Dear Mr. Darcy by Amanda Grange

Grange retells Pride and Prejudice in epistolary form, as Austen originally wrote Sense and Sensibility and, possibly, First Impressions. As a result, we learn background information that adds depth to our understanding of key characters. Mr. Darcy Senior’s last letter to his son contains even more expectations of a lady worthy of Pemberley than Caroline could devise, but the advice helps us understand Darcy’s reluctance to select a bride from the women he is meeting. We hear, for the first time, the details of Darcy’s father’s death, and the effect on his son. Darcy’s description of the people at his father’s funeral made me cry; I remember feeling similarly. He tells his aunt, for instance, that he “was comforted by the sight which met [his] eyes, for the road was lined with people . . . all gathered to pay their last respects.” They join the procession, giving Darcy “strength by their presence and by the obvious love they had felt for” his father (9). Darcy also says he feels his father’s spirit is still with him, he has his words to guide him, and he knows he was “fortunate to have him as [his] father” (10).

Grange also shares with us some happy background information, such as how Darcy and Bingley became friends and Mrs. Bennet’s first name (Janet! I feel like Amanda Price discovering Claude :-). I was also entertained to read Darcy’s thoughts on matrimony, as expressed to Colonel Fitzwilliam: “How refreshing it would be to find someone who did not like me!” and “I will never rid myself of [my reserve], as it is a Darcy family trait and unavoidable” (35, 34).

We learn more about Bingley’s family, including that his mom is still very much alive during his courtship of Jane. Bingley’s father is amazingly uneducated. If this is his descent, it’s no wonder Caroline is so bitchy in her efforts to distance herself from it (but I wondered how she and Charles speak as well as they do. They’re in school, yes, but this is a big jump) (36-37). Also, they have four other siblings in addition to Louisa, and I wondered, if that were true, why we would hear nothing of them during Austen’s tale. The mom is as scheming as Mrs. Bennet. She and Caroline have made it clear to Bingley why they wish to know Darcy, and it is Darcy himself who tells Bingley to bring his sisters to Pemberley in consideration of his friend’s comfort. Caroline is her usual bragging self, casually slipping in information to a former school chum (and likely gossip) of this nature: “when you reply, I beg you will address your letter to Miss Caroline Bingley, Pemberley, Derbyshire, for we are on our way there to spend the summer with Charles’ dearest friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy” (45). I haven’t decided if this is better or worse than a Facebook check-in, which would achieve the same goal of spreading the news quickly. Both girls are embarrassed by their mother’s lack of education, but Louisa is more practical and sees the scorn people have for her sister. It’s funny to hear Charles practically begging his mother to take Caroline off his hands; “are you sure you do not need her for a few weeks, Ma?” he asks (100). The first letter from Caroline to Darcy shocked me. They aren’t engaged or related; what a violation of propriety! How could she think THAT would impress him?

In Grange’s version, we see more of the view Darcy has to combat within his own world. Darcy’s view of marriage reminds me of my own more than any other Austen character. He has seen his own parents’ love, and he “would like the same” (77). He has “met any number of accomplished,” attractive and smart people, “but none of them tempt” him (76). Sigh. He asks rhetorically “where am I to find” this type of marriage, and there is so clear answer (77). His cousin, Philip, by contrast, thinks of marriage more as Charlotte does and offers to share his list of acceptable women with Darcy.  Darcy’s cousin Philip provides the stereotypically arrogant voice of the upper-class. He says, after encouraging Darcy to get over his “infatuation” with Elizabeth, that Bingley is not “good enough for Georgiana” because “his family are in trade” (294).

Wickham, meanwhile, is sneaky as we would expect. His manipulative letter is beautifully constructed— designed to persuade Darcy that Wickham has seen the error of his ways and will use his reformation to save others. But of course Darcy’s no fool, and his abrupt response is perfectly clear. In this one, Darcy turns white and Wickham, red, and we know that because each tells his correspondent what he saw upon their encounter.

