On the eve of her thirtieth birthday, Elizabeth Scott escapes to a “dog show off the Jersey Turnpike” rather than risk being anywhere near a married man who doesn’t seem to “take no for an answer” (7). For obvious reasons, then, she’s more than a little cynical about the institution of marriage. Elizabeth has been suspended from her teaching position. Older sister Jenna, meanwhile, tries to cheer her up with some “pumpkin spice” from Starbucks, adding “whip” so her sister “live[s] a little” on her big birthday (9). At the dog show, a new judge is causing quite a stir, and we know why once we hear his name: Donovan Darcy (11).
This Darcy is famous in the dog world for Chadwicke Kennels (in Derbyshire, of course), and Elizabeth’s new acquaintance Sue Barrow is eager to tell her all about him. When Darcy speaks rudely to her, Elizabeth immediately assumes it is because he is “fully cognizant that he [is] in New Jersey rather than his posh country estate in England” (14-15). She does realize quickly, though, that not all her expectations are just, such as when Darcy respectfully gives her time to pose her dog, Bliss. Elizabeth is immediately attracted to him, and the text is very clear about that, a little too much for a reader who prefers Austen’s subtlety. Elizabeth, for instance, internally faults Bliss for wagging “her entire back end with delight” when she smells Darcy’s palm, but then realizes “that if she [Elizabeth] had a tail, it would indeed be wagging,” too (17). She, however, is wary of the combination of wealth and power.
There are many enjoyable early nods to a reader who knows the original. Darcy praises the “fine eyes” at which he is looking, though whether he means Elizabeth’s or Bliss’s is unclear at first (18). Aunt Constance, with whom he runs “the family foundation,” is Lady Catherine (21). Helena Robson, who cries every time he refuses “her admittance to his bed” and then says he must be gay to reject her, is Caroline Bingley (20-21). Darcy reconsiders his negative assessment of the cavalier’s freckles, just as he reconsiders his original assessment of Miss Elizabeth Bennet in P and P. Jenna, as Jane, “never see[s] a fault in anybody (39). Just when Elizabeth thinks she can’t possibly be more embarrassed, her mother and younger sisters Gracie, Laura, and Heather show up (42). Zara, the Georgiana figure, is the reason Darcy accepted the “judging assignment”; she has had a “burning desire” to “see the Big Apple” (45). Clever: here, Darcy only says the “tolerable” line to shut up his sister; too late, he sees “Miss Scott slip past him” (47).
Elizabeth already resents the wealthy and powerful, so Darcy’s behavior at first seems to corroborate her prejudice. She has been dismissed for failing the son of Grant Markham (51). He tried to bribe her. Then he “casually touched the inside of her wrist,” and “his gaze had flicked . . . to her breasts” (52). So she slapped him. The man then goes to the headmaster, accuses her of asking for money, and sends the matter to the board of directors. Meanwhile, she’s without work—and kids without their teacher—for at least four weeks, maybe for good. But then, just as things look bad, an opportunity arises for Elizabeth to work in England, which we know will put her on Darcy’s turf. He, meanwhile, hasn’t stopped thinking about her since he returned home, which we see, though we don’t as clearly in P and P.
There are other departures from or even inconsistencies with P and P. This Georgiana (Zara) is a big shopper, which seems out of character. Darcy and Zara express relief that the Caroline character (Helena) will never meet the Elizabeth one because the former “would eat [the latter] alive” (68). Elizabeth Bennet is in no such danger. The Lady Catherine character advocates on behalf of the Caroline one rather than her own daughter, which makes perfect sense since modern audiences wouldn’t like an arranged marriage between first cousins. Elizabeth also seems to understand quite early on that Darcy is flirting with her, particularly at the dog show in which he states each part of the dog they are studying, but it’s clear to her, to the Bingley character, and to us that he is assessing Elizabeth, in terms of her “lithe and supple back,” “dark eyes full of fire and intelligence,” and “muscular and racy hindquarters” (122-23). Again, it’s a bit over the top for my taste, but it is still entertaining. And then she second-guesses her understanding, thinking maybe he’s just “vexing” her, which seems consistent with P and P (126). They’re much better at communicating than our original Elizabeth and Darcy are, or rather, when the situation gets tense, they usually clear it up right away, as when Elizabeth misunderstands Darcy’s smile as mocking her for needing a job when in fact it’s just joy that she isn’t leaving (152). They make peace quickly, but when she brings it up, again, he misses the opportunity to explain and instead sarcastically recalls her earlier insult of him that he is just “barely . . . employed” and therefore cannot understand the concerns of working people (167). In the context of this version, such a response didn’t seem consistent. They overcome that, and then have a delightful physical encounter, but then, too, for no clear reason, Elizabeth thinks “he [is] the last man on earth” she wants to “have feelings for” (195).
