Though the lengthy list of characters at the beginning of this Reconstruction-era Pride and Prejudice made me feel like I was about to read a Russian novel, it also reminded me that I was in good, steady hands; Caldwell clearly thought through what he was creating here, even mixing historical figures with versions of Austen characters from multiple novels, and I learned details about the Civil War I hadn’t studied since A.P. U.S. in 11th grade. With this list, a map, and a loving introduction to his wife Barbara, whom he calls his “life, [his] love, [his] muse,” I was ready to give this unusual variation my attention.
Darcy is a war hero, and Bingley the surgeon who nurses him back to health. An older brother of Elizabeth (here, Beth) has died of influenza while serving in the Ohio infantry, which leaves Beth prejudiced against southerners, who, she assumes, all owned slaves and have faulty morals (7). There’s a horrible scene early on between a group of Yankee soldiers and Darcy and Bingley, in which the latter act nobly but the former—led by Whitehead (Wickham) and Pyke (evil associate of Wickham’s) don’t.
When next we meet our characters, the evil Whitehead is on dining terms with the Bennets, and Jane is already engaged to Bingley. Things come together quite differently from the other variations I have read and reviewed, but everything is more or less in keeping with the tenor of the original. Darcy offends Elizabeth when first they meet as she is riding on the land that is his to protect, but he’s also a gentleman whose identity she does not learn until later. Even offended, she is notably struck by his eyes (almost the reverse of what happens in P & P; here she’s the interloper who doesn’t know the natives, and even as she is determined to dislike what she sees, she can’t help but be drawn to him.) In their first dance, at Jane and Bingley’s wedding, it is Elizabeth who stubbornly resists talking, but Darcy lets her be. These changes reduce any reader frustration with Darcy; instead, we are intrigued by the mystery of his past: what exactly happened between the present and the past scene with Whitehead?
Though Elizabeth recognizes right away that Whitehead isn’t bright or attentive enough to merit her attentions (he, unlike Darcy, cannot remember, let alone understand the clever significance of, her horse’s name), she does credit his assertions about Darcy, in this version, that he’s a half-breed. Shocking as that information may be, Elizabeth understands that race is not a character flaw, and we and she are led to distrust Whitehouse even more for claiming that Darcy’s being “one-quarter Indian” explains why Darcy “won’t let bygones be bygones” (47). Whitehead, meanwhile, works with Cate (Lady Catherine who, in this version, is not a blood relative of Darcy’s and is much more evil) to sell flood land to a black family trying to establish themselves. Whitehead’s motives are racism and greed; Cate’s, apathy for other humans and greed.
It has been a trend in texts I’ve reviewed as of late that Wickham is nefarious in his plots and schemes; this text is no exception. Whitehead is a loathsome creature, and his companions are no better. Because even more than female virtue is at stake here, the consequences are more dire than they would have been, even had Lydia not been saved. Denny, a harmless sod in P & P, poses a big threat here—both to Whitehead and to Darcy—and it is revealing that Whitehead plans to use Denny and then kill him, not that the reader wants Denny alive. He has a fondness for young girls and is so violent with them that even Mrs. Younge objects to “giving” him one of her prostitutes (87).
This text is not all danger and shooting and farming, however. As Darcy wrestles with his feelings for Beth, Caldwell gives us some pretty sensual scenes. (Fascinating to me how the first time a man and woman use each other’s Christian names takes on such an erotic quality during this time.) Mary is a regular person here, though a bit naïve and arrogant in her view of Catholics (I’ll save you that shocker by not revealing the context), and her love story is most interesting. Caldwell uses many familiar names here; a bank manager is Bertram, a minister is Tilney, a teller is Rushworth, a well-dressed businessman is Knightley, and a Thorpe and a Churchill make appearances as well. Lady Catherine has a most intriguing butler, a variation, I suppose, on Mrs. Jenkinson, but a lot more fun.
There are some significant changes from the original, too, location and time aside. Since Jane marries Bingley early on, Darcy’s offense against her, which Elizabeth learns just before the first proposal, is of a different nature—but here, it isn’t actually an offense; she just misunderstands it as such. Here, Mr. Collins is far too repugnant to be anywhere near Charlotte (and you thought he was bad in P & P!); instead, she has quite another suitor, whose identity might surprise an Austen reader. In this version, Mr. Bennet seems to suspect right away that Darcy is drawn to Beth, yet he is still surprised when that becomes more patently clear. And in this one, the advice Beth gives her father, which he then promptly ignores, is of a different, but equally serious, nature.
There are several little mysteries along the journey, some violence, a good deal of racism, and a lot of love. If ever you have wanted to read about American Reconstruction, Lizzy on a horse next to Darcy, or passion in a churchyard, this “Pride and Prejudice meets Gone with the Wind” is a book you should read (Sharon Lathan).