Book Review: Pemberley Shades

Kathleen Glancy in her “Persuasions” article “What Happened Next? The Many Husbands of Georgiana Darcy”(Vol. 11, 1989, pp. 110-116) states that D.A. [Dorothy Alice] Bonavia-Hunt’s Pemberley Shades is the best written of all the sequels she has read, and though “lacking in the irony department….it is a brave try, and an amusing story.”  [spoiler alert!…Ms. Glancy in this article tells the full story, so read this after you have read the book!]

Published originally in 1949 by Allan Wingate in the U.K. and by Dutton in the U.S., Pemberley Shades is finally available again (it was reprinted in 1977 and again in 2007, but quickly out of print, and only available from antiquarian booksellers and sure to finish off your annual book budget…there is one online for $650.), so this Sourcebooks 2008 reprint is welcome indeed!

There is little known about the author, and even if perhaps she ever wrote anything else under another name; but what is known is that she was born in London, the daughter of a clergyman, was educated by a governess and in private schools, and lived with her brother, the Vicar of Stagsden, Bedfordshire, during the time she wrote her Austen Pride & Prejudice sequel.  She obviously was knowledgeable about Austen and the Georgian period, and comes very close to Austen’s style.

The title “Pemberley Shades” refers to Lady Catherine’s angry retort to Elizabeth “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” (ch. 56, P&P)  Austen’s use of the word “shades” has generated many theories and some research into the word does little to clarify.  Austen was likely being intentionally ambiguous- with a literal reference to the woods and forests of Pemberley, with the darkness and shadows, as well as the figurative meaning of the ancestral lineage and social standing of the Darcy family (i.e referring to the ghosts of ancestors.)   But there is so much darkness in this book, so many secrets and the sense of “not telling all” and characters living in shadow, the “lightly gothic” atmosphere pervading the story…the author chose the perfect term to headline her tale, in the same ambiguous way as Austen.

So the title itself leads into this gothic realm and the reader is on alert from page one, although it all SEEMS so peaceful and harmonious.  We  re-enter the lives of Darcy and Elizabeth a few years after the end of P&P:  they have a two-year old heir to the estate named Richard (an inside joke perhaps?!).  The action begins with the death of the elderly Rector of Pemberely, leaving his two maiden sisters in the Parsonage and Darcy in search of a successor.  Passing over Mr. Collins, who, on the outs with Lady C, has written an officious (though humorous of course!) letter of application, Darcy heads to London to engage the services of Lord Egbury’s brother Stephen Acworth, who has been highly recommended.

Acworth’s arrival at Pemberley sets the plot in motion:  his first meeting with Elizabeth who “at the moment of first beholding him [it] was her instant conviction of having seen him before”… we meet characters we know and those new to this story:  The Robinson sisters, who seem more like the sisters in Gaskell’s Cranford, set themselves at odds with the Darcys by supporting Acworth; Jane and Mr. Bingley the milquetoasts that Mr. Bennet so predicted; Mr. Bennet is wonderfully drawn here with his insights and many witticisms [“every woman requires a dose of neglect now and then to keep her from being above herself”]; Anne de Bourgh finally getting a moment to shine no longer under her mother’s watch [“Anne was not so much proud and disagreeable as stupid” says Elizabeth]; Lady C exactly the same; Acworth, an odd peculiar lost soul; and a host of servants and maids getting some prime time of their own, a nice touch.

But the story really centers on Georgiana Darcy and her three suitors, all new characters:  Mr. Mortimer, Major Wakeford, and the vicar-in-waiting Acworth.  Miss Darcy is a shadowy figure, aloof and secretive, with “something on her mind” as Elizabeth keeps saying; and the resolution of her courting dilemma propels the tale.  There is no point in telling more….it is a bit of a mystery and so I shall not divulge a thing!  But we can ask Who is Acworth and what are his motives in coming to Pemberley? and why does Elizabeth feel so uncomfortable in his presence? and why is Georgiana so secretive and preferring to be alone with her music?  It is a good story, and this reader was much impressed with the author’s use of language.  But of course there is no duplicating Austen, and so there are disappointments: the story feels a tad far-fetched; Darcy and Elizabeth are a wonderfully harmonious couple, all that lovers of P&P could hope for, but I found them both a little too perfect and more than a little condescending to all those around them; and Acworth is quite the disturbing character, something not quite right with him (I cannot say more!…);  and there is this underlying sadness that pervades the whole novel…but it is certainly compelling enough and has wit enough to definitely be added to your Austen sequel collection, and you shall enjoy the read immensely!

Further reading: see also Laurel Ann’s review at Austenprose.