Reading Marsha Altman’s The Darcys and the Bingleys was, for me, like watching extended and deleted scenes on a DVD of a movie I already love. I found out things that I’d wondered about, like how Mr. Bennett can stand to be married to his wife, and things I hadn’t thought to wonder about, like what was Mr. Bennet’s initial reaction to fatherhood, why Darcy had a piano delivered to Longbourn, and when Darcy decided not to be called by his first name. Altman describes her purpose (in an interview at Risky Regencies) like this:
“I’m trying to have fun with her characters. As to whether she would mind, Miss Austen has posthumously endured her nephew and extended family publishing all of her unfinished writing and personal letters for profit, numerous sequels and adaptations, books analyzing her personal life, and even movies about her starring actresses wearing heavy lipstick. So, if she’s been spinning in her grave, she’s probably tired by now and may well have gotten over it.”
With this in mind, I believe that if you're as fond of Austen's Pride and Prejudice as I am and you want to have fun reading Altman’s version of the Darcys and the Bingleys, you might need to think of reading this novel as like watching the extended scenes.
The first section of Altman's novel is about the impending weddings of Bingley and Jane, and Darcy and Elizabeth. Who can resist such a glimpse at happily ever after? The problems start out small, like that Bingley knows his friend Darcy to be a cheap drunk. This explains some of Darcy's characteristically stuffy behavior as events ensue. The events include Darcy’s procurement of a sex manual to satisfy Bingley’s awkward request for advice on how to sexually satisfy his wife. (Although the back cover blurb identifies the manual as the Kama Sutra, Altman herself does not identify it.) Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins, the comic targets of much of the satire in Pride and Prejudice, are softened into less unsympathetic characters in this “sequel,” but that does not stop Mrs. Bennet from frightening her daughters about what will happen on their wedding nights. Darcy sets Elizabeth’s fears to rest, and Elizabeth does the same for Jane, with the help of Charlotte Collins: “the process took some time, and they were nearly late to lunch.”
One of the things I enjoy in Pride and Prejudice, and that I continue to enjoy in The Darcys and the Bingleys, is the closeness between Elizabeth and Jane. Since I don’t have a sister, I envy their intimacy. Do women who have sisters (even if they didn’t share a room and even a bed, as Elizabeth and Jane do) see themselves in these sisters, or are they too idealized? (Is it as wonderful to have a sister as Austen and Altman make it seem?)
One of the reasons that I think their closeness might not be overly idealized is that sometimes you do occasionally read about sisters marrying brothers, and I can imagine them saying, as Jane does, “there is much convenience in the fact that our husbands are practically inseparable. We must make a pact that we will conspire to never allow them to fight.”
On the other hand, I’ve never heard of siblings who don’t fight (Never? Well, hardly ever). Altman’s Jane and Lizzy never even exchange a cross word. And why is it that Mr. Bennet can think of those two as “his two eldest and most beloved daughters” and yet Mary, Kitty, and Lydia never seem to mind? In Austen’s novel, they were silly and oblivious to the life of the mind their father shared with Elizabeth (and, to a lesser extent, with Jane), but in Altman’s novel the younger sisters are, at least so far, nothing more than silhouettes. (Maybe they're more fleshed out in the second and third novels, which Altman says are tentatively scheduled for publication in Fall 2009).
There is some antagonism between Darcy and his former foster brother, Wickham, but it has devolved into low comedy in this novel--it's surprising how pleasurable it is to see Bingley and Darcy throw him out a window, and the pleasure is soon amplified by Lydia's "wedding gift" to Elizabeth (keeping Wickham away from the wedding ceremony!)
Let me know what YOU think, and then the rest of the week we'll go further into the book:
Wednesday: J. Kaye's Book Blog
Thursday: Necromancy Never Pays
Friday: Necromancy Never Pays and J. Kaye's Book Blog