Austenites: No Need for Smelling Salts

I’m a wee bit possessive about Jane Austen. I often wish her books were my secret, because all the starry-eyed gushing over romance plots and dopey quizzes on facebook telling you which heroine you are most like irritate me beyond belief.

Why would I want to be so selfish? What’s wrong with different people enjoying something at their own level and for their own reasons? In general, the answer should be there’s nothing wrong with people approaching something in their own unique fashion and evaluating it how they will–EXCEPT, that is, when they’re missing out on what makes something extraordinary.

There are thousands of Regency romances. There are thousands of costume dramas (admittedly, there’s only one scene where Colin Firth emerges soaking wet out of a fountain). There are many, many stories inspired by Austen’s works. But there’s only one Austen.

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Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice Photo: BBC

Austen is special because she created the kind of fiction that people have been loving for over 200 years now. We love the romance plots, of course. We also love the characters she brought to life. Even though people dress and occupy themselves differently, those sorts of characters still roam about the world. We all recognize the guy who thinks he’s God’s gift to humanity; the lonely old lady who wants nothing more than some company every now and then; and the reckless young person who is about to get a taste of reality.

She is special because her writing is elegantly restrained, her observations about human behavior are sharp, and, although she can be critical of people, she reigns her observations in with great sympathy.

Given my snobbishness on this subject, I may not have been the best person to review  Miss Bingley Requests by Judy McCrosky. Except I’m exactly the sort of person who would never pass up an opportunity to read something based on Pride and Prejudice. I am Ms. McCrosky’s target audience.

Bingley

The problem with writing a novel based upon such a famous work is the same problem my friend Ted encountered when he was planning his set list for a musical gig. He suggested creating a special arrangement of Strawberry Fields. His teacher tried to talk him out of it. She said, “It doesn’t matter how well you play it. People love the Beatles so much that any other version just won’t hold a candle to the original–at least in their minds.”

Ted played Strawberry Fields anyway and he did a great job. However, he’s not one of the Beatles.

Miss Bingley Requests is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from Caroline Bingley’s point of view. If you will recall, Caroline Bingley is the sister of Mr. Darcy’s best friend. She believed that she and Darcy would marry someday because it was the most sensible match imaginable–at least to her. They were connected by friendship and both belonged to the same social class. Much to her confusion, Mr. Darcy doesn’t respond to her flirtations and she finds herself dreaming of another man, Mr. Tryphone.

There’s a lot to recommend this book to a devoted Austenite. First, the author vividly paints the world we know and love and she ties in some of our favorite scenes from the original. It also contains some funny lines and observations:

“Great ladies are like onions,” Caroline said, and then paused for a moment when Lady Amesbury looked puzzled. “So many layers,” she hastily added…

Unfortunately, it was impossible for me to sympathize with Caroline Bingley throughout most of the novel. She is headstrong, blind to obvious clues, and snobbish. The moment when I finally felt like she showed some evidence of her humanity was when she was mortified by her brother’s chastisement. I held out some hope that she would use that feeling to make some changes and find true happiness, but that wasn’t meant to be. Miss Bingley didn’t change one bit.

Those are two faults Jane Austen wouldn’t have committed in her work. Every one of her heroines learns something and makes changes before the last chapter of the book. Even the character Austen thought would appeal to fewer readers–Emma–was cast in a sympathetic light. Emma is egotistical at first, but through a variety of experiences, she is humbled and learns to appreciate people who she once deemed beneath her.

What’s more, for a character who refuses to change, it becomes tedious to read her many expressions of the same sentiments and convictions in the face of ever more convincing evidence that she’s deluded. This is compounded by the fact that we already know how everything is going to turn out. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who would become exasperated with her.

At the risk of sounding like a prude, I will also admit that I did not care for the more blatant treatment of sexual attraction in this book. I like a steamy sex scene as much as most hot-blooded women, but when set in the context of an Austen world view, it feels cheap and silly.

“What is it like, Louisa, between a man and a woman?”

Sexual tension was rife in Austen’s books, but it simmered under the surface, it was never spelled out in vulgar fashion. Austen was more concerned with the minds and hearts of her characters, than their bodies.

I really wanted to like Miss Bingley Requests, and did appreciate certain scenes, but I had to slog through it. Fellow Austenites, I’d save your fits of the vapours for other works.


N.B. I received a courtesy copy of this book from Netgalley for an honest review. The publication date is November 23, 2018.

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