Friday, 20 March 2009
Pride and Prescience by Carrie Bebris
At first glance this seemed quite a creditable attempt at Regency idion, but before long I grew impatient with inaccuracies. I understand that there may be a blancing act between use of language familiar to the readership and historical accuracy, but this is billed as a “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice, and US reders seem to have little difficulty in understanding Austen’s own writing, so I think it incumbent on the a sequel writer to conduct meticulous research. I wish, too, that American authors who are writing in Regency style would be encouraged to seek a copy-editor both familiar with the language of the time and a speaker of UK English. I have yet to find an American writer who entirely “gets” idiomatic British speech (I’m sure the converse is also true, I’m not claiming any uniqueness for UK English – but that aphorism about Britain and the US being divided by a common language is apt) and, after a while, errors such as “come sit down” for “come and sit down” or “will you write me?” for “will you write to me?” begin to grate, although not as much as the English lord who begins his sentences “Say – “ as opposed to “I say”. Admittedly, I debated over “snicker”, which is much used: it’s early enough, but it’s of Dutch origin and, unlike the US, we don’t have many words from that source. I’d be more comfortable with “snigger”, the more common UK variant, but it probably derives from “snicker”, and I think that I would rather have gone for “smirk”, of Old English origin.
Here, however, it’s not just American, rather than British (or Regency) English that irritates, but anachronisms, as in the maid who is brought “a pair of Wellingtons” from the stables. Now, the Duke of Wellington