The Book: He Taught Me to Hope: Darcy and the Young Knight's Quest
The Author: P.O. Dixon
How I Found It: I think it was an Amazon recommendation (you should see when I log in; it's the weirdest mix of Jane Austen sequels and Doctor Who tie-ins). I checked out the summary and was intrigued by the notion of Darcy interacting with Elizabeth Bennet's young son; as I've said before, I love books that feature child characters, so I wanted to give it a try.
The Review: Elizabeth Bennet did one thing she thought she'd never do: go against her father's wishes. She married young to a man she loved and who loved her, and as a result found herself cut off from her family. Not long after her marriage to Mr. Carlton, he is killed in an accident, and Elizabeth is left pregnant and alone. Her son, Bennet Carlton, grows up with Elizabeth and his loving grandfather, until his grandfather dies as well and Elizabeth is forced to return to Longbourn. Mr. Bennet, wanting the best for Jane and his remaining unmarried daughters, presses Lizzy to consent to an engagement with Geoffrey Collins, Mr. Collins' surprisingly agreeable elder brother. Feeling obliged to accept him, Lizzy agrees.
Bennet, meanwhile, is stifled by the almost entirely female atmosphere at Longbourn and longs for an escape. Whilst roaming in the nearby fields, he is nearly trampled by a horse and his rider--and that rider is Mr. Darcy. Ben is an imaginative child who is particularly taken by the legends of King Arthur, and declares himself to be Lancelot. Darcy, playing along, calls himself King Arthur, and quickly becomes Ben's friend. Darcy recognizes the boy's isolation and does his best to keep engage Ben's active imagination, and delves further into Meryton society during his time away from his young friend.
Darcy is particularly taken with Mrs. Elizabeth Carlton, thinking she is married and not a widow, and that his suit is, thus, hopeless. Elizabeth is likewise interested in Darcy, but knows she is bound to her fiance. Despite this, their respective connections to Ben could eventually end up bringing them closer--and bringing each of them into conflict with the bounds of propriety and their own hearts.
Dixon did a lot of interesting things here, and it was certainly one of the more original alternate takes on Pride and Prejudice I'd ever read. First off, Elizabeth as a widow? What? You mean she wasn't involved with Mr. Darcy, at all, ever? Second, Mr. Bennet cold and distant to Elizabeth? How can this be? Third, is that Lady Catherine being nice?
These were the questions that I was excited to find answers to as I started and kept reading. And no, you didn't read that last sentence up above wrong; Lady Catherine is actually portrayed in a sometimes positive light in Dixon's tale. Recently, I was reading a post on Austen Authors about how your perspective on Austen's characters can change as you grow older. I was most interested by those people who condemned Mr. Bennet as they grew up, saying that they came to realize that he was not the warm and witty character adaptations would have us believe, that he was instead a disrespectful, irresponsible, and inattentive father. (Upon rereading Pride and Prejudice for my English Literature class, I kept this perspective in mind, and noticed that it aligned more closely with the man Austen presents us than I'd thought, though I am a little more forgiving of the man than most.) I wondered if Dixon had this sort of perspective in mind as she wrote her tale. Her characterizations are certainly interesting.
Lizzy and Darcy are slightly altered--Lizzy is more mature, slightly older than in the original; she has more regard for the consequences of her actions. Rather than turning down Geoffrey Collins, as she does his younger brother in the original story, Elizabeth keenly feels her obligation to her family (though the estate is not entailed, in this story) and makes her decision based on their considerations, not her own. Darcy, meanwhile, is openly caring and affectionate to Ben--a soft side that is, in most variations, only seen by Lizzy. I really appreciated Dixon's take on Darcy; he recognizes a little boy lost without male guidance, a boy who must doubtless remind him of himself upon losing his parents. Darcy's scenes with Ben frequently had me smiling, and I was pleased to see an original way to bring out Darcy's kindness and somewhat heroic nature.
The more drastic changes come in the characterizations of Mr. Bennet, Lady Catherine, Anne, and Charlotte. Mr. Bennet, as mentioned before, is colder and more vindictive, almost, than commonly portrayed, and I was somewhat disappointed to see that Lizzy, once his favorite, had entirely sunk in his regard, with barely any hope for redemption. Lady Catherine is kind to Elizabeth, having known the elder Carltons, and it was funny to see Lady Catherine's usual impertinence warring with her desire to be nice to Elizabeth. Anne and Charlotte's characterizations, however, struck me as mildly problematic. Both are portrayed as fairly scheming in their pursuit of a match--not to comedic extent, as is Mrs. Bennet in the original, but almost coldly calculating their chances at a good match. This, along with a pivotal change to Jane's fortunes, made me most uncomfortable about the story. Antiquated stereotypes of femininity were sometimes adhered to, to an almost hyperbolic extent--the scheming woman who wants only marriage, the passive woman who ends up domineered by her husband--and I just wished, I suppose, for characterizations that didn't hinge on stereotypes that are today uncomfortable. The style of the story is also sometimes rough--there is frequent repetition of phrases like "taken leave of his/her senses" that I wish had been cut down upon--but these are minor distractions from an otherwise well-told story.
Those issues with characterization and minor stylistic annoyances are minor blips in a tale I otherwise greatly enjoyed. Is it cheesy? Yes, sometimes, but there are few stories that feature child characters that aren't. I give Dixon credit for experimenting with her story, excising elements of the original (for example, Lydia and Mr. Wickham) in order to create a story that focuses on Lizzy and Darcy alone--and Darcy's rival, Geoffrey Collins. Some won't like that Dixon strays far from the original, but as for me, who loves the variations market but sometimes gets tired of all of them hinging on the same points (what if Mr. Bennet died? what if Darcy spoke up about Wickham sooner? what if something or other happened to make Lizzy and Darcy anticipate their marriage and engage in some sort of sexual activity?), I was pleased by her choice to create original characters and situations. Geoffrey Collins was someone I was so eager to pick apart; his good qualities and his flaws are gradually revealed to the reader, so that for a while, one wonders if Darcy is perhaps doing wrong by separating Lizzy from a man who seems so amiable, a man who wants to be a father to her son and who wants Lizzy to help him mother his daughters. Of course, we all know how it's going to end up, but the fun is in the ride, isn't it?
And oh, it was a fun ride. Darcy's rivalry with Collins was hugely entertaining, as was Ben's part in the whole tangled mess. Ben, for his part, is not amused with Collins, and indeed assigns him the name of a Camelot villain. He'd much rather his mama, Guinevere, fall in love with King Arthur. King Arthur would love that, too. But Guinevere needs convincing, and so convince her he must. It was nice to see a Darcy who was slightly more open about his affections--this Darcy does not reveal himself in a letter; he instead proves himself to Elizabeth through his kindnesses to her son and his steadfast devotion to them both.
For those who aren't purists, who are curious about a take on Austen that strays far from the well-beaten path, but does so through new perspectives and intriguing original characters, I would not hesitate to recommend this story. And for those who want more, should you finish the story and crave it, Dixon's holiday story The Mission, featuring the characters, is available through most ebook retailers. It helped smooth out some of the minor quibbles I had with the ending as well as gave me more time with Elizabeth, Darcy, and Ben, and for that I was quite pleased.