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For many people arriving at the last page of Pride and Prejudice there is an overwhelming desire to know what happens next to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy and some authors have taken up the challenge and produced sequels with varying results. Many of these attempts to extend the adventures of the Darcy family are little more than Regency romances, given something of a literary caché by association with the original novel rather than through merit but invariably these novels are pale imitations of the original.
One of the authors who has created a whole new life for the Darcy family is Elizabeth Aston although she has wisely kept the older Darcys in the background of her plots and concentrated on either relatives or, in this case, the next generation.
This book follows on from Mr Darcy's Daughters, which introduced the younger generation of the Darcy family and detailed their first London season. This time the story concentrates on Miss Alethea Darcy, young and feisty and newly wed but she's already discovered that her husband's charming exterior was a facade and so she flees her marital home and unpleasant husband. In order to escape immediate detection, Alethea has dressed herself as a boy and is masquerading as Mr Aloysius Hawkins, determined to make her way to Italy and take refuge with her sister Camilla. However, before Alethea can reach Venice, she is thrown into the company of Mr Titus Manningtree, recently disappointed in love and also on his way to Italy in search of a missing family painting. Both Alethea and Titus are to encounter many adventures before finding their destinies.
To paraphrase Miss Austen, it is universally acknowledged that when a woman is in need of a good Regency romance, she need look no further than Georgette Heyer. Many writers have tried to emulate her slick and stylish romances every bit as much as they've tried to copy Jane Austen. Elizabeth Aston has made a fairly good fist at doing both. She's certainly produced a book which has a plot that is convoluted enough to capture the imagination, peopled with mainly three dimensional characters and plenty of action and adventure to cement it all together.
It isn't perfect, of course, and there are moments when I truly didn't like our heroine who does show a tendency to be too stupid to live on occasion. She had been turned down by her first love, who chose another to be his bride and so Alethea married Norris Napier on the rebound. This in itself I found somewhat unbelievable because it simply didn't link in to what we know of Elizabeth Bennet or Mr Darcy, neither of whom, I'm convinced, would have allowed their daughter to do such a silly thing and because of that, the book rather smacks of trading on their names rather than trying to be a serious sequel to Pride and Prejudice.
Along with the introduction to Alethea and her back story, we also meet Titus Manningtree, a man of wealth and position who seems to have alienated everybody including parliament and the King. He's now haring off through Europe in pursuit of George Warren who he's convinced knows where to find the Titian painting which belongs to the Manningtree family. Alethea and Titus have their first meeting when they, along with several other coach passengers are trapped in Switzerland because of an avalanche. Titus, more or less immediately guesses that Alethea is not male, despite her having convinced all the other passengers.
From the offset, it's obvious that Titus is our hero because he is tall, dark and handsome, fabulously wealthy and his glances are sardonic, his conversation witty and he's been gifted with more perspicacity than any other character in the book. He, too, has been disappointed in love and is bitter about it. He's bitter also about his army career, his parliamentary career and the fact that someone else is after a painting which belongs to his family. This is a man who needs some serious cheering up and I'm afraid Miss Alethea Darcy isn't the one to do it.
What I didn't like very much was the age difference between Titus and Alethea. It's pretty wide and although their actual ages aren't given, it's obvious that Alethea is very young, either late teens or early twenties at the most, whereas Titus surmises that whilst he was fighting at Waterloo with Wellington, Alethea would have been "stumbling about in the nursery" which makes me suspect there's a good fifteen years between them. Whereas I don't mind the fact that there's fifteen years or so between the hero and heroine, it's less palatable when the female is so childlike in much of her attitude and the hero mature and worldly. This led to much of the dialogue between the two sounding like a recalcitrant child with a parent and I found it difficult to believe in their romance, such as it was.
As Alethea is a married woman and the social mores of the time precluded intimacy with such women, the romance didn't really take off at all and when Titus eventually declares himself it seems very rushed and it's hard to believe he'd have fallen for Alethea; after all he's spent enough time in her company to realise what a nitwit she is!
The other plot device which was a little far-fetched was that not only is Alethea in male attire but so is her maid, Figgins. It may just be possible for one of them to get away with such a disguise but that both of them make such convincing boys is less easy to swallow.
Although Elizabeth Aston has created a story with more substance than a run-of-the-mill Regency romance and one, moreover, which has some fully rounded characters, she's let the plot down somewhat by her rather stereotypical villain and of all the characters in the book, he is the least plausible. Even Alethea is believable in that gently reared young women led very sheltered lives before marriage which could account for her naïvety, but George Warren is just too much of a Macchiavellian cardboard cut-out and I wouldn't have been surprised to read that he was twirling his moustaches and laughing in a dastardly manner.
Where Elizabeth Aston does score highly is in her recreation of that period of history and there were no glaring errors or oversights to throw the reader out of the story. Her sense of time and place were very well constructed.
In the deft hands of Georgette Heyer, this book could have been a real winner, but unfortunately Elizabeth Aston has produced something far more pedestrian, lacking much in the way of sparkling wit or clever dialogue and although it's a good enough story and I did sort of enjoy the book, it left me feeling slightly cheated, certainly with regard to the romance which seemed a very uneven affair.
My opinion of a top read is one that makes a lasting impression long after the last page has been turned and that leaves the reader wanting more. A day or so after closing this book, I'd dismissed Miss Alethea Darcy and her swain from my mind and I haven't been tempted to seek out any books about the other Darcy siblings either.
Price: £6.29 (Amazon) or used copies available from 1p