Review by Allison T.
What if….Ah, the charm of the what-if story! What if Captain Ahab had said, “Screw it, I’m tired of chasing this hemm’d great fish—I’m going back to graduate school to get a degree in social work so that I can ameliorate the lives of Queequeg and his people”? What if Hamlet and Ophelia had scored some Prozac, hired a family counselor, sorted the Danish royal family, and gotten married to live happily ever after? What if Jane Eyre, upon hearing of the mad wife in the attic, had said, “Oh, hell, Edward, let’s chuck Victorian morality and Evangelical Christianity and go live in sin in southern France!”? What if Darcy refused to take Elizabeth’s “No” at Rosings, followed her back to Longbourne within a month or two of her initial refusal, and, by dint of snogging her (as our friends across The Pond so undeliciously put it) at every opportunity—snogging in the shrubbery, snogging in the wilderness, snogging in the churchyard—causes Elizabeth to sleep with him before marriage while staying at Pemberley with her aunt and uncle Gardiner, and otherwise changes the story that Austen gave us? For such is the plot of Abigail Reynold’s Impulse & Initiative; A Pride & Prejudice Variation—“What if Mr. Darcy didn’t take ‘No’ for an answer?”
“We are never told of what would have happened,” Aslan the Great Lion of Narnia assures us (and he should know, because he’s a Higher Power.) Mostly, we think this is true. What-if stories can be good if they are funny, but we don’t believe we’ve read a serious what-if story that moved us as much as the original. Impulse & Initiative is called a “variation,” and it is indeed that: not a sequel, nor a prequel, nor a retelling of the story from a different point of view, but a rewriting of the basic story.
Let’s start with some positives: Abigail Reynolds is coming into her own as a writer. Her sentences flow easily, there is some humor, only one anachronism, other than the complete rewriting of the characters’ motives and actions—(there are no “vanity tables” in the Regency era)—and Reynolds’ Lizzie is actually fresh, sparkling and charming, unlike the dull and/or angelic Lizzies of many other sequels. There are two serious flaws in this book, however: one that purists will rally around, but one that affects Reynolds’ writing of the romance novel in general. We will address these issues presently.
Back to Impulse & Initiative: Worried about “consequences’’—the poor fellow apparently never heard of a French letter—after recklessly seducing Elizabeth in the library at Pemberley, Darcy pushes for marriage to occur within three days after this event: other than the Gardiners, none of Elizabeth’s family attends. It is only after they are married that Lydia elopes….but then, really, what is now the point of this particular plot element at this point in this much-changed story? Let us pause here for a Moment of Useful Reflection.
Our Courteous and Genial Editrix has frequently posed the question: What is it about Mr. Darcy that is so generally compelling?
Here’s the answer: because he’s every girl’s High School Romance. Young ladies (even older ones) do not lie in bed at night fantasizing about snogging their older sister’s husband’s much older brother, the guy who’s been criticizing their hair-do and their reading list since they were a toddler. They don’t sigh over a sort of brother-ish dweeb who doesn’t admire their artistic and cultural talents, nor over a dull stick of a fellow who falls for the first pretty girl to arrive in the neighborhood. They don’t want to realize the sad truth that their transparent admiration of a cute guy who finds them naïve and silly will win the day. And if they are young ladies, they can’t imagine being a dried up old prune of a twenty-seven-year-old who sees her former beau courting not one but two other girls. (Older ladies might find this fantasy a little more appealing, which is why Persuasion is the second most romantic book in the canon, IMHO.)
No, in their imaginations they are like, way totally pretty and vivacious and when the cute new guy enters the high school gym at the big prom and then disses them, their Ultimate Fantasy is to drive him mad with longing and despair until he lays Heart, Hand and Fortune at their feet. Yes, Virginia, it is true that Mr. Darcy thus scores a perfect 100 on the Romant-O-Meter™ with Captain Wentworth well ahead of the rest of the field with a respectable score of 94. (Mr. Rochester also does fairly well, with a score of 87 (he’s something of a bully, but fortunately Jane can stand up for herself), leaving Heathcliff—really! his idea of romance is to lie down on your cold cold grave!—far behind at 25.)
Impulse & Initiative is thus a MarySue fantasy of Really Good Sex with the Ultimate Romance Hero. Some readers will be happy with this and will look no further. But two things make the story flat for me. The first is that it lacks, as Pamela Regis told us at the Chicago AGM and in her book A Natural History of the Romance Novel, the crucial moment of “ritual death,” in which the heroine feels herself to be forever separated from the hero—that all is lost. In Austen’s P&P this moment occurs after Lydia’s elopement, when Elizabeth finally realizes both that Mr. Darcy is her soul mate and that he is now, through these unfortunate circumstances, lost to her forever. There is no such moment of crisis in Impulse & Initiative. Reader, she marries him; it was clear from the beginning, even before the elopement or other crises. Even the childbirth that Darcy fears (but does nothing to prevent) does not represent a major emotional milestone in this book. There is no intensity of love, loss and longing in this tale equal to the crises and catharsis of the original story.
The second criticism is, as you will have guessed, this reader’s inability to understand why the story was written in the first place. Austen tells us that, while Elizabeth’s opinion of Mr. Darcy changed after reading his letter, it was only later, during the tour to the north, that she began to feel that he was the man for her. It is hard for me to understand Lizzie’s change of mind just because Mr. Darcy makes out with her for a few weeks prior to her trip to Pemberley.
Abigail Reynolds is finding her voice as a writer; Impulse & Initiative is faster-paced and more confidently written than the one earlier work of hers that I have read. Here is an author who, if she would stop obsessing over Mr. Darcy and find her own characters and plots, could be a contender in the competitive field of romance writing.
But two last quibbles, if you can stand to read more: first, in Austen’s double-barreled titles, P&P and S&S, the reader is invited to ponder over which principal character represents which attribute—or perhaps whether each character has elements of both attributes, and, if so, in what degree. It is difficult to see the parallel in Impulse & Initiative: yeah, Darcy impulsively seduces Elizabeth, but then what? He takes the initiative to marry her? It doesn’t make much sense.
Second quibble: a real eeuw-yuck. After a night of passionate love-making, Darcy comes down to breakfast with a spring in his step and Mr. Bingley comments on his good mood. Says Darcy, “Bingley, I am married to the most astonishing woman in the world, and if her sister is anything like her, you will be a very happy man indeed.”—nudge nudge wink wink. Bleagh. In my book—and I sure hope I’m not wrong!—a Gentleman Kisses But Does Not Tell. Thus I am reminded that, when visiting a gallery in London, the real Jane Austen spotted a portrait that she laughingly said was very like Mrs. Bingley—but that she did not see Mrs. Darcy: her husband, she wrote to Cassandra, apparently had too much sensibility to put a portrait of his wife on public display. Perhaps Austen’s character is a bit uptight and reserved by comparison with Reynolds’ Darcy, as the former wouldn’t dream of discussing with his future brother-in-law what a good lay their respective wives are. It might be this Austen’s hero’s pride in his charming wife that makes him prejudiced against exposing her to public view, but his reserve, candor and probity is a major part of what makes him my real Mr. Darcy.