Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How can reading a novel be like watching a DVD special feature?

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


Anonymous said...

Hmmm...sorry I am late. I think I mixed up the time difference. I thought eastern was an hour later. I'm really sorry about that!

Couple of things before I comment on your post. One is I am now getting to the part where I feel like I should have read P & P first. Yesterday, I didn't feel that way whatsoever. There were areas I felt really left out. One was when Wickham was thrown out the window. I realized I missed a part of that history. There was another time when Darcy and Anne were together. I feel enough information was provided to where I could use my imagination, but this book really should be read AFTER reading P & P.

Another thing is I love Mr. Bennett and his flair for story telling. I didn't find his wife that problematic as you did and the characters in the story. Of course, I am out of the loop with what's going on.

One of your questions was about the sisters. Were they too idealized? I didn't take it as such. This was a different era. That said, I find the book didn't really have as much drama as I'd hoped. Since you have read P & P, did it have more, less, or the same amount of drama?

Jeanne said...

Some quick background on P&P:
1. Wickham spent all the money Darcy's father left him on "fast living" and then behaved badly towards Darcy and Elizabeth's younger sister Lydia, until Darcy forced him to marry Lydia and make an "honest woman" of her.
2. Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins are silly and boring, and none of the other characters like to talk to them for long (or at all).

In general, I think, people who love Austen love her characters (this explains, to me at least, why so many of her most ardent admirers are female). There's not much drama. It's kind of like a comic strip I saw this morning in the newspaper, "One big happy," where Ruthie's parents are worried that she's devastated that she's the only one not invited to a classmate's party. Austen's novels are full of that kind of devastation. I think Altman does a good job of using it and occasionally cutting through it, like just throwing Wickham out the window.

Do you know that children's song, where the refrain is "threw him out the window"? Trout Fishing in America does a version of it.

Anonymous said...

Answering from my PDA at work: In the editing phase of this novel, I discussed with the editor the possibility of adding segments summarizing P&P, and we decided for some reason it isn't necessary and would bog down the story, which moves at a quick pace in terms of dialogue. Looking back, that was probably a mistake. I just never figured people who didn't love P&P would read it. Well, live and learn. M. Altman

Anonymous said...

Jeanne ~ That really helps, especially #1. :) And no, I've never heard of Trout Fishing in America. I basically live under a rock...lol! I'll google it and see what I come up with.

Marsha ~ I agree with the decision. I think it would have weighed it down for readers who had previously read P & P, but Jeanne would be a better judge of that.

Jeanne said...

I agree with J. Kaye that any kind of explanation or synopsis of P&P would have weighed down TDATB too much. I would think that one of the points of reading a book like this is that if you got interested enough, then you'd want to go back and read P&P. I do that a lot with series mysteries--jump in at the middle, and then find myself wanting to go back before I go forwards.

Jeanne said...

Here's a link to the "threw him out the window" song:

Anonymous said...

Jeanne ~ That's a good point. It would be enough information to see if the reader wanted to invest the time in P & P.

Anonymous said...

My mother tried to read P&P in preparation for reading my book, and was really nervous that my book would "read like that." I assured her that the Darcys and the Bingleys would be an easier read, not being a ground-breaking, genre-defining great classic of literature and all that. - M Altman.

Jeanne said...

Marsha, That's a good point about TDATB that we haven't made explicitly yet--it's an easy read!

Anonymous said...

I'm usually not keen on P&P fanfiction and spin-offs; but this book sounds like a plausible read. Darcy has never been an interesting character except that he is very modest and virtuous.

Jeanne said...

Matt, I always thought Darcy was mysterious...maybe only a woman finds that enticing? But Altman's Darcy is less mysterious, and way less virtuous.