Book Review: The Darcys and the Bingleys by Marsha Altman

The Darcys & the Bingleys: A Tale of Two Gentlemen’s Marriages to Two Most Devoted Sisters

Firstly, I must apologise for not having blogged in a while.  However, this is due to a new addition to my life- my Kindle! I have been ferociously reading and the first book I have completed reading is The Darcys and the Bingleys by Marsha Altman. I downloaded this eBook for free from Amazon on Jane Austen’s birthday and have only put off reading it due to not having my eReader when planned. It’s available free on Google Books.  It was truly a joy to read this 400 page odd sequel.

It starts slowly, with little storyline other than the wedding preparations of Lizzy & Darcy and Jane & Charles with some original but over-emphasized points about sex in the Regency period and apparently the Kama Sutra, although “the book” was never named as such in Altman’s novel and remains solely on the blurb/back cover.  While I had a feeling this might borderline on erotic fiction when The Book was brought up, do not be alarmed dear Janeites. In fact, it was quite suitably sweet and lovely with only vague allusions to the sexual relations of the couples. The double wedding takes place within the first third of the book, and while it is certainly interesting it feels as though the novel is devoid of an original plot for rather a long time.

Luckily, the fleshing out of Anne de Bourgh and Caroline Bingley in this book were absolutely fantastic. I felt for both characters, and while it seemed as though Anne could perhaps justify a little more length (and possibly a novel of her own by Altman- that would be a fantastic read) Caroline was perfectly well done.  I actually liked both of them and felt fondly for their stories by the end, which is an emotion I never thought I would feel for the sickly spineless Anne or the catty sarcastic Caroline seen in Austen’s original Pride and Prejudice.  Similarly, she develops Charles Bingley and Mr. Hurst in ways that I haven’t seen done before- finally, Charles gets to shine a little as a character with strength and a spine and Mr. Hurst sees his own failings and how he must appear in other peoples’ eyes and transcends those thoughts by being perceptive and understanding.  Unfortunately, Georgiana had a lot of potential that wasn’t explored in this sequel.  If you’re a purist, you might not particularly like these character alterations/developments, however I felt that it was a mature decision on Altman’s part as it allowed different aspects of our more well-loved characters to be explored e.g. Charles’ protective nature over Caroline.  Similarly, if you’re a purist, the addition of drunkeness might not be that welcome. I found the more active elements of it (fencing, some fights etc) bring it to the modern day, however the excessive drama left me out of breath, unable to digest each page and missing the careful wit of Jane.

It includes beautiful but doubtful snippets about how Darcy and Charles met at Cambridge, and some amusing character quirks from them both. Some elements had me reeling: they both threw Wickham out of a window?  This seems rather out of character for Darcy AND Charles.  And others were just completely inaccurate: a Doctor with the knowledge of stitches and cleanliness? Doubtful for the early 1800s.

It is not written in Regency style, and is definitely not in Jane’s biting tone (in fact, even the “bad” characters are treated extremely sympathetically, and I can’t say I disliked a single person described in the novel really).  Similarly, some details of Pride and Prejudice are overlooked- for instance, the age difference between Darcy and Bingley (which makes their meeting at Cambridge hard to believe). However, if you’re looking for a beach-style read that not only includes your favourite characters but also takes the story elsewhere then you’re in for a treat.

The new characters introduced are well thought out. Despite my personal reservations about the name “Maddox” and some of the improper conversations fuelled, I enjoyed the new addition. Similarly, the new children of Jane and Elizabeth, while not developed fully, are a fun extra. Even more poignant is a snippet looking back to when Caroline, Louisa and Charles were children- a truly telling and beautifully written segment of the book that I only wish there was more of. It’s pretty interesting how it flits from the past onwards (before P&P, during and after, as well as progresses through quite a few years in the book itself) so fluidly.  Unfortunately, the flow is fragmented by trying to deal with so many mini-stories in its total that I personally think it might have been better in several more detailed books- an idea attempted by Altman by segmenting the book, but not taken far enough. As it is, the multitude of storylines was a bit of a headspin as new characters are unfolded and others you have just begun to enjoy become forgotten (for instance, Jane suddenly vanishes off of the page for a third of the book).

While historical accuracy is a little lapse in this novel, surprisingly so considering she is an historian, and I found her disregard for Regency etiquette a little bit of a worry (Lizzy riding all the way from Scotland to Town non-sidesaddle unaccompanied… it just seems a little over the top), the story is generally pleasing and the characters are each vibrant and alive in their own way.  It was well presented on the Kindle, with only a couple of minor spelling errors. I’d be interested to hear what the print version is like.

If you’re interested behind the beginnings of the book, Altman has written about the fan fiction side of it on her website.  What do you think of the book?

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