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 has 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
’s progeny, Bettina and Cloe, come to visit their Aunt, Uncle and Cousins, romance, scandal and a sororal reunion cannot be far behind. Lydia
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.