The shelves of your local bookstore are full of Jane Austen sequels, prequels, re-tellings, what-ifs and a variety of other versions of the lives of Jane Austen characters. Would you like to know what would happen if Fitzwilliam Darcy owned an Internet company and Elizabeth Bennet was the nanny for his sister’s children? I’m sure it’s out there. Looking for a version where Darcy marries Caroline Bingley and lives to regret it? Probably available. How about Elizabeth and Darcy meeting on a cruise ship? I bet I can find that for you. Name it. If it’s not out in paperback, someone is working on it right now. Unless you’re a die hard Darcy/Lizzy person who doesn’t care what plot they find their characters in or how well the book is written, most of these books are going to land, partially read, in your “take-it-to-the-used-bookstore pile.” Don’t get me wrong. Some of these books are probably well-written and worth reading. I just don’t have the time or energy to dig them out. And please don’t get me started on zombies and vampires.
Where both Elizabeth and Christine are both are from poorer families than their heroes, Elizabeth Bennet is younger, the second of five unmarried daughters, Christine is older, a widow and contributing to the support of her mother and sister. Although Wulfric is titled (The Duke of Bewcastle no less), both he and Darcy are at nose bleeding social altitudes in comparison to the objects of their affection.
Yes, the similarities are there, as are the differences. What makes this a standout among Austen-inspired novels is that it is written by someone who knows what she’s doing and who doesn’t need to rely on Jane Austen’s characters or her plot to make her own story work. It is special on its own.
Let’s look at the first proposal in both books. Jane Austen writes:
[Mr. Darcy] sat down for a few moments, and then getting up, walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began—
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
He spoke well; but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority — of its being a degradation — of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.
In spite of her deeply rooted dislike she could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affection, and though her intentions did not vary for an instant, she was at first sorry for the pain he was to receive; till, roused to resentment by his subsequent language, she lost all compassion in anger... and she said —
“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot — I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to any one. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.”
So, what’s the difference, you ask? Mr. Darcy is not a duke and Elizabeth Bennet is not a widow, but this is essentially the same proposal and the same response. Yes and no. These are both unwanted marriage proposals and unlooked-for rejections. But the difference is stark in that the characters are each individuals. The proposal and rejection in each case is based solely on the character who delivers them. Although Mary Balogh has given us a version of the Pride and Prejudice proposal scene, it is not simply a regurgitation of the scene, but something new, based on Wulfric and Christine, what has happened to them up to this point and what has informed who they are. And they are not Darcy and Elizabeth.
“Mrs. Derrick.” He said, removing his had and holding it at his side [while] the sunshine tangled in his dark hair. His voice was haughty and abrupt. “I wonder if you will do me the honor of marrying me.”
Christine gawked. Thinking back afterward, she was sure she had not just stared in genteel surprise – she had gawked.
“What?” she said.
“I find myself unable to stop thinking about you.” He said. “I have asked myself why I offered to make you my mistress rather than my wife and can find no satisfactory answer. There is no law to state that my position demands I marry a virgin or a lady who has not been previously married. There is no law that states I must marry my social equal. And if your childless state after a marriage of several years denotes an inability to conceive, then that is no prohibitive impediment either…. I choose to have you as my wife. I beg you to accept me.“
She stared at him, speechless for several moments. She gripped the back of the seat with both hands. Her always seemed to fill with the most ridiculously absurd thoughts at the most serious of moments. This occasion was no exception. ….
And then she found herself being restored to cold sanity as some of his words fell into place in her mind…
”I am honored, your grace,” she said, her nostrils flaring. ”But no. I decline.“
Both Elizabeth Bennet and Christine Derrick have a change of heart when they see their suitor on his home turf, but the circumstances could not be more different. Elizabeth accidentally runs into Darcy during a tour she takes with her aunt and uncle and is invited to a couple of events during which she sees, for the first time, Darcy as a responsible steward of his estate and as a loving brother to a shy sister.
The Duke of Bewcastle arranges to have Christine attend a house party with his brothers and sisters, all of whom are already established characters with their own books and none of whom is remotely like Georgiana Darcy. Unlike Elizabeth, Christine is thrown in constant contact with her hero and his family, behaves indecorously and argues vigorously with Wulfric. The outcome in both cases, of course, is love.
And then we have the second proposal. Darcy’s second proposal to Elizabeth is, in all ways, typical Jane Austen:
Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, “You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.”
Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced was such as he had probably never felt before, and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eyes, she might have seen how well the expression of heartfelt delight diffused over his face became him; but, though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of feelings which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable.
Every bit of the emotion and passion is there, but little of it is spoken or demonstrated. We are given the narrative and left to imagine the moment as we see fit (and many have imagined it — repeatedly).
In a different, contemporary, style, Wulfric’s proposal to Christine is more explicit. After much discussion in the garden during which Christine warns that she might not be an acceptable duchess and Wulfric warns that he will always be the “stern, aloof, rather cold aristocrat,”
“I love Wulfric Bedwyn,” she said, and there was a wicked inflection in her voice.
“Do you?” He closed the distance between them and took both her hands in his. He raised them one at a time to his lips. “Do you, my love? Enough to take a chance on me?… If you marry me, you must expect to be adored for the rest of your life.”
She sighed. “I think I could bear it,” she said, “if I try very hard, but only if I can do the same to you.”
She laughed at him and he smiled slowly back at her.
“Well.” He gripped her hands more tightly. “Well.”
He knelt on the grass before the bench and kissed her hands in her lap again.
“You will marry me, Christine?”
She leaned over and kissed his cheek.
“Yes, I will,” she said. “Oh yes, I will, Wulfric, if you please.”
He turned his head and their lips met
Mary Balogh’s proposal, and indeed the whole of Slightly Dangerous, provides us with more description, more dialog, more intimate detail. It leaves less to the reader’s imagination than Pride and Prejudice, and yet both books satisfy in completely different ways.
Mary Balogh, has taken the essence of Pride and Prejudice as a jumping off point, but, unlike the vast number of Jane Austen sequel writers, she has created her own, robust characters with their very different back stories, their very different motivations and their very different reasons for both the proposal, the rejection and the second proposal. Where you could not read your average Darcy and Lizzy on a cruise ship retelling without first having read Pride and Prejudice (or at least seen one of the movies), you can pick up Slightly Dangerous and fall in love with Wulfric and Christine without reference to any book that has gone before. Mary Balogh has performed that most difficult of writerly magic: she has created unique characters and given each their own life.