Austen Adaptations by Teri Wilson and Lelia M. Silver, Reviewed by Jamie Wilson
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice might have been published 200 years ago, but it continues to be one of the most popular novels in English literature spawning numerous film, television, and theater adaptations, as well as books loosely inspired by the novel’s themes and characters. One need only peruse one of the most extensive Jane Austen blogs, Austenprose, to see how enduring the novelist’s works remain. In addition to appearing as prequels, sequels, and retellings, Austen adaptations manifest in different genres (the mystery and paranormal romance). They also appeal to varied age groups, including young adults (Nattress).
This review will address two contemporary fictions: Unleashing Mr. Darcy by Teri Wilson (2014) and Pride and Precipice by Lelia M. Silver (2013). As this was my first venture into reading contemporary romance based on Austen’s original work, I found myself wondering how a modern day Darcy and Elizabeth might appear. What careers might they pursue? How might modern societal structures and gender expectations shape the decisions characters make regarding their lives? Themes of marriage, class conflict, and money take center stage in the original Pride and Prejudice, and I was curious to see how these themes might unfold and affect the characters in contemporary works.
I began my readings with Teri Wilson’s Unleashing Mr. Darcy. This novel depicts Darcy as a billionaire English dog breeder and show judge, while Elizabeth is cast as a teacher currently on a leave of absence from her school due to a scandal that has endangered her reputation and career. Wilson’s book hooked me immediately with a twist on the original opening lines, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman teetering on the verge of thirty is in want of a husband” (7). Wilson’s Elizabeth Scott, at age 29, is unconcerned with marriage, but wishes to spend her time training and caring for her new puppy, Bliss. Bliss is a welcome distraction from the troubling events at Barclay High School. It is while attending her first dog show that she meets Donovan Darcy, a handsome, but seemingly arrogant dog breeder. Like Austen’s Darcy, Donovan initially intimidates Elizabeth with his intensity. When Elizabeth is invited to England to help care for a pack of show dogs, she jumps at the chance to escape New York, the setting of scandal. It is during her time in England that she repeatedly finds herself in the path of Donovan Darcy as the two navigate the dog show circuit. The gossip and drama in the ballrooms of the original Pride and Prejudice are exchanged for the dog show arenas “abuzz with nervous energy” (10).
Wilson establishes the long-held Austen themes of social and financial conflict early on in the novel by connecting them to insecurities Elizabeth experienced as a result of her recent work crisis. The events surrounding the scandal often dictate the course of her relationship with Darcy. Elizabeth fears the prospect of losing her financial stability and having to move back in with her parents if she is unable to find another job. She also does not want to be around aristocrats with “their outlandish sums of money and all the power it could buy” (156). For this reason, Elizabeth is immediately put off by Donovan’s wealth because, after all, “what kind of person jetted all over the globe to judge dog shows?” (13). On the other hand, Donovan’s frustrations at his initial meeting with Elizabeth lead him to wonder “what in God’s name had convinced him coming all the way to America to judge this show was a good idea?” (21). The scene is set for fresh conflicts as Elizabeth and Donovan develop feelings for each other, despite their differing backgrounds.
The marriage theme doesn’t dominate in Wilson’s work as it does in Austen’s. While Elizabeth’s family does own a bridal shop and her meddling mother desperately wants her to marry, her mother’s interferences do not take center stage in Unleashing Mr. Darcy. Instead, Elizabeth and Donovan are largely left to manage their relationship on their own terms. The primary conflict results from insecurities that Elizabeth acquires in the wake of the scandal. During one scene in which Donovan asks Elizabeth to accompany him to his home for a visit, Elizabeth’s mind spins: “She wouldn’t fit in there any more than she’d fit in at the Barclay School. She was through fooling herself. The thought of accompanying him to his fancy-schmancy estate and making small talk with his wealthy friends and –God forbid – meeting his blue-blooded family was horrifying” (199).
Will Elizabeth get over the prejudice of her past that has caused her to believe that “men were nothing but trouble”? (87). Will she learn to see beyond the biases these events have caused? Will Donovan be able to let go of some of his own frustrations to find out where Elizabeth’s feelings truly lie?
I really enjoyed Teri Wilson’s modern take on Austen’s characters. While Elizabeth Scott constantly struggles to maintain confidence, I find her character inspiringly real. Donovan Darcy is similar to the original in that he initially comes across as extremely arrogant, but I found myself feeling surprisingly sympathetic towards him as he attempts to decipher Elizabeth’s confusing behavior. Wilson provides more insight into Mr. Darcy’s motivations than Austen did in her original work. I enjoyed knowing why Donovan Darcy frowns so much, what he notices about Elizabeth when she isn’t aware of him, and what his family history reveals about his own character. The novel’s entertainment value is also increased by Wilson’s use of modernized versions of some of the famous original dialogue; however, the reader never feels like s/he is reading the same story.
