Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, which SourceBooks is now republishing for international distribution, takes place in an age of change, just as Queen Victoria is coming to the throne in 1837. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, they of Pride and Prejudice fame, are now middle-aged. He is balding, she is an anxious mother, but they are still a charming, witty and fortunate couple, who know their happiness – until they make the mistake of inviting the two daughters of Mrs. Darcy’s profligate sister Lydia to visit at Pemberley…and trouble begins. The Darcys’ sons are far too interested in the young ladies; the younger, Cloe, is a faultlessly modest creature, but the elder, Bettina, is another pair of gloves entirely, and her flamboyant career includes a shocking turn on the London stage…Diana Birchall, Author
As I finished reading this satisfying and entertaining novel by Diana Birchall, I knew that all was right with Jane Austen’s world again. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy are still deeply in love; their children will find some measure of happiness; and the rest of Jane Austen’s characters are living out their lives much as we suspect they would.
Elizabeth was too wise to take either her husband’s love or his wealth for granted, and she never forgot to exult in all her manifold sources of happiness. It is impossible for human nature to be altogether without worry or pain, however, and Elizabeth’s anxieties were all reserved for her children.
At the start of the novel, Elizabeth Darcy, a matron in her forties and mother to Fitzwilliam, Henry, and Jane, receives a letter from her sister, Lydia Wickham. In reaction to the hardships Lydia describes, the Darcies invite the two oldest Wickham girls, Bettina and Cloe, for a protracted visit to Pemberley. This action sets the plot in motion. Before the generous-hearted Darcies realize what has happened, their eldest son Fitzwilliam, whose preference for horses far outweighs his common sense, has run off to London with the brazen Bettina. Shades of Wickham’s and Lydia’s ill considered elopement! Everyone is appalled when they do not marry, except for Lydia who doesn’t see why a 10-minute ceremony “should signify.”
Meanwhile, Henry, the second and more sensible son, has fallen for sweet and proper Cloe. He proposes to her, but deeply mortified by her sister’s actions, the penniless Cloe seeks a position as a governess.
As these events unfold, we meet Pride and Prejudice’s familiar cast of characters. Mr. Collins is as intolerable as ever. Due to the unfortunate circumstance of Mr. Bennet’s long and healthy life – and his desire not to shuffle off his mortal coil too soon – both the Collinses have become fractious from waiting. Charlotte has grown increasingly irritated with Mr. Collins in their tiny cottage crammed with furniture and their half dozen children.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh is still overbearing, and the early death of her only daughter Anne has not diminished her dislike of Elizabeth. Lydia seems not to have grown wiser at all, despite having raised a family in poverty and her disappointment with Mr. Wickham, a dissipated wastrel. Mary is a widow who has taken care of the aging Mr. Bennet since Mrs. Bennet’s death. Kitty as Mrs. Clarke, a minister’s wife, has turned into a sour childless woman. Having taken second place to Lydia in her younger years, she now feels inferior to Elizabeth and Jane, who married well. The book’s subplots echo many of Jane’s other novels, and one feels a comfortable familiarity with these characters as the novel progresses.
Ms. Birchall does not disappoint her readers. The plot is fast paced, and the story believable. “My primary interest in writing Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, which I did years before the booming proliferation of romantic sequels,” she says, “was in employing something as similar to Jane Austen’s original language as might be possible for an American writing two hundred years later. In other words: not possible at all! However, I have steeped myself in her prose, reading the novels not tens, not hundreds, but thousands of times over a thirty year period, and among many other things, Jane Austen proved to be the best writing teacher any author could have.”
My only (minor) quibble with the book is that it is not long enough. I would love to have read more scenes with Mr. Darcy and his wife in them. Diana is also known for her humor, and her wit was in too short supply. Had the book been longer, I believe we might have been treated to more sparkling and scintillating dialog. I have one final quibble: Diana describes our fabulous fifty-something Mr. Darcy as balding. I beg to differ, Ms. Birchall. Please take a look at this photo of a lovely man at 48, in which not a single follicle seems to be challenged. Could Mr. Darcy not have had a similar set of hair?
More about Diana Birchall:
Her Jane Austen-related novels, Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America, were both published by Egerton Press, a small English company, in 2004, and her pastiche/satire In Defense of Mrs. Elton was published by the Jane Austen Society in the US, UK and Australia in 2000. Her “day job” is as the literary story analyst at Warner Bros Studios in California, reading novels to see if they would make movies. She is also a ballet dancer and has taken classes most of her life.