Unlike in P and P, when Jane’s interest in Bingley is first and foremost, here it seems unlikely that Jenna, living in the States, will ever meet Henry Robson, whom even the reader has not seen except through his horrible sister. But then, we hear the conversation between the sisters in which Jenna says that “as soon as [Elizabeth] get[s] settled,” she will “be on the first plane across the pond” (70). We finally meet the Bingley character about 100 pages in, and he’s a little smarter than the original (possessing a “keen legal mind” and “handling all legal matters pertaining to the Darcy Family Trust”) 106). Within just a few minutes of his meeting Jenna, he asks for “tomorrow evening, perhaps?” (129)
We also know a lot more about Darcy’s perspective here than in P and P. The poor guy thinks “the dim light ha[s] been playing tricks on him” when he sees her in London, but of course we know it is Elizabeth, and she saw, but did not recognize him (80). The text says her sensual mouth arouses him, so what he needs is rest, relaxation, and “time with the dogs” (80). It’s not exactly what we think he needs, but that will happen soon enough.
Meanwhile, Wilson continues to reward Austen readers with details that hearken back to the original story. Darcy laughs, for instance, when he “assure[s]” Elizabeth that he has “plenty of faults” and follows his statement with the truth that his “good opinion once lost is lost forever” (91). The witty repartee about their faults is here, too, except here Elizabeth apologizes and asks if they can forget about her mistake (about Zara). When Jenna confesses she likes Henry, Lizzy says, “I suppose you’ve liked many a stupider person” (138). The “dance” Elizabeth almost accidentally accepts from Darcy is a walk here (140). The “dreadful news” from home is not a runaway sister but a permanent lay-off. The plans Elizabeth misses are not a trip to Pemberley but a walk with the Cavaliers (149). Henry (Bingley) tells Donovan (Darcy) that Jenna (Jane) is “the most beautiful creature [he] ever beheld” (209). On a walk with the dogs, Darcy is unusually quiet (in this version, he is all ease with Elizabeth earlier on) because she has told him “no touching,” but then he doesn’t talk either, so she reprimands him that it is his “turn to say something now” and makes suggestions (218-19). It’s the Netherfield ball! Elizabeth smells like lavender (though earlier she smelled like soap, so that’s not wholly consistent either), and then later, “a wave of fresh citrus scent [comes] wafting from her hair,” so she’s just a confusion of scents (238, 251). When Donovan thinks Elizabeth has brought a wedding dress for the weekend (makes no sense), she reassures him that he is “the last man in the world [she] could ever be prevailed upon to marry,” though that happens before he actually proposes marriage here (257). The letter he sends tells her not to “be alarmed” because he won’t repeat the “sentiments” that “were so disgusting” to her, though awkwardly, here he vows “never” to repeat them which original Darcy does not do (319).
