I’ll admit that when Diana first handed me Nelson’s new tome, my thoughts were less than 100% enthusiastic. Yet another Pride and Prejudice sequel? What more could possibly be done with the characters we know and love that would be believable and heartwarming and in character with the spirit of Austen’s novel?
I was well-rewarded for my reading efforts. In this version, which starts at the wedding ceremony, it is not so easy as “happily ever after.” Darcy’s parents’ unhappy marriage (a prequel, if you will, to our P&P) has led to his estrangement from his father (prior to the death of the latter), his denial of the truth about his mother, and a reticence to broach any of these topics with his similarly lonely sister, Georgiana. We see Darcy suffering from the unhappy ghosts of his past, and of course it falls to our Lizzy to help him confront and banish them, without pressuring him to do more than he feels at any given moment.
There are some delightful new characters, but not too many to obscure our enjoyment of their presence. The Alexanders, for instance, are Darcy’s version of the Gardiners, except that his mother has somehow led him to rebuff them until Lizzy enters his life. Just when Elizabeth most misses her father and Darcy wishes he knew more about his own, Mr. Alexander, in all his paternal glory, comes to help them. Trevor Handley is a character of intrigue whose plight parallels Darcy’s, but then veers sharply in its own course. The novel also has some quite beautiful uses of figurative language that most modern sequels do not attempt. A few are potentially hackneyed (“Darcy and Elizabeth rested for a moment at the top of the long stairway they had climbed, little realizing that a mountain still lay ahead”), but several I found uncommonly fresh (Mr. Bennet prefers “the rich tapestry of a good book to the coarser fabric of society”; Lizzy’s love for her husband is “as impossible as the rising and setting of the sun, and as unlikely to end”). Lizzy has a line that made me laugh aloud (perhaps in contemplation of my own nature): “I have never been able to master my faults for more than a short interval.”
That is not to say there are no awkward, seemingly inappropriate clichés and modernisms. Phrases such as “women of their dreams” and “let it go” seem not quite to fit, and Lizzy calling Darcy “Will” may be going a bit too far for many Janeites. A few scenes just seem unlikely: Darcy physically hitting someone who hurt him emotionally, Lizzy rocking miserable Darcy to some state of peace, characters reacting to an “alternative” lifestyle with open-mindedness in the 19th century. My largest complaint, excuse the pun, is that this book is just too heavy! Physically, that is; I had difficulty holding it up with one hand. Unpardonable.
There are also some interesting explanations of events and shifts in feeling that occur in the original novel. Elizabeth finally tells Darcy, for instance, the moment she actually fell in love with him. We now come to understand that several servants at Pemberley were concerned he might marry Caroline Bingley. (At first I thought it odd that they don’t know their master well enough not to suspect him of such ill judgment, but then it turns out they were right, and he had entertained the thought!). Darcy’s reserve makes sense as a result of psychological trauma in childhood: it’s not arrogance then, but insecurity, that causes him to shy away from people he doesn’t know. In his arc in this text, Darcy finally conquers his anger once his strategy of storming out of tense situations hurts those he loves most dearly.
Nelson deftly handles several key interactions between our characters. The socializing at the wedding feels just like it would have if Austen had written a sequel. Though Lizzy and Darcy’s first moments together are not anything Austen would have given them, or we’d expect, these moments provide the impetus for us to explore further what made Darcy who he is, and how Lizzy’s presence will change Pemberley—for good, and for the better. Jane Bennet knows her sister so well—well enough to coax her to talk by making Elizabeth worry about Jane and then defend Darcy. Caroline Bingley is bitchier than ever—but Colonel Fitzwilliam is given the enviable task of making her eat crow.
As the novel progresses, Nelson has the Bennet sisters transform Caroline (details not to be disclosed by me) in a way that seemed unbelievable to me—at first—but within a few pages, I found myself really touched by the change (which means I must have started to believe at some point along the way, so kudos to Nelson for her fortitude in making that work). Nelson nicely develops Georgiana’s character—and her relationship with her older brother and the other new people in her life. Most significantly, Nelson takes Austen’s statement about Lizzy livening Darcy and makes it come to life: we can see him attempt humor and irony the morning immediately following the wedding (of course, Elizabeth doesn’t yet understand that he’s doing that, but it’s hilarious because we know). Lizzy, in turn, is more self-aware, less likely to judge immediately, and more willing to hold her tongue and to find the right, rather than the first, words.
Lesson-wise, a primary theme comes from the mouth of Jane Bennet, but accurately reflects the philosophy of both Bennet sisters—and, I’d argue, all happy people: “Happiness,” she tells Caroline, “is a choice we make for ourselves.” Nelson shows us that even with the right man, a woman must daily choose happiness in order to secure it.
I recommend that you choose happiness—by reading this book.
(republished from Spring 2008)