely” (30). He and Anne are close, so his death makes us pity her even more (though that pity doesn’t last long). I thought it an interesting link between him and Mr. Bennet in “the impropriety of infusing a daughter’s mind with derision and contempt for her mother” (30). Farmer even explains why we have never seen any “direct opposition” on Anne’s part to Lady Catherine; even Mrs. Jenkinson “could not discern the studied resentment” Anne feels (32, 31). Nonetheless, she is quietly brooding, and she takes revenge on her mother, first by deliberating not attracting a husband by being so inexplicably silent, and second, in a way I wish not to spoil for you. If we didn’t so pity Anne, Lady Catherine’s determined pursuit of Colonel Fitzwilliam for her husband—after it seems all other options have eluded them—would be hilarious. As it is, his rejection of her wishes echoes Lizzy’s rejection of them when Lady Catherine visited Longbourne in P & P.
Farmer also tells us more about Colonel Fitzwilliam’s family. With a somewhat detailed description of the marital pursuits and path of Lord Hallendale, Lady Anne and Lady Catherine’s brother, Farmer gives him a wife who might well be a model for Elizabeth—smart, pretty, but not of his “birth and station”—and he doesn’t care (59). This woman, of course, is Colonel Fitzwilliam’s stepmother, and he is so “genuinely fond” of her that he finds “occasion to return” home often (60). Sure enough, the text soon tells us that Elizabeth likes her and longs “to be held in such esteem at Pemberley” (61). The twist comes when Elizabeth asks some questions of the woman she admires and learns that her father was Jewish! An unusual discussion for a JA book, and though I was only mildly disturbed that one reason Elizabeth “suspect[s] Lady Hallendale of being an Hebrew” is because of Sarah’s “diminutive size,” the incorporation of Jews becomes worse than just awkward in volume two, when “enquiry into the Jerusalem Room . . . reveal[s] that the Viscount had been in debt to the Jewish money-lenders for no less than one hundred thousand pounds” (vol 1, 61; vol 2, 143). I failed to see the purpose of this noxious plot point. At least the murderers aren’t Jewish, but the whole idea that someone dies because he owes Jews money reeks of Shylock stereotypes and NOT of anything Austen ever wrote.

As many books have done lately, Farmer incorporates other Austen novel characters into this story of Elizabeth and Darcy, and also other Austen novel situations. In a Fanny-esque way, Georgiana’s “grateful affection for her cousin was grown into love, as Georgiana changed from a young girl into a young lady,” but her cousin sees her as just “his young, callow cousin” (16). He, meanwhile, is courting a Miss Crawford. The heavy rector Kitty marries talks a lot, and Elizabeth avoids him the way Emma does Miss Bates. The Parkers echo the Palmers. She is pretty but never shuts up; he is an intellect. Darcy has invited “Mr. Knightley of Surrey . . . to accompany him on a tour of the Pemberley collieries” (80). Emma’s sister’s husband knows the Gardiners. Elizabeth and Anne are friends as “Mr. Darcy often of a morning joined Captain Wentworth at the Corn Exchange to review the news” (87). Elizabeth has an odd early-Catherine Morland moment when she voices aloud her sense that she “would rather enjoy being set-upon by highwaymen” with Darcy “heroically” defending the ladies and one of the felons falling “desperately in love with Georgiana” (179). (This, ten years into their marriage, seems oddly immature, but we’ll talk about Elizabeth’s voice later.) When Lady Catherine needs help, Darcy consults Sidney Parker—from Sanditon! Farmer really went all out here. Anne Wentworth is in a similar position with respect to making Mr. Eliot’s character known as Elizabeth was with Wickham’s; now who will save Lady Catherine?

Though the style is elegant, many of the descriptions are a little too long for my taste, slowing down the pace of the story. Elizabeth and Darcy and Georgiana travel together—through Scotland and later through Wales on “tours of improvements” (89). Then they venture off into other nations of Europe, and Farmer gives us, in essence, a travel log. There are, as I see it, two key problems with this choice: 1) I don’t share these interests with Farmer, meticulously researched as I know they are, and 2) These are no longer our beloved characters but voice pieces for Farmer’s research.

The first problem: I just don’t really want to know the ins and outs of “medicinal salts” and “renellated roof[s]” and “castellated turrets” (99, 105). Huge parts of the story read as a travel journey from town to town, but even though the Darcys are there and Darcy keeps “noting” this or that, the descriptions really have nothing to do with Elizabeth or Darcy and are therefore less likely to stimulate pleasure from a reader who was expecting more of them. Nor do I care that the oxen are yoked differently in Burgundy from how they are in England or that the mild climate in Brieg leads to the production of saffron (vol 2, 53, 100). Georgiana and Darcy must read an inordinate amount about foreign climes to spout off information as they do throughout the trip. They travel from place and place and marvel at natural and man-made wonders and compare the people and practices to the English. I love travel, but this feels dry—well-researched, but not fun to read.

The second: Darcy, Elizabeth, and Georgiana seem to have opinions about everything, from the education of poor children to the ornamentation of landscape, but the opinions often feel self-righteous, and more likely Farmer’s than anything that either of the characters is likely to have spent much time contemplating in the past. In some places, they don’t even sound like people we know, but like little narrators. Witness this exchange:
“I have observed that the Crevolans of both sexes wore very coarse woolen clothes, always of a brown or deep red colour, with thick, red stockings, while the dress of the residents of Domo is both varied and more elegant.”
“And art adorns even the smallest of buildings, even though this is but a small place. To my mind, this is the first truly Italian scene, though we have been travelling in Italy a good while.”
Can you distinguish these voices from each other? Does either sound like our heroine or hero? The first is Elizabeth; the second, Darcy, but really they’re both Farmer, given other names to relate history Farmer wants to discuss, no doubt, for reasons of her own (vol 2, 107).

In addition to those key flaws, seemingly random phrases are en francais (and thus italicized) in the section dealing with their trip to the Continent, which I found annoyingly pretentious. If there was any logic behind which phrases were francofied, I missed it. Even a joke (I speak a little French, so I got it, but it’s hardly so basic that you would if you didn’t) is given in French—and not translated (180). Why? Austen doesn’t do that, and Farmer, in many ways, has a strong grasp on Austen’s style. When describing a heavy rector who loves food and wine, the narrator says “on at least one occasion, the sacrament was nearly denied a parishioner because the deceased had timed his dying so ill as to coincide with Parson Overstowey’s supper” (21). Similarly, the narrator’s amusing assessment of Mr. Bennet’s reaction to Georgiana is that “he was grown fond of his new daughter, and ranked her in his estimation above at least two of his own” (123). Farmer also clearly knows her Austen and gives P&P lines to characters in this text, as when Elizabeth tells the Comte that his interruption of their family evening, though unexpected, is not “necessarily unwelcome,” as she says to Wickham when he interrupts her “solitary reverie” in P&P (Farmer 33). Colonel Fitzwilliam does the same, with the same line, when Mary Crawford surprises him: “it does not follow . . . that such obtrusion is unwelcome” (155). So why the awkward intrusion of italicized foreign words so often? And why does Darcy call his wife Lizzy but she calls him “Mr. Darcy” or “Husband”?

There’s a lot I can’t quite reconcile here: I am impressed by the sheer knowledge of the writer, but I didn’t largely enjoy the experience, though there were certainly moments of pleasure.

Published in: on January 16, 2012 at 9:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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