James begins by reviewing the events concerning Mr. Collins that a Pride and Prejudice reader will well remember, but adds the detail that, at the time of the events of the novel, the future for Mrs. Bennet and her girls upon Mr. Bennet’s demise would be their installation “in one of the larger cottages on the estate where they would receive spiritual comfort from his administrations and bodily sustenance from the leftovers from Mrs. Collins’ kitchen” (4). Oh, the horror. It’s a wonder all five girls didn’t grab the first man they saw to spare themselves that fate.
She then takes us back in time a bit before catching us up on the present. The people of Meryton, with whose perspective James entertains us, are apparently happy enough to be decent to Lydia when she visits as Mrs. Wickham and even moderately pleased for Jane, but among these busy-bodies, “Elizabeth ha[s] never been popular” (9). They accuse “her of being sardonic, and although there [is] uncertainty about the meaning of the word, they [know] that it [is] not a desirable quality in a woman” (9). Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bennet take to each other right away, and even work together to help set up Bingley’s library. Mary, meanwhile, whom “no one expected to marry,” finds herself the wife of a rector near the Bingley home in Highmarten, and quite content as Mrs. Theodore Hopkins” (cute name choice, Ms. James) (11).
Our ancillary characters are busy, too. Miss Bingley, meanwhile, is in “a most hopeful phase” of a “pursuit of a widowed peer of great wealth” whose boring company matters less than “his peerage and his money” to her (149). Lady Catherine uses her musical boasting logic when she says her own lawyer says that were she “a man and had taken to the law, [she] would have been an ornament in the English bar” (151). Charlotte is pregnant with their fourth and is manipulating Mr. Collins into slightly better behavior, praising, for instance, his lack of prattling (155). Anne de Bourgh has died, and as Elizabeth goes to Rosings to offer comfort, warms Lady Catherine to her a bit (156). I was surprised and delighted to see that Wickham’s “latest attempt to earn a competence ha[s] been with Sir Walter Elliot” as a “secretary to assist with” extra work required by a move home to Kellynch but not that Wickham gets fired “within six months” (173).
I was thrown by what must be a mistake: The narrator says Lady Anne’s ball began when “Darcy was a year old” and “except for the period of mourning when her husband died, the ball had taken place every year until Lady Anne’s own death” (16). Experienced readers know Lady Anne died before her husband. I know I’m in the hands of a master here, so I wasn’t sure what to make of this apparent slip.
This story has some new characters: Henry Alveston, “a young lawyer, who, handsome, clever and lively,” is staying with Jane and Bingley and welcome (especially by Georgiana) with them to Pemberley (19). Thomas Bidwell, formerly the late Mr. Darcy’s head coachman and now, with “rheumatism in both his knees and his back,” is still invaluable to the Darcys in helping them prepare for the ball (19). We get much more of Bidwell’s story while he polishes the silver. Life is tough for him and his wife: his son is dying, one daughter has had four children in four years and is so overwhelmed she sends her other sister back home with the baby, and the home in which they live may be haunted. There’s also a very dark back-story there: Darcy’s great-grandfather “became a recluse” after “inheriting the state” and then “shot himself” in the cottage (22).
Some not so new characters have new obligations. Colonel Fitzwilliam, now an earl, comes to consult Elizabeth on the matter of marrying Georgiana. He makes a somewhat disparaging comment about Alveston, another of Georgiana’s suitors, saying the younger man “cannot afford to marry a poor woman,” but James then launches into Elizabeth’s thought. They are not Henry and Georgiana at all, but Colonel Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth, when they first met and soon he warned her that “the younger sons ‘cannot marry where they like'” (26-27). Elizabeth is left feeling uncomfortable, and she wonders “why the thought of” an alliance between Georgiana and Colonel Fitzwilliam gives “her an unease which she could not reason away” (37). We know her well enough to trust her instincts.
As Elizabeth contemplates the past and present, one of her questions about the development of feelings between her and Darcy is, “if this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome” as that of Elizabeth and Darcy? (47). I’d never quite thought of it in these terms, but the narrator points out that they “had only been together in private for less than half an hour” between the two proposals, and I chuckled inwardly at the praise of Austen (47). Elizabeth’s contemplation of the juxtaposition of “the most civilised country in Europe” with “another world . . . in which men are as violent and destructive as is the animal world” such that “perhaps even the most fortunate of us will not be able to ignore it and keep it at bay for ever” reminds me so much of Lucie Manette’s hearing of footsteps, years before the French Revolution enters her family’s life (48). These are the women whose instincts readers trust.
Book One ends with Lydia making a hysterical and surprise appearance. When Lydia arrives, the Darcys and the Bingleys handle everything effectively, but then Fitzwilliam returns from his ride (offering “no explanation of his absence” and not being questioned by Darcy, who, “in the trauma of the evening’s events, had given no thought to him” 60). The narrator suggests the colonel is up to something. Why does he so quickly volunteer to “fetch” Bidwell and then return so quickly without him but with the excuse that Bidwell is “so distressed at leaving his work half-finished” that it seemed better to leave him rather than take him home to check on his family after gunshots are heard near his home in the woods? (61) It is also only Fitzwilliam who has any contact with Bidwell’s wife and daughter. Why does Fitzwilliam seek this, and why does Darcy allow it?
We grow so suspicious that when they find Wickham sobbing, drunk, over Denny’s dead body, I not only suspected Wickham didn’t do it but also wondered if the colonel could have. Why does Darcy yield so often to the colonel? Darcy thinks the “precaution of being near the locked and bolted door” is unnecessary and would far rather retire to “Elizabeth’s loving arms,” but he instead sleeps in the library, “feeling he ha[s] no choice” (105-06). It does, at least, occur to Darcy that Fitzwilliam is the “only member of the family and guests” without an alibi and is worried about “his cousin’s silence,” though not enough to suspect him as we do (108). The thought occurs to Elizabeth that maybe Fitzwilliam suggested Darcy stay with him in the library “to prevent her and Darcy from having some time in private together” (118-19). The overly rigid Hardcastle opts not to pursue the colonel’s alibi more than he offers, which, based on the set-up seems a mistake to the reader. James does much to build the suspicion that something is going on with the colonel and doesn’t resolve the secrecy until near the end of the tale. When the colonel finally tells Darcy his “part in this whole affair,” he answers a lot of our questions, and it’s a relief to anyone who likes him that he volunteers the information (246).
In the meantime, James develops the town around Pemberley, including the home and family of Selwyn Hardcastle, “a conscientious and honest magistrate, but not a friend” (80). I can see why, even without the backstory. He is so self-righteous, he’s annoying. How Darcy holds his tongue—thinking “it prudent to say as little as possible”—is beyond me (86). Darcy is also put in the ironic position of defending Wickham when Sir Selwyn interprets Wickham’s words as a “confession” (87). Neither Elizabeth nor Darcy wants Wickham to be subject to a “howling crowd suddenly silenced as [his] handcuffed figure emerge[s] from prison” to be led to “the high gallows and the noose” (90). We forget sometimes how dark these times could be.
There are some cool little scenes, like Darcy and Elizabeth speaking to the servants, he “much too little” and she “a little too much,” but together, they “got it right” (129). Darcy is far more gracious to Wickham than Wickham deserves. When Alveston gets involved in the legal matters surrounding Wickham, Darcy is honest that he has found Wickham “ungrateful, envious, dishonest and deceitful” but also says that was “in the past,” “we all have the capacity to change,” and he “cannot believe that the Wickham [he] once knew . . . would be capable of the brutal murder of a former comrade and a friend” (141). Mr. Bennet shows up, and ensconces himself in the library to await Darcy, who realizes he is “exceedingly glad to see this unexpected visitor” (175). Darcy always carries the weight of the world; it makes sense he would want someone older and wiser for guidance he hasn’t had since he was a boy. Mr. Bennet, too, thinks Wickham is not guilty of murder.
Everyone in charge dismisses the “two silly young girls” who say they saw the “ghost of Mr. Reilly wandering in the woodland” the night of the murder,” and even “if there was a woman in the woodland,” everyone claims “it is hardly of much importance” since “this was not a woman’s crime,” which makes me suspect, of course, that it is or could be (182). Mrs. Younge makes an appearance at Wickham’s trial, and I wondered if she might be the woman responsible, and if Wickham’s comment was about introducing Denny to her. She is now “expensively dressed” with a fancy trimmed hat (203). Unless: could the murderer be Lydia? Maybe Wickham was having an affair with Mrs. Younge, and Lydia was fighting with him? When the verdict is read, Mrs. Younge flings “herself right under the wheels” of a heavy coach (235). If she were guilty but afraid to die, she wouldn’t do that, so could this be from love? The shocking revelation about who Mrs. Younge really is shows James really taking that relationship in a new direction. But whoa: I was really not expecting the twist (the details of which I will save for you to discover). Suffice it to say, even after a full confession, they make Wickham go back to his cell, saying “courts in England do not sentence to death a man who has proved to be innocent” (240).
I was a little confused about a few details. Wouldn’t Wickham and Louisa Bidwell have known each other growing up, or is she too young? Mrs. Reynolds’ brother’s widow is Mrs. Goddard (from Emma!), an awesome little treat for those of us “in the know” (280). Harriet names their new son “John after Mrs. Martin’s father”—since when do they know who her father is? (280) How could the boy’s actual grandfather, Bidwell, think his oldest daughter is raising the boy? Won’t he see he’s not there if ever they visit? And why is Mr. Stoughton “lighten[ing] his duties” to spend more time with Louisa? Isn’t she marrying Joseph Billings? (281) I felt like I was missing something.
As usual, everyone seems to offer to take responsibility for Wickham, but maybe his life in the New World will change that! Far more interesting, however, is the commentary, strangely relevant to Series 4 of Downton Abbey as well: “the peace and security of England depends on gentlemen living in their houses as good landlords and masters, considerate to their servants, charitable to the poor, and ready, as justices of the peace, to take a full part on promoting peace and order in their communities” (191). That is the best defense of Regency England I have heard.