One of the most heart wrenching moments in the life of a bibliophile is the ending of a great book. We turn the last page and begin, immediately, to thumb back through—to the beginning, to the cover. We run our hands across it as if there must, surely, be more to offer; even the smell of the pages and the texture of the paper calling forth that welling of deep feeling inspired within.
I am an ardent re-reader. I can’t help it. I often want to return to a familiar landscape, relive a certain moment, experience again a loss or an epiphany or a romance that inspired me. Pride and Prejudice is a book I’ve read a few times. It is endearing and delightful. And, to be quite honest, after watching the 1995 Masterpiece Theatre miniseries, I wanted to return to it again and again. Well, I wanted to return to Colin Firth again and again.
Where was I? Ah yes, Mr. Darcy. The only thing better than rereading Pride and Prejudice is watching Colin Firth play Mr. Darcy, and once these options have been exhausted, the next best thing is reading the sequel—because Pride and Prejudice has a sequel. No really, it does. Although Jane Austen never wrote a sequel, Linda Berdoll, albeit 170 years later, did.
I’ll admit—when I downloaded Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, I assumed Linda Berdoll’s “sequel,” published in 2004, would be fairly disappointing if not altogether bad. It was not this fear, however, that staid my hand as I reached for my kindle, but a singular notion of purism. Not only was I about to re encounter Austen in a modern novel, and download it onto my eReader as well, but I also experienced a crisis of conscience because I love these characters. They have a rich life within Austen’s work; they are complete and round and substantial, and while I do hate to bid them goodbye, I knew that whatever I read in this “sequel” would forever color my understanding of them. I could not, as it were, unread this book once read. And even if it felt at its end as a trespass upon Austen’s creative integrity, in my mind, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy would forever have lived the journey that I was about to embark upon. Ironically, what I didn’t yet know when I downloaded Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, is that P&P, in fact, has many sequels. Not three or twelve or even twenty—but more than I can count. And once I had read one of these sequels, I knew that the Darcys’ life would be only what I had read and I could never conceive of another.
That said, I paused. I considered. I worried. I took a deep breath—and I began to read. And I’m so glad I did.
Linda Berdoll is clearly well acquainted with Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet Darcy and Fitzwilliam Darcy and honors them with accurate reincarnations. In fact, every character Berdoll borrows from the source is rendered faithfully to Austen’s original intent. This is integral to the book’s success because the reason Austen’s classic has never lost momentum with readers is the intense realness of her protagonists. Readers who have loved Elizabeth’s subtle brashness and strong intelligence will not be disappointed by her life as Mrs. Darcy as Berdoll has depicted it. And Darcy is just as proper and stiff and formal as in the original—while Berdoll continues his slight softening under Elizabeth’s influence that Austen had begun during their courtship.
I think Austen might even approve of the second life Berdoll gives her characters. The plot of Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife twists and careens through the deceivingly calm waters of Victorian society, presenting intrigue and impropriety with as much panache as the Victorian novels we have come to love so well. Plot, however, is missing from the first half of the novel and it hobbles along solely on the strength of the characters and their romance—both of which are borrowed from Austen. By the time the plot picks up, the tone of the book changes entirely, becoming plot-heavy and suddenly lacking the intimacy that the beginning of the novel has led us to expect.
This, in fact, raises the one major departure from Austen and her contemporaries that reveals this book to be a Victorian novel, yes, but one with twenty-first century sensibilities: Berdoll spends quite a bit of time addressing Mr. Darcy’s—ehem—endowment. And I’m not talking about the Pemberly Estate of which he is Master. The novel opens with the awkward carriage ride to Pemberly the day after the wedding night; Mr. Darcy offering Mrs. Darcy an embroidered silk pillow upon which to sit to ease the discomfort he had caused her the night before. This is our introduction to the novel and I must admit to a bit of embarrassment here. When the most romantic and forward thing that ever comes to pass within the pages of the original novel is Mr. Darcy saying to Elizabeth “you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,” (swoon) which is also perhaps the longest string of words he has spoken throughout, to suddenly be confronted with a reminder of their most intimate moment is a bit uncomfortable. At first. And then it’s very romantic and seems fitting. After all, surely any young bride of the period was nervous and fascinated by the act of the wedding night. But then, when there is almost no plot introduced beyond their trysts, I began to wonder if this was only an erotic romance novel. And, because I guiltily liked it, I wondered if I cared? For Mr. Darcy, well, Mr. Darcy is still a young Colin Firth drawn up in all of his quiet dignity and propriety. Until he shuts the bedroom door. And what could possibly make him more alluring? Sex. And Berdoll gives her readers sex a plenty. We are soon to learn that the Darcys spend quite a bit of time in the bedroom. And in the maid’s quarters. And in the dining room. And in various copses and meadows throughout the property. And—well, surely you get the idea. Eventually, the plot picks up and becomes the real reason you can’t put the book down. But if the only thing missing in Austen’s timeless romance is sex, you’ll find it here.
The thing that most highly recommends this book, unfortunately, has nothing to do with Linda Berdoll—it is purely happenstance. For me, reading is very much a journey. My husband used to travel incessantly for work, and when he returned he would ask me what had transpired in his absence and I would begin a long list of all the places I had travelled to—where I had spent my time. Although solely within the pages of a book, I would recount stories set in ancient China, modern Japan, the South of France, because the escape and voyage of reading an engrossing novel can really only be compared to foreign travel. You become subsumed by the journey of the characters. Often, I choose books based solely on where I would like to be at that moment. What I would like to feel. Who I would like to (pretend) to be. This said, perhaps the strongest recommendation of Berdoll’s book I can give is that it places you squarely on the soil of Darcy’s Pemberly estate in Victorian England.
While the erotica is as compelling a reason to keep reading as is the setting, the book does little to recommend itself on literary merit—if, indeed, it has any at all. Mr. Darcy Takes A Wife is poorly conceived and organized. In addition to the absence of plot in the beginning, Berdoll’s poor attempt to recreate Austen’s writing leaves her diction so lacking in Victorian authenticity that it comes across as pretentious. It feels as though she consulted a thesaurus at every turn and attempted to choose only the most antiquated and obscure words at her disposal. And I’m pretty sure the thesaurus she referenced was published in 1894. Or earlier.
Ultimately, the biggest criticism of this novel is that the first half is more of an erotic novel than a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. And the biggest recommendation? That the first half of this novel is more of an erotic novel than a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. If what you want is another engagement with the characters that you can’t say goodbye to, this will give you your fix of the Darcys. However, half the proceeds of Berdoll’s profits should go directly to Colin Firth, without whom this would be a hollow fantasy.
This literature review was composed by one of Modern Ink’s talented contributing writers, Lindsay Saint Clair. Lindsay has spent her life in the throes of a wild, raving love affair with the written word. The only things she likes quite as much as curling up with a good book and a glass of wine are her two beautiful boys and her wonderful husband. After nearly a decade in San Francisco and a short stint in Atlanta, Lindsay now resides in Chicago. She is currently working as a freelance writer and editor.
Visit Lindsay at www.spaceandmemory.blogspot.com