Poor Anne De Bourgh. She wants painting lessons and some time in the fresh air, but Lady Catherine says being outdoors is “injurious” to Anne’s health (92). Anne’s letters are some of the funniest to read, however, perhaps because we know so little about her from Austen, and because she’s living in the belly of the beast. It’s Lady Catherine who hires Mrs. Younge, and patronizingly says to young Darcy, “you need not trouble yourself over the matter of Georgiana’s companion” (101). Even at 15, however, Georgiana says to Darcy that she is not “convinced that Mrs. Younge always knows the right way to go on” (111). In Hunsford, meanwhile, the reason Lady Catherine advises Mr. Collins to marry is an impromptu one, brought about by a less than “entirely satisfactory” pool of quadrille one evening (136).

Mary’s really in fine form here.  Grange imagines a family of daughters who must leave Netherfield because their father has succumbed to drink and can’t pay the mortgage. This plot twist yields three young ladies with whom the Bennet girls correspond. Mary’s letters are the most entertaining of the pairings. She and her equally priggish friend have a “select circle of Learned Women” that they’d like to invite Mrs. Radcliffe to join (229). When Mary shares her views on virtue after Lydia’s disappearance, she interprets Elizabeth’s silence as admiration. She then confides to Lucy that she feels Charlotte “succumbed to the lure of Mr. Collins’ masculine charms” (349). I was undecided whether I was more appalled by her sense that Charlotte has betrayed good values by marrying at all or that Mr. Collins possesses any “charms” that would attract a normal woman. Mary also asks Mrs. Bennet for an owl because “she is a follower of the goddess Athena” (379). Sweet Georgiana assumes the organ Mary plays the wedding “must have several keys missing, for it sounded very odd” (381).

About 127 pages in, the story as we know it begins, with Mr. Bennet refusing to visit Mr. Bingley. I do miss Elizabeth’s voice. When it appears, it sounds a lot like Austen. “Poor Mr. Bingley” had just moved in and “already he is considered as the rightful property of one or other of us” (130).

This is a clever way of navigating the story with constantly shifting viewpoints. In one section, Lydia tells her friend Eleanor how excited she is to dance with Wickham at the Netherfield Ball, then Lizzy tells Susan that Wickham did not attend, then Mary tells Lucy that Elizabeth was jealous of Mary’s performance at the ball and that’s why she directed her father to stop it. We first see the contents of Darcy’s key letter to Elizabeth only through Elizabeth’s letter to Susan, which delays our knowing about Wickham’s attempted seduction of Georgiana because Elizabeth won’t reveal Darcy’s private information, even to her dear friend. On another occasion, one letter has Darcy telling Colonel Fitzwilliam he’s going to propose again, and the next is a letter from Kitty, which prolongs our wait, just as Darcy’s has been. We don’t hear details until Lizzy reveals all to Charlotte, who suspected Darcy’s feelings early on.

Of only one addition must I express disapproval. Grange changes Darcy’s feelings after the proposal, having him say he feels “ashamed” of himself “for ever having thought well of her” (263). Everything else is delightful, including some great lines in a Darcy letter to Colonel Fitzwilliam: of the time when he visits her at the inn, he comments, “I wanted to stay longer. I would have been happy to remain there for the rest of my life” (314). He imagines Elizabeth in Pemberley, “bringing it back to life, for,” he says, “ever since [his] parents died, a part of Pemberley has been dead” (314). And, as we might expect, some of our heartiest laughs come from the mouth of Lady Catherine. My favorite comes in the form of the very worst insult Lady Catherine can devise; after telling Darcy he is “no longer a nephew of” hers, she warns him that, if he marries Elizabeth, his “daughters will run off with stable hands” and—brace yourself—his “sons will become attorneys” (373).

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Published in: on September 6, 2012 at 7:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

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