Friday, June 08, 2007

ELIZABETH AND FITZWILLIAM DARCY AT PEMBERLEY

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a married man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a son and heir".

Thus begins Emma Tennant's Pemberley, a sequel to Jane Austen's most popular novel Pride and Prejudice. Almost two centuries after its first publication in 1813, Pride and Prejudice continues to be a much loved book. (In fact a recent poll conducted by BBC in Britain showed it to be the second most popular book in that country.)

No wonder then that two dozen or more sequels have followed over the past few decades continuing the saga of the Bennett family. Inspired by the characters (Mr Darcy takes a Wife, Darcy and Elizabeth, Mrs Darcy's Dilemma, Mr Darcy's daughters) or the estate (Pemberley, Days and Nights at Pemberley) or a word play on the original (Desire and Duty and its palindromic twin Duty and Desire, Vanity and Vexation, Trust and Triumph) these sequels are centered around the married lives of the sisters. Austen had ended Pride and Prejudice with the marriage of three of the five Bennett daughters, giving ample opportunity for expanding on the new Mrs. Darcy, Bingley and Wickham. Some stories have Kitty and Mary playing larger roles as they are wooed, betrothed and eventually married. Yet others went on to the next generation with the readers getting a glimpse of the world of the pretty Miss Darcys' and Master Bingleys' and their romantic trysts. For instance in Darcy's Daughters, the parents are off on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople, while their five daughters amuse themselves in London. The eldest two, Letitia and Camilla enjoy the social scene, Althea engages in perfecting her music while the twins Georgina and Isabelle indulge in mischief.

Of the few that I've read, my favorite is Pemberley. Perhaps it seems to blend effortlessly with the original because it stays closest to Austen's style and sketch of characters. Right from the opening lines (that pay obeisance to Austen's universally acknowledged truth 'that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife') a great deal of the book is so Austen-esque that it almost seems like a continuum.

Pemberley is set a few years after Darcy and Elizabeth's wedding. In the intervening years, Mr Bennett has died, the Wickhams have expanded to a huge brood, Jane and Charles Bingley's sweet toddler, Emily is the apple of her aunt Elizabeth's eye. Darcy has by his ever increasing kindness found himself a staunch ally in mom-in-law Mrs. Bennett. Meanwhile, the property at Longbourne, by virtue of being entailed to a male heir, has passed on to Mr. Collins, a cousin of the Bennett sisters. Had Collins been wedded to Elizabeth, he would as he had promised, kept the Bennetts under his roof after Mr. Bennett's death. But as Elizabeth declined, Collins went on to marry her best friend, the quiet and docile Charlotte, and upon Mr. Bennett's passing inherited the Bennett family home. Aided by Mr. Darcy's generosity, Mrs. Bennett and her two unmarried daughters Kitty and Mary now live in nearby Meryton Lodge.

As Elizabeth gets comfortable in her new role as mistress of Darcy's family estate Pemberley, she wishes to throw open their home to her mother and younger sisters for Christmas. Ever indulgent husband Fitzwilliam Darcy happily agrees. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Mrs. Bennett is planning her family reunion at Pemberley and has invited the Bingleys (Jane's family) and the Wickhams (Lydia's family) there. While Charles Bingley and Darcy are friends, the same cannot be said of George Wickham. Indeed Wickham is undeserving of any kindness from the Darcy family. To complicate matters, Darcy's insolent aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh, invites herself to Pemberley for Christmas. The no love lost status between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth (from Austen's original) has hardly changed. Darcy's aunt abhors the Bennetts and has made no bones of the fact that she considers a Bennett presence "polluting for the shades of Pemberley". As if all this were not enough, Mrs Bennett invites to Pemberley, a suitor in the form of a Colonel Kitchiner to check if he meets her daughters' approval.

With a house full of people to be entertained and fed (and Pemberley is known for its hospitality) Elizabeth is on tenterhooks. The atmosphere is vitiated by the constant bickering between Lady Catherine and Mrs. Bennett. While Lady Catherine looks disapprovingly at Elizabeth's ways, her own mother makes embarrassing and unsophisticated remarks and her younger sisters overstay their welcome. Darcy is often aloof, distant and cold. And Elizabeth grateful and beholden to him for his kindness and generosity toward her family, finds it difficult to confront him when he ignores and upsets her.

The jarring note in the book comes in the form of Elizabeth's unhappiness at not being able to provide Darcy with a heir. This and her nagging fear that perhaps her husband does not want an heir at all, and we almost lose the spirited Elizabeth of the original. She is also terribly juvenile when the appearance of a small boy with a dead French mother, sets her wondering about Darcy's past and running away from Pemberley.

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