The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

Jane Austen’s name does not appear on the cover or even in the dedication of this book, but anyone who knows Austen will see her fingerprints on Willig’s story of a modern would-be heroine reading old letters in search of a hero who may or may not appear (either in the time of the French Revolution/ early years of Napoleon or in her own story). Ostensibly, Eloise Kelly is an American graduate student looking to find the identity of the Pink Carnation, a figure much like the Scarlet Pimpernel (who, for purposes of this story, actually existed). Information seems to be located in letters stored in the home of the PC’s descendants, a nice British lady and her surly nephew, Colin Selwick.

There are Austen links everywhere. Despite the tiny nods (such as an actual reference to Jane Austen, but only as a quotation that “might” be Jane’s on a mug Eloise sees, and later Eloise’s own comment that “it is a truth universally acknowledged that one only comes up with clever, cutting remarks long after the other party is happily slumbering away”), Willig seems to leave the task of drawing links between her work and Austen’s to the discerning reader (188, 269).

The strongest resonances are to Northanger Abbey and to Pride and Prejudice. Amy and Richard meet under less than ideal circumstances, with both crossing the English Channel to help innocent people in France but neither knowing the purpose of the other. She travels with her dear cousin (Jane, so that helps identify Amy’s Elizabeth for anyone who missed it) and their feisty chaperone, Miss Gwen. Richard’s brother is Charles (Bingley), but he’s closest to his sister, Henrietta (and, in fact, does not abandon his new acquaintances when they land in Calais because he imagines how he would feel if that happened to his sister) (100). Richard is wealthy and well-read and tall, but he and Amy almost immediately offend each other. Nonetheless, together they mock books whose purpose is “edifying young females” (107) (aka the type Mr. Collins would read aloud if not stopped by Lydia’s yawning). The woman getting mocked, however, clearly loves Udolpho in spite of her protests, clutching it to her and retiring early with it as soon as her charges are safe (115-16). When Amy explores her ancestral home, she is seeking to uncover mystery, much as Catherine does when she visits Northanger Abbey, and each young woman seeks answers in the apartments of the mother of the house (but here, it’s Amy’s own mother).

There are also more direct, specific connections in the main story to Austen. Amy smells of lavender water (106). Richard becomes aware almost immediately of her appeal to him, but no matter “how fine her eyes,” he wills himself to stop thinking of her so she doesn’t interfere with his plans (79). When separating from Amy doesn’t happen immediately, Richard realizes he must “put a safe distance between himself” and her, just as Darcy does with Elizabeth (113). She, meanwhile, feels she has been betrayed into thinking Richard is “a person of sense and sensibility” when her current information suggests he is not (82). Because we know who he is, we are not misled as we are by Wickham’s story to thinking he is anything but honorable and good.

There are Austen parallels in the frame story as well: Eloise misjudges Colin because of his own, unnecessarily harsh words before he knew her, but this time, perhaps as in the real P and P, we don’t know right away if he’s as bad as she thinks he is or not. One clue he might be the hero comes when she has to “tilt [her] head back to meet [his] speculative gaze,” just as the letter-writing heroine Amy does with Richard (and much as Elizabeth would with Darcy) (187). Also, it’s our natural inclination now, when a man seems like a jerk upfront, to think he might be a Darcy type and is just making a bad first impression. Eloise, like Elizabeth, makes several assumptions based on incomplete information, such as thinking the beautiful woman with Colin is his girlfriend; when they meet at a party and Pammy says the woman is “a little shy, but a sweetie,” we know she’s Georgiana! (304)

The big mystery Eloise seeks to uncover is who is the Pink Carnation, just as Amy is busy working out who is the Purple Gentian. The answer (to the first; the second, Willig gives us directly) seemed obvious to me long before it does to our heroine, and she doesn’t even remotely consider the correct choice. Our frame story heroine’s “blindness” is not limited to the identity of the Pink Carnation; she also has a lot of trouble recognizing who should be the man in her life. As she learns, she, like Elizabeth before her, feels “stung” that her “preconceptions had so blinded [her] to the truth” (302). Amy’s revelations about her own credulity come later, but she, too, comes to question her own conduct and judgment (364-65).  (These parallels, and many others, work on a different level once the identity of the PC is revealed: many of the current characters are modern versions of the 19th-century ones not just randomly but genetically, but that mapping activity I’ll leave for you if you so choose.)

The modern story provides some pop culture links. Eloise observes that Amy’s hairstyle in her portrait is “like Lizzie’s in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice ” (421). Colin Firth is never too far from a girl’s mind, either, as a man approaches Eloise at a party, and she observes that he has “dark, wavy hair like Colin Firth’s” (303). She never draws a connection between that Colin and the Colin who keeps appearing in her life. Maybe there are just a lot more Colins in Britain than there are in the U.S..

Willig neatly wraps up Amy and Richard’s story, but she leaves us wondering about Eloise and Colin’s. I suppose that’s “unexpected” and therefore “sophisticated,” and sure, we could figure their story parallels the other, but I think I speak for most of us drawn to these types of stories when I say, we want the happy ending! We want it for ourselves, and we want it for characters who are stand-ins for ourselves in the books we read. Maybe this strategy would work better on devotees of modernism or even Romanticism. Life is hard, don’t expect otherwise, blah, blah, blah. (To be fair, there are subsequent books, so maybe this is Willig’s version of a cliffhanger.)

In the readers guide, Willig says her “imagination was molded by a combination of Alexandre Dumas, Margaret Mitchell, and Judith McNaught”; she adds that her “stylistic sensibilities were shaped in the school of L. M. Montgomery, Nancy Mitford, and Elizabeth Peters”—with nary a peep about Jane Austen. As should be obvious by this point, this work could not exist without the solid underpinnings of the Austen oeuvre.

Published in: on January 11, 2014 at 10:15 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Loved this review. Now I must read this book.

  2. One of my favorite books / series. Please enjoy all of them!! I can’t chose a favorite.

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