REVIEW: Letters From Pemberley: The First Year by Jane Dawkins

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Letters From Pemberley Review by Diane Wilkes

(This edition is a reprint of a previously self-published book of the same title. –Ed.)

Ms. Dawkins compares Letters From Pemberley to “an old-fashioned patchwork quilt, where in place of the scraps of fabric reminding one of the favorite frocks or shirts whence they came, there is a line or a phrase or a sentence from one of Jane Austen’s books or letters stitched alongside the lesser scraps of my own manufacture.” One can deduce two things from this description: Dawkins does not use two words where 22 will suffice and it will be a challenge to discern a plot amongst the scraps.

I can sum up the “story” in a sentence: Lizzy becomes accustomed to her newfound wealth with Darcy’s loving support.

The End.

Now, I will say that Ms. Dawkins writes well and clearly loves the books (as opposed to being a Colin Firth fanauthor). She integrates Austen’s words with great craft and dexterity (I’m continuing the patchwork metaphor here), and I suspect that she respects our beloved Jane so much that she feels introducing a future that Austen does not at least insinuate would be to defile Pride and Prejudice. That’s all well and good, but then don’t write a “continuation.” It’s more akin to an update, an update that contains more padding than any attire Ms. Austen wore (or wrote).

Certain authorial choices exclusive of the missing plot annoyed me. Neither Lizzy nor Jane Austen ever wrote “My heart swelled with pride” for publication, and I’m prouder of them both for it—yet Ms. Dawkins allows Lizzy the cliché-ridden sentiment. Early on, Lizzy alleges that Darcy “takes great delight in pointing out the spot where he once fell in the stream as a boy, or a favorite tree he and Wickham used to climb, or a good spot for nutting.” The Darcy I know would not willingly mention Wickham without good reason, and he certainly wouldn’t take “great delight” in doing so. The idea of it drives me nutting. Later in the book, Elizabeth indicates that she shall “not fear” Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst—that seems a given to me, not something for which she needs to gird her loins.

A memorable (and favorite) phrase in Pride and Prejudice addresses Miss Bingley paying off “every arrear of civility to Elizabeth.” But Dawkins has Jane pen the phrase in regards to herself, and incivility is not the mot juste when describing Miss Bingley’s behavior toward Jane. Repeatedly, Dawkins ascribes to Lizzy the words and style of the narrator of Pride and Prejudice and the two are decidedly different. Lizzy describes Georgiana as being “clearly astonished to hear my lively, sportive manner of talking to her Brother, and to see him as the object of open pleasantry.” Lizzy is lively and sportive, but describing herself thusly is more Lady Catherine than Elizabeth Darcy, née Bennet.

On the plus side, I enjoyed encountering some of Austen’s less familiar phrases when they seamlessly appeared in Letters From Pemberley. And Dawkins peoples her book with renamed characters from other Austen novels—identifying them was somewhat diverting. But frankly, these charms are not diverting enough to consider reading this book time well spent. Either leave Jane’s works alone or write a proper sequel—which means including something resembling a plot.

AustenBlog is giving away a copy of Letters From Pemberley courtesy of Sourcebooks. To enter the drawing, email your name and full snail mail address to editor@austenblog.com by 10 p.m. Eastern time, Monday, August 27, 2007. Do not attempt to enter the drawing by commenting on this post. Failure to follow directions does indeed result in disqualification. Jane would have it no other way.