Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Darcys and the Bingleys by Marsha Altman

Rating: 2.2.2
Category: Historical, Romance

Review: 3.5/5

In The Darcys and the Bingleys, Marsha Altman has picked up where Jane Austen left off in Pride and Prejudice. The book is divided into two parts, Book I and Book II. The first book starts a week or so before Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, and Mr. Bingley and Jane are to be married. Mr. Bingley is nervous about the wedding night and goes to Mr. Darcy for advice (and we come to find out that Darcy is more experienced with women than Mr. Bingley is). Mr. Darcy comes to Mr. Bingley's aid by giving him a book. Now, I looked into this a little (I looked at Wikipedia, so take this information for what it's worth) and it doesn't seem like the part about this book is historically accurate. The book does exist but it wasn't available in English for quite some time after this story takes place. I don't really blame the author too much for this fact, though, of course, she could have been more careful. The introduction of this book does make for an interesting storyline and I'll grant her a little poetic license. Despite the fact that the first part of the book is about ...the "marriage bed," shall we say, there is no graphic material and I would classify it as "clean". The second half of the book, Book II, deals with Caroline Bingley and a love interest for her. Even snobs can find love. :)

So, what did I think of this book? It was an enjoyable read--it was funny in parts and kept me turning the pages. As a sequel to P&P, I can't really say that it was great. If you are a real Jane Austen purist and aficionado, then this book would probably drive you crazy. But for those who really like the characters and don't mind speculating a little about what might have happened after the book ends, this could be a really fun read. Altman tells several stories, including flashbacks, that lead to better understanding of the friendship between Darcy and Bingley. New characters are also introduced that add to the story. For me, I liked the book as long as I wasn't too loyal to my own ideas of what the characters are "supposed to" act like or be. This book is Marsha Altman's idea of who Mr. Darcy is, and it is interesting to read, but that doesn't make him my Mr. Darcy.

I had the opportunity to ask the author a few questions, that I will list below. I have to say that her answers made me like the book more. They made me like her, too. She seems funny and down to earth and I like that. Without further ado, here is our interview:

Me: Ms. Altman, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions about your new book, The Darcys and the Bingleys. First of all, I am so curious about the dedication in your book. It reads: To the cheetah kid, You don't know who you are, and I don't remember your name, but thanks for the eighteen years of inspiration. I would love to hear the story behind that. Would you mind sharing?
Marsha: Not at all. When I was in third grade, we had a library class where the librarian generally made some attempt to get us to take out books. One day she held up a one-page story with a picture at the bottom someone in my class had a written and went on and on about how he’d written a “book” about a cheetah. I thought, “I can write a longer book than that!” and started writing my first book, which was 24 pages of nonsense about an alien who came to earth. And that’s how I started writing. I wanted to beat that kid. It took 18 years but I think I did it. I don’t remember who he is so maybe he’s a great author now. I hope I wasn’t in school with Michael Chabon and forgot or something.

Me: When did you read Pride and Prejudice for the first time?
Marsha: High school, AP English. It was the only novel we read the entire year that I genuinely enjoyed. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying I liked, but didn’t enjoy. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse I hated with a fiery passion that has never been matched. There were some others that don’t come to mind, but Pride and Prejudice we were all crazy about, the women in the class at least. The guys were just utterly confused as to why we were so into it. I’d never seen a gender division like that over a book before. I didn’t read Austen for a long time after that – it remained vaguely associated with the emotional trauma that is the American high school experience until I saw the miniseries while on a vacation, years later.

Me: I read Amanda Grange's Mr. Darcy's Diary last year but this is the first continuation of Pride and Prejudice that I've ever read. I still can't quite decide how I feel about the whole concept of adding on to what is already such a perfect novel. What made you decide to write this book?
Marsha: There seem to be three types of people: People who won’t touch sequels/fanfic because Austen is sacred, people who read and enjoy sequels/fanfic because they would do anything to spend a little bit more time with the characters, and people who generally disapprove of sequels but for some reason buy and read them anyway, mainly to have an argument against them it seems.
The inherent problem is that nobody really wants their notion of who the characters are altered, but the whole idea of a sequel (or a diary, or rewrite) is to do precisely that. It’s impossible to do otherwise. It’s a bit like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the observer effect: You change the outcome by measuring it. If you add a single line about Darcy, you’re probably going to contradict someone’s view of Darcy based on their interpretation of
Pride and Prejudice (“Darcy would never go down stairs!”).
I started writing because I wanted to work with the characters, especially Bingley. There’s so much material there, implied by his friendship to Darcy, and yet very few sequels or rewrites give him any ink at all. By presenting my Darcy and my Bingley, I risk running into people who disagree – sometimes rightfully so – about my interpretation, but if that bothered me I wouldn’t have tried to publish an Austen sequel. It’s my hope that the interpretation is at the very least amusing and worth the money they paid for the book.

Me: Have you read a lot of other books that have continued the story of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth? Do you recommend any?
Marsha: I would say I’ve read them all, but that’s not actually true. Rebecca Ann Collins has 10 books and I never managed to get the Australian versions, so I have to wait for Sourcebooks to release them all. There’s also another retelling by Darcy that’s floating around in out-of-print land (not the one by Slayer, Aylmer, Grange, Street, Aiden, Jeffers or Fasman. There’s another one out there somewhere). And of course I have a few that I was just never able to get through but I do technically own.
Because I own so many and have read so much, I tend to award more points to creativity and ingenuity than adherence to traditional Austen-esque storytelling, which is why I’m such a Linda Berdoll fan. Yes, the book had an obscene amount of sex. It also had funny dialogue, an interesting Wickham plotline, and she could make the most mundane details of running Pemberley (usually a pretty boring topic, actually) interesting. Isabel Moffet is another underrated author. She needs a good editor, but she’s the only one who’s really done an interesting subplot with Mr. Bennet. And Carrie Bebris has her cozy mysteries, which are likeable with the subtle details even if you’re not a fan of Elizabeth having magic powers.

Me: What is your response to those who are critical of these kinds of sequels?
Marsha: …You’re not obligated to read them? I’m surprised people are more up-in-arms about trampling on Austen’s fiction than former smut writer Anne Rice writing Jesus fan fiction.

Me: What kind of research did you do to make this book as authentic as possible?
Marsha: I did go to England and promptly got really sick with whatever virus my dad had, and in a feverish haze saw Chawton, Winchester, and Chatsworth. Aside from that it’s been a lot of books – history, books about interpreting history, and some forays into Regency fiction, though I can really take very little of it at a time. People have a certain conception of the Regency – usually based on Austen’s fiction – that is not necessarily accurate. Polite Society was more of an ideal than an actuality. When choosing between history and Regency fiction traditional, I generally went with history.

Me: Do you plan to write more books and make this the first of a series? Is there a second book in the works?
Marsha: Books 2 and 3 are written and under revision. Wikipedia led me massively astray the first time around, which is especially bad because book 2 ventures out into Europe and book 3 into Asia (briefly). The story is planned out through ten books. Then they all nearly die of exhaustion of having been put through the gamut of ten books. I’m not very easy on my characters.

Me: I'm always curious about authors' reading habits. What have you read lately and what did you think?
Marsha: This is where I’m supposed to lie and say I have all of the great classics of literature well-thumbed and dog-eared on my desk, right? And I carry my leather-bound edition of Austen’s six novels everywhere I go?
Remember that TV show Forever Knight? About a vampire cop in Toronto? No? Well, they wrote some tie-in novels and I’m just finishing off the third. It’s definitely better than the first two. Before I got into those I was reading
Decency and Disorder: 1789-1837 by Ben Wilson, a nice find while I was in England. I’m generally reading something along those lines. Writing historical fiction leaves very little time for reading actual fiction. Instead you’re reading some that ends the title with a time period specified in dates. I think the next on the list is Religion and Revolution in France: 1780-1804. Oh, and I’m always reading the Mishnah, a second-century code of very, very boring Jewish law. When my grandfather died I said I would read it 40 times, and I’m on 18 ½ or so. I have to reach 20 by November to be on schedule, so if something shows up in my writing about how touching the metal ring on a tent that held a corpse makes a priest unclean to eat the Temple fruit offering for twenty-four hours makes it into my Pride and Prejudice stuff, that’s why. Also the priest might be a cop who is also a vampire.

Me: Thanks again for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish you great success with your debut novel.
Marsha: Thank you for reading and reviewing.
Doesn't she sound great? I used her first name in the interview above because she feels like a friend now. I hope that's okay with her. If any of you get a chance to read this book, I'd love to hear what you think.


Julie J. said...

Wow, Kim! Great questions. I like her too and I have to agree with her Anne Rice comment. I'll be watching for the book at the library.

Marsha Altman said...

The Indian sex manual that appears in the book is never named in the book because the first official translation of the Kama Sutra wasn't until 1840, so that was my way of wiggling out of it. Plus there were a lot of unofficial translations of Indian literature. Then Sourcebooks crashed that historical mulligan party by putting the name "Kama Sutra" on the back cover. You wouldn't believe how quickly and probably late at night important notations and publicity material gets written in publishing. Much like this interview, which I sort of wrote in a hurried daze. That sort of thing results in interesting tangents but also a lot of typos.

And first-name basis is fine as long as it's actually my first name, my pen name for chat rooms, or any assortment of names I've used in RPGs. Meaning, not, "Hey you!"

Not quite the Bradys said...

I recently read "Mr. Darcy's Diary" by Amanda Grange. It was really good. I thought it did a good job with his characterization/thoughts. You might like it. I haven't written my review yet but hope to do so later this week. Bakery in October?


Kim said...

Julie-Your welcome to come to the Kim Library and check this out. :)
I think you will like this book.

Marsha - Thanks for the clarification on the Indian sex manual. Now that I think about it, it doesn't say Kama Sutra anywhere in the book. Too bad Sourcebooks screwed that up a little but hopefully not too much harm was done. I still enjoyed the book.

Aberjaber - I have read Mr. Darcy's Diary by Grange and I liked it too. I actually have a review on here somewhere. You can find it under the author links. And the bakery in October sounds awesome.