“You’re obviously handsome so you could be any of the heroes, really. But I can’t make out much of your private life so, for all I know, you could be a scoundrel like Willoughby or Wickham, hiding some dreadful secret.” - ‘Katherine Roberts’, A Weekend with Mr Darcy by Victoria Connelly
I really wasn’t sure I was going to like this book when I picked it up initially, but for a light read I have found myself very surprised.
For just (AU)$6.95 from Basement Books in Sydney, I snapped up this lovely paperback (ISBN-13: 978-1-84756-225-8) published in 2010 by Victoria Connelly, obviously after having my attention drawn to it by the name of Darcy. It’s a lovely jewel of a chick-flick quick read that I’m definitely going to share. I’ve spent the last evening, morning and afternoon reading it cover-to-cover so it’s a fairly easy book to consume, and perfect for some train/commuting reading. The story revolves around two girls, Katherine and Robyn, who both have slightly rocky relationships or previous partners, are both avid Janeites, and are about to have one weekend that changes everything…
As they both attend a weekend-long Jane Austen Conference in Purley Hall, Hampshire they become friends, however there are love interests thrown in their paths (it’s a damn long weekend). Katherine has been writing to Lorna Warwick, a popular author of Jane Austen/Regency bodice-ripping spin offs, as a fan for several months, sharing secrets and becoming close friends. Little does she know, Lorna is actually ‘Warwick Lawton’, a man writing under a female pen name. As he also attends the conference, and wins her friendship, and perhaps her love, he realises he must come clean if he wants to keep Katherine after the weekend. I won’t spoil the ending – but, will he tell her in time? And will she forgive him for keeping his true identity a secret?
What kept this story moving was the second simultaneous storyline with Robyn, who is already in a long-term but unhappy/unsteady relationship with highschool sweetheart, Jace. While planning on breaking up with him, but finding it difficult due to his support from past years and the length of time they have been together, she falls for Dan – a striking gentleman (that totally reminds me of Mr Bingley) who she sees first off on a horse (recipe for romance?). A series of blunders, proposals, horses peeing inside and awkward encounters with Jace, it’s up to Robyn to make the decision between the two men, and the two different lives she can choose.
While this storyline could be in any chicklit book, what I loved about it was the frequency of the Jane Austen mentions. Barely two pages are read before another comment about Austen or one of the novels or places of importance comes up. While this makes sense (they’re at a Jane Austen conference, are both huge fans and consistently take part in Jane Austen quizzes, lectures and activities) it is seamless in the book and kept me wrapped up in it. It is somehow strangely believable as well, despite the presence of celebrities, chickens named after Austen characters, secret doors in bookcases and moonlit walks. Connelly does a great job of keeping the pace moving in the book, leaving no dull moments and constantly giving you some other twist in the plot to watch unfold. As expected, it is fairly predictable, but this doesn’t stop it from being a worthwhile read.
A small criticism would be the number of times she described something as the ‘colour of roses’ or rosy or felt the need to point out the specific shade of one of the heroines dresses (I’m pretty sure one was described as ‘rose’ coloured, one as ‘rose pink’ and another as the ‘Rosé’ wine colour and that someone’s lips were ‘rosebuds’ at some point). In fact, the continual mention of roses in general was a bit irritating (roses at Chatwon, roses at Purley Hall etc) as were the references to blushing, but I think this may have been to drive the old-school heroine point home. A couple of other weird references were found e.g. ‘Katherine’s hair was … cascading over her shoulders like beautiful brambles’ and there’s a lot of talk of the attractiveness of various character’s bottoms. All of this is, however, forgivable, as the questions Connelly has the many different attendees at the conference ask proves she is most certainly a Janeite. From the internal thoughts of characters considering if they would be happy with a ‘comfortable’ Charlotte Lucas marriage, to those they ask each other (e.g. would they prefer that Jane had found the love of her life and married happily and never written? – a toughie!) to the simple ones posed for consideration in the actual conference (What is your favourite Jane Austen book?) and quizzes (How many siblings did Jane Austen have and what are their names?), this continual questioning and looking at Jane, Darcy and Pride and Prejudice as well as the other novels in a new way made the book a great read. A special note must be made, as Connolly has obviously visited all the places she mentions – I think this authenticity really shows through her work. It’s also great that she previously studied English Literature (which makes Katherine’s job as an Oxford professor seem more believable).
For those of us obsessed with the era, the descriptions of Purley Hall and the ball nearer the end are perfect. It’s one of those places that I would just dream of going to, and the reverence for Austen is obvious at every turn. There are some great little sidelines about activities at the conference that have given me some great Austen book club ideas of my own, and it generally gave me this buzzy feeling – which, as I’ve always said, being in the company of other Austen fans always does! With a nice dose of romance, a bit of sex and light flirtation, and a tonne of book references, I really don’t see that anyone can really dislike it. For seasoned Janeites who have read the fan fiction widely there’s also more to enjoy – with comments about the different film versions (including headnods to Greer Garson’s version and Keira Knightley, as well as many comments on Colin Firth), websites such as the Republic of Pemberley, and books (spin-offs such as Mr Darcy’s Diary and Mr Darcy, Vampyre) there are also so many comments about important places that Jane grew up in and even where she is buried – it almost makes you feel like you’re part of some ‘in-the-kn0w’ group. The comments about Austen spin-off ‘book snobbery’ that comes from some fans are also really funny, particularly as I have several friends who can’t stand any alternative “versions” of the canonical Austens.
The first in a trilogy, Victoria Connelly has also written ‘Dreaming of Mr Darcy’ and ‘Mr Darcy Forever’, both of which I will have to find desperately! While they don’t follow up the original (as far as I can tell) they are stories of other Janeites in similar situations. If I can get my hands on them, I’ll be sure to share my thoughts.
For UK and Ireland residents, there’s a chance to nab a copy of Victoria Connelly’s book ‘The Runaway Actress’ on her website (enter by August 2012).