Friday, 7 March 2008

Postjudiced

It seems Mrs. Darcy has been a busy woman, paying calls on more or less every blog in the neighbourhood, and Stuck-in-a-Book is no different. In fact, despite Diana Birchall (whom I know from an online literary discussion list) contacting me a while ago, her book Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma has been hither and thither, all around Oxfordshire and most of the departments of the Bodleian. Hallowed company indeed. Finally she landed at my doorstop (or, more precisely, the janitors' desk) and I read this lovely novel in little under a day.

I have a healthy scepticism of prequels and sequels and so forth, if not written by the original author, and no author comes more sacred than our Jane. Advocacy h
as bordered on obsession ever since the earliest days of general access to her writings, and though national Jane-addiction comes in peaks and troughs, it has never truly been absent. I came to Pride and Prejudice in 1995 along with so many others, through the BBC TV version, when I was nine or ten. Though I’ve only read the novel once, I have listened to an unabridged cassette and watched a fairly faithful television version probably some hundred or so times. There is not a book in the world I would less like to see sullied.
Lucky Diana Birchall feels the same, isn’t it?
What shines from every page of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma is a love of Jane Austen, a respect for her great craft, and a deep affection for every single one of her characters, whether likeable or not. We have moved on twenty-five years, the wedding which concluded Pride and Prejudice has become a lengthy marriage and produced three children – Fitzwilliam, Henry and Jane. When Lydia’s progeny, Bettina and Cloe, come to visit their Aunt, Uncle and Cousins, romance, scandal and a sororal reunion cannot be far behind.
Within the first few pages, I had to make a decision – as will any reader, and it is the only way to read a sequel, I think. That decision was to read Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma as a exercise in hypothetical speculation; a diverting game of “what if?”, not “and then…” For there were a hundred times when I thought “No! She wouldn’t have ended up like that”, or “Surely they would have…” and so forth. I am certain that Diana would welcome such a response – she is not laying down Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma as a definitive continuation of Pride and Prejudice, but rather a skilful and witty piece of fantasy. If I were writing (or, rather, plotting) a sequel, then I’d have been kinder to Lydia and Kitty, certainly given Jane a pleasing and humble daughter, and maybe even… no, you see, each reader has her/his projections, affinities and affections.

To return to the novel. It has been many months since I read something so addictively, so keen to dedicate all my spare time to reading it. Yes, it even entered read-whilst-walking-to-work territory, which only happens once or twice a year.
This was helped by the fact that Diana cleverly divides the narrative focus between revisiting old characters, and exploring the antics of their children. Most of P&P’s characters appear, or are at least mentioned. We see Lizzy and Lydia making the same mistakes as their father and mother respectively, and watch the good ‘uns and bad ‘uns (as usual in Jane country, the bad ‘uns are foolish more than wicked) from the next generation make a mess of things, and, of course, sort themselves out.

Naturally, Diana Birchall isn’t as good a writer as Jane Austen – it would be an odd coincidence if she were, since nobody else has achieved that in the last two centuries – but I can think of no finer hands into which to place this playful task. Playful in theory, of course, but I daresay terribly difficult in practice. Diana gets the tone so right: witty and ironic and moving and very, very Austen. I think the greatest compliment I can pay Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma is that I was left not mourning the handling of beloved characters who appeared, but wondering what she’d have done with the ones who did not.

9 comments:

  1. Peter the flautist8 March 2008 11:19

    I know that a trout that rises to the fly is likely to be caught and eaten, but as you are a vegetarian I will take the risk.

    "Naturally, Diana Birchall isn’t as good a writer as Jane Austen – it would be an odd coincidence if she were, since nobody else has achieved that in the last two centuries ..."

    I challenge you to justify that bold statement!

    Dark Puss

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  2. Interesting title - very like 'Mrs Dean's Dilemma' (of my youth) but oh, so different in character. When can I borrow it? OVW

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  3. I am very interested in this post as I have just read Emma Tennant's Pemberley which I thought was dreadful. It has put me off other writers touching the works of their predecessors in such an obvious form as a pre/sequel. I will try again however inspired by your post.

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  4. Interesting... someone else who I believe reads this blog recently told me they had read "Darcy's story" (P&P from the perspective of Mr Darcy, apparently) and to never, ever read it cos it's tripe. I think this one must be in a different league. If you actually liked it and didn't cry with rage, she must have done a pretty good job!

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  5. I'm afraid I haven't the smallest justification, Peter! I suppose the thing would be to find someone better, and thus disprove me...

    Well, it wouldn't be the same blog if I didn't make bold, irrational statements every now and then!

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  6. Peter the flautist10 March 2008 17:03

    I'm certainly not qualified to enter into a discussion about the merits of the world's great authors, but how about some possible equals to Ms Austen:

    Saul Bellow
    Proust
    Colette
    Primo Levi
    Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    DP

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  7. Nabokov
    Tolstoy
    Woolf
    Borges
    Dickens
    Falubert

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  8. James Joyce

    Oh, by the way, brilliant title for this entry.

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  9. I am becoming more and more tempted by this book. I have also read unsatisfying sequels so I generally avoid them. But all of these positive reviews are sending me off to see if this is available in the US. Sorry to hear about your glasses; would love to see photos of your trip if there are any.

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