Amid all these delightful allusions, there are also some strange, disturbing, and illogical moments. I thought it strange that in this version, Elizabeth “revile[s]” Darcy—there’s no evidence of that (100). Also strange that he invites her over to see his puppies and then leaves, which is rude, and therefore uncharacteristic. I was, of course, also skeptical when the text says he finds her “bewitching,” the same phrasing as Matthew Macfadyen uses in the Joe Wright movie. In terms of disturbing, if Elizabeth really thinks Darcy is with her to try “slumming,” why does she let him have “her on her knees begging for more”? (197) In that sense, at least, she regains her dignity by rejecting his proposal” to stay with him at his country estate over the weekend, which she does because she thinks “this [is] only about sex” (200). Also disturbing: the narrator says that after the rejection of this invitation, Darcy doesn’t “know whether to be impressed or livid,” which implies men like to be rejected (201). But then why does Darcy feel offended that Elizabeth thinks it “perfectly acceptable to shag him, but not to be seen with him”? (201) That doesn’t make sense: be seen with him at his private estate as opposed to in London?
Unfortunately, there is more illogical on its way. Why, when the Caroline character bends down, is her showing of cleavage deliberate, but when Elizabeth’s curtsy gives him “a brief glimpse down the front of her dress,” he “doubt[s] the move [is] intentional”? (205) And why is there so often cleavage display at dog shows? When Darcy brings Elizabeth to Kensington Palace (which is exciting for her because of the dog that once lived there), she thinks that the move is “atypically sweet,” but he has been like that with her before, including when he took her to the dog spa when she was depressed (222). Why should she now be surprised that he knows and understands her? His reaction to her is illogical, too. Long after he takes offense that she might want him just for sex, he begins “to feel the danger of paying” her “too much attention” and realizes he has “spent a great deal of effort trying to convince himself that it was merely physical” (223). On their way to the country, he thinks that “falling in love with” her “would be the epitome of bad judgment,” but he’s still imagining marrying her (239). Why would it be bad judgment? Why, after Donovan gets rejected, would Elizabeth “sit in the window seat, waiting for [him] to appear in the moonlight” (327)? She knows he loves her and he thinks she despises him; obviously, she should go to him! In terms of language usage, the writing is pretty decent here, so why the misuse of the subordinating conjunction? (“Although, she was no longer technically out of work” 331).
There are several other differences between this text and P and P. When Elizabeth says no to his weekend away offer, Darcy is angry and then not and then decides he knows “exactly how to get her there”; our Darcy doesn’t manipulate Elizabeth, and in fact goes out of his way to make sure she doesn’t feel she owes him a change of heart (206). This story’s premise is that the love gets thwarted by Elizabeth’s being damaged in her recent work fiasco but also a lifetime of feeling like she is scorned by the wealthy. P and P is not grounded on the principle that Elizabeth is damaged. Even when the real thing arrives, Elizabeth still thinks of herself as “the one who dresses the brides” never the one who will “marry the handsome prince” herself (308). When they finally get to Chadwicke, Darcy returns to “his usual, detached self,” the opposite of what happens at Pemberley (246). Of course, his aunt is there, so maybe it’s more like Rosings Park until she leaves. During the proposal, it is Elizabeth, not Darcy, who brings up the reaction of his family. Darcy definitively lists all his people who adore her. Wilson handles the Darcy saving of Lydia very differently here—and it really works. I didn’t see it coming until it happened, so I was only one step ahead of Elizabeth, who, even when it happens, doesn’t know how it happens. When she understands, she is “struck with a jolt of humility” and grieves “for every saucy speech” she has made (340).
You may be wondering at this point about two important characters that don’t seem to appear in Unleashing Mr. Darcy. Have no fear: Mr. Collins is here! Collin Montgomery, “foremost breeder” of Pekingese, and also “one of the most annoying human beings in England,” is positively ridiculous (207). Married to Charlotte, whom we never meet, Collin Montgomery supposedly owns “bedroom slippers that resemble a pair of show-groomed Pekingese dogs,” and, within moments of his guests arriving, he praises Darcy’s “lovely aunt Constance” as a “wonderful woman” (211). Wickham, too, appears to be missing, but his story is just different from George Wickham’s; his evil, lying self is there in plain sight all along.
This was a fun, though not flawless, read, and I truly enjoyed the Pride and Prejudice links and the new directions in which Wilson takes our beloved story.