Elizabeth Aston’s trilogy of Pride and Prejudice-inspired novels are not the sort of thing that we, as a dedicated Janeite, should like, or even countenance. We are on record as disapproving of Jane Austen Brand™ products that are only a pale imitation of the real thing, and in some ways that is the case with these novels. Darcy and Elizabeth are nowhere to be found; their names are invoked occasionally when someone needs to be frightened (Darcy) or charmed (Lizzy) or reminded of Real True Romance (both) but they never are actually present. Characters look like them–particularly Mr. Darcy–or behave like them, but those demmed elusive Darcys are always elsewhere. It’s an evil tease, how they are dangled just out of reach, like the readers are dogs being trained to sit up and beg. (And properly motivated, the Lizzy/Darcy fanatics will beg, believe us.)
Let’s face it, they just are not much like Jane Austen’s novels. Though they are occasionally amusing, one cannot call them funny by any stretch. There is more of the seedier side of life than we are accustomed to in Austen paraliterature; physically abusive husbands, heroines whose carnal desires overcome their good sense, venereal disease, prostitutes…Jane Austen managed to write six brilliant novels without any of these. And the crime that has been perpetrated on poor Colonel Fitzwilliam does not bear thinking of. Who would ever think that the charming man who livened Lizzy’s stay at Hunsford would turn out to be a moralistic prig who alienates all his young nieces and cousins?
We should not approve of these books. We try hard not to approve. Yet…we like them. In spite of our best effort to be stern and disapproving, we like them. We feel a little dirty afterwards, but still we like them.
Well, enough navel-gazing rationalization, on to the book!
Cassandra Darcy, the daughter of the former Anne de Bourgh by her first marriage, is an unhappy young lady. She lives at Rosings with her mother and stepfather; her father, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s cousin, having been of a consumptive habit. Her stepfather is a clergyman of the moralizing variety, who also is unhappy at having a stepdaughter who bears an unnerving resemblance to the Fitzwilliam/Darcy side of the family, with all the haughtiness inherent therein.
Cassandra is an artist; not a ladylike dabbler in watercolors, but a true artist. Her drawing master, recognizing her skill, trains her in oil painting, a skill she hides from her stepfather. A misunderstanding sees her banished to Bath, where she falls in love with a naval lieutenant ashore on half-pay (gee, that sounds a little familiar). When their love affair is discovered, she ends up eloping with him, she thinks to Gretna Green, but he takes her to London instead, trying to extort money from her disapproving stepfather (gee, that sounds familiar, too).
The stepfather sends another distant cousin, Horatio Darcy, an attorney, to inform Cassandra that she has a choice: she may marry her lieutenant, and they will settle some money upon her; she may go off to the country to live with one Mrs. Norris and her niece Mrs. Rushworth; or she may tend to her own affairs, which means inevitably that she must “come upon the town,” in other words, become a prostitute, or if she is fortunate, a rich man’s mistress.
Cassandra instead determines to make her own living by her art, and does so, with the help of some influential friends and her cousin Camilla Darcy Wytton, to whom we were introduced in the first book in the series. The plot is complicated by letters incriminating Princess Caroline in an adulterous relationship and a persistent man who wants to make Cassandra his mistress, and by her own growing attraction to the infuriating Horatio Darcy.
As in the first two books in the series, the plot echoes that of Pride and Prejudice so it is somewhat predictable. Playing in Jane’s sandbox can be a dangerous game, and Aston plays it safe; she doesn’t wallow in Austen’s plots, but uses them as a springboard to develop her own. That is not necessarily a bad thing. So why do we enjoy the books in this series? Because they have absorbing plots and interesting characters who are capable of making mistakes; and the author is informed about the period while resisting the urge to present a lot of interesting but irrelevant stuff that she learned while researching the story. These attributes, unfortunately, are not as prevalent in Austen paraliterature as we would like; and though Aston’s books may not be much like Jane Austen’s novels in many ways, in this respect they are tremendously alike.
We suspect that The True Darcy Spirit will not be to every Janeite’s taste; but we enjoyed it, so let’s mark this down as a guilty pleasure.
Oh, heck. Just mark it down as a pleasure.