For each of the last few summers, I’ve read a Jane Austen novel. I usually take whichever one I’m reading with me on the plane to Europe: Emma to London, Pride and Prejudice to Spain. Later this summer, I’ll be teaching Persuasion, so I was going to read that, but I decided to vary the routine a bit this year and read one of the recent books that either continues or rewrites Pride and Prejudice instead.

Darcy Takes a WifeI chose Linda Berdoll’s Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, a continuation of Pride and Prejudice. It’s quite long, 465 pages, so I read it before we left for Paris rather than take it with me.

The novel begins the day after Mr. Darcy’s wedding to Elizabeth Bennett. As they ride in a carriage from London, where they spent their first night together, Elizabeth is in some discomfort but too embarrassed to accept her new husband’s offer of a pillow. We then enter Elizabeth’s memory as she recalls how she came by her discomfort.

This recollection points to what distinguishes this book: Berdoll more than peeks behind the Darcys’ bed curtains; she gives us graphic account (after graphic account) of their love making. It turns out that Darcy and Elizabeth are quite enthusiastic in their marital union. Anyone looking for a steamy rewriting of Austen need look no further: Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife is very much a romance novel set in the social world created by the decidedly non-sexy Austen.

Berdoll’s world is populated by all of the characters that make Austen’s novel such a treat. Besides Darcy and Elizabeth, we see Bingley and Jane (their wedding night and subsequent sexual activities are less competent than D&E’s), Wickham and Lydia (who almost immediately tire of one another’s company), the other Bennets, Mr. Collins and Charlotte, and even Lady Catherine de Bourgh (we don’t get any part of her sex life, fortunately!).

Much of Berdoll’s continuation fits well with Austen. Bingley, for example, is sexually inexperienced and rather incompetent at first in making love to his wife. This fits well with my vision of the character from Pride and Prejudice. Lady Catherine remains a dour figure staunchly opposed to her nephew’s marriage to his social inferior. Mr. Collins is still a buffoon, and Lydia and Wickham’s scenes perfectly match Austen’s foreshadowing.

But there are other parts that don’t quite fit with Austen’s creation. Darcy is not only sexually experienced when he first beds his wife but had had a few premarital affairs, has visited a brothel for several years, and might have fathered a child. This doesn’t seem at all like the character Austen envisioned. Her Darcy strikes me as too dutiful, too proud, and too correct to be fathering illegitimate children or visiting whorehouses.

Furthermore, one of the characters begins an extramarital affair during the novel. While this is no doubt historically realistic and perhaps even likely, it really doesn’t remain true to Austen’s creation. (I should point out that the novel is steeped in historically accurate details. In many ways, Berdoll’s vision of early nineteenth-century English society is far more realistic than Austen’s was. And that’s probably the rub: if you love Austen’s vision of society, you might object to Berdoll’s more realistic one.)

Likewise, Georgiana’s plot, which doesn’t really get going until rather late in the book, is just crazy. I won’t give it away, but I will say that I almost stopped reading it as a result of what happens to/with her, but by that time I was close enough to the end that I figured I might as well finish it. And finally, I really object to the way in which one of the peripheral characters dies — it turns the character into nothing but a joke. While Austen laughed at some of her creations, I don’t think she ever disrespected them by turning them into nothing but satirical butts.

But Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife succeeds or fails on the basis of its sexual scenes — they really are the core of the book. Everything else circles around and grows out of the sexual plot and activities. Here’s a sample of Berdoll’s language in these scenes, taken from the description of Elizabeth’s first night with Darcy:

Because she had felt of his body in full cry, and therefore appreciated the ampleness of his … credentials, Elizabeth had harboured a certainty she would not be taken unawares when she saw them. Yet, she could not help but stare (by reason of its tumescence, his torch of love just so happened to be trained directly upon her and it was difficult to disregard). When she finally wrested her eyes from thence, she raised on eyebrow slightly as if to question the viability of what nature insisted was, indeed, possible. …

As you can no doubt see, the language her is rather clunky and cliched — “torch of love,” “tumescence,” “credentials.” This, combined with some of the aspects I’ve noted above, makes Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife difficult for someone like me not to get frustrated with Berdoll’s prose and departures from what I imagine to be a more authentic continuation of Austen’s novel.

But the sex scenes and overblown plot also make this novel a delight to read. It’s totally trashy and isn’t really trying to be anything else. On that level, it’s a lot of fun. Of course Darcy is well endowed. Of course Bingley isn’t. Of course we should know every detail of every time Darcy and Elizabeth have sex — in their bed, in a carriage, on a table, in the woods surrounding Pemberley.

If you’re a traditionalist, then this book isn’t for you. If you want to see what a romance writer can do with Austen’s characters, then Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife is an overheated potboiler of a bodice ripper that can’t fail to elicit a strong opinion one way or the other.

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