My next exploration into the contemporary world of Pride and Prejudice came in the form of Lelia Silver’s self-published Pride and Precipice. Due to many innovations in the publishing industry and the success of some self-published authors, I wanted to review a book published in this form. This retelling caught my eye when I discovered that Silver’s Elizabeth Bennet is a general contractor who specializes in the restoration of historic homes. I found it fascinating that Silver chose to place Elizabeth in a career field dominated by men. Longbourn Design and Construction is a family-run business that includes contractor Elizabeth and interior designer Jane. Elizabeth and Jane are asked to lead a renovation project at Netherfield Park. Charles Bingley, the CEO of Bingley Hotels and Hospitality Services, and his colleague, Fitzwilliam Darcy, wish to hire locally and are impressed by the two sisters’ work. Tensions arise as they all begin to work together.
Part of the enjoyment in reading revisionist works comes from seeing beloved characters and themes presented in a fresh way. While Silver offers an updated setting, the same cannot be said for her handling of class and marriage themes in Pride and Precipice. Silver not only uses regency era dialogue despite the modern setting; she also fails to fully develop the themes to suit modern characters and situations. I found regency era dialogue and ideology in a modern setting to be very off-putting. While modern readers would expect to encounter dated social and cultural norms while reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, they would not expect to encounter the same scenarios in a 21st century setting. Females may have been expected to marry to attain status and/or security in the regency era, but these views do not suit the modern climate. A modern father would not tell his daughter to “gird up [her] loins and brave the fray” (29); nor would a mother tell her daughter that she “would make a fine wife for some wealthy man” (15). Readers are likely to become both confused and irritated as they encounter dialogue that does not resemble 21st century speech.
Just as the original novel opens with a frantic Mrs. Bennet excitedly chatting about Mr. Bingley’s arrival, a similar scenario unfolds in Pride and Precipice. When Mrs. Bennet reads the newspaper and discovers Bingley Hotels and Hospitality Services’ plans for renovation on Netherfield Park, she immediately sets out to play matchmaker, obsessively telling her husband that “‘[b]oth of them are single! Our girls are so fortunate!’” (14). Later, Mrs. Bennet faints when she discovers Darcy has given Elizabeth a ride home, and during dinner with Mr. Collins, she wholeheartedly agrees with his statement that beautiful women shouldn’t be so career focused, but should be focused on “a family to raise and a household to run” (106). The modern Mrs. Bennet is very similar to Austen’s frustrating original and bears no signs of societal change.
The theme of class or financial struggle reveals itself most noticeably through the outdated opinions of the condescending Ms. Caroline Bingley, who also bears a strong similarity to her original counterpart. She expresses disdain for Elizabeth and her family immediately after discovering that her brother and Fitzwilliam have hired them for the renovation project, declaring that “the people in this town wouldn’t know refined and elegant if it hit them over the head” (56). She is also quick to insult Elizabeth’s profession at every turn: “I cannot believe any woman with a modicum of self-respect would do her job. You pay people to do the things she does. Did you see her this morning? She was covered in saw dust from head to toe. I could hardly keep my countenance” (82).
Fitzwilliam’s character also struggles with his feelings towards Elizabeth because of her perceived inferiority. While he explains his initial rudeness towards Elizabeth as a result of his discomfort around strangers, his character later reveals that he is fighting his feelings towards Elizabeth due to her family background: “His attraction to her frightened him. She was all he ever could have wished for in a woman; intelligent, witty, beautiful, with a soulful gaze that captured his imagination and invaded his dreams. Yet, her connections were decidedly inferior to his and her livelihood and relations likely to make him the laughingstock of his acquaintances” (95).
Fitzwilliam Darcy’s and Caroline Bingley’s preoccupation with Elizabeth’s perceived inferiority demonstrates a level of class conflict that is not as common in a 21st century reality. Fitzwilliam, who knows that he is developing feelings for Elizabeth Bennett and can list many of her amazing attributes, still fights his attraction due to worry that her inferior connections may impact his reputation. His character still behaves as if he is restrained by regency era social dynamics, and this behavior makes less sense in a modern setting.
Despite the anachronistic elements, the character of Elizabeth Bennet is more confident and bold than her predecessor. When she overhears Darcy’s comments about her being merely “tolerable,” she boldly insists that he make up to her by giving her a ride to her job site where she is needed. Elizabeth is determined to appear professional and worthy of her position in this renovation project. Fitzwilliam is impressed with her work ethic and describes her as “unstoppable” and “a force to be reckoned with” (52). She is a modern woman with modern concerns; however, the vitality of her character alone cannot sustain this novel.
Pride and Precipice follows the same plotline as Austen’s original, which also makes it very predictable. The novel had the potential to be an interesting retelling in the world of architecture, but fell flat because of the use of outdated elements. This flaw may result from a relative lack of editorial support in the self-published industry. While Teri Wilson’s Unleashing Mr. Darcy fluidly shaped the characters and themes to fit modern societal concerns, Silver’s Pride and Precipice clung too tightly to the original story and dialogue, which ultimately interferes with reader connectivity.
Nattress, Laurel. “What is a Jane Austen Sequel?” Austenprose: A Jane Austen Blog. Austenprose.com, 2014. Web. 13 April, 2014.
Silver, Lelia M. Pride and Precipice. n.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. Print.
Wilson, Teri. Unleashing Mr. Darcy. Ontario: Harlequin HQN, 2014. Print.