It seems Mrs. Darcy has been a busy woman, paying calls on more or less every blog in the neighbourhood, and Stuck-in-a-Book is no different. In fact, despite Diana Birchall (whom I know from an online literary discussion list) contacting me a while ago, her book Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma has been hither and thither, all around Oxfordshire and most of the departments of the Bodleian. Hallowed company indeed. Finally she landed at my doorstop (or, more precisely, the janitors’ desk) and I read this lovely novel in little under a day.
I have a healthy scepticism of prequels and sequels and so forth, if not written by the original author, and no author comes more sacred than our Jane. Advocacy has bordered on obsession ever since the earliest days of general access to her writings, and though national Jane-addiction comes in peaks and troughs, it has never truly been absent. I came to Pride and Prejudice in 1995 along with so many others, through the BBC TV version, when I was nine or ten. Though I’ve only read the novel once, I have listened to an unabridged cassette and watched a fairly faithful television version probably some hundred or so times. There is not a book in the world I would less like to see sullied.
To return to the novel. It has been many months since I read something so addictively, so keen to dedicate all my spare time to reading it. Yes, it even entered read-whilst-walking-to-work territory, which only happens once or twice a year. This was helped by the fact that Diana cleverly divides the narrative focus between revisiting old characters, and exploring the antics of their children. Most of P&P’s characters appear, or are at least mentioned. We see Lizzy and Lydia making the same mistakes as their father and mother respectively, and watch the good ‘uns and bad ‘uns (as usual in Jane country, the bad ‘uns are foolish more than wicked) from the next generation make a mess of things, and, of course, sort themselves out.
Naturally, Diana Birchall isn’t as good a writer as Jane Austen – it would be an odd coincidence if she were, since nobody else has achieved that in the last two centuries – but I can think of no finer hands into which to place this playful task. Playful in theory, of course, but I daresay terribly difficult in practice. Diana gets the tone so right: witty and ironic and moving and very, very Austen. I think the greatest compliment I can pay Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma is that I was left not mourning the handling of beloved characters who appeared, but wondering what she’d have done with the ones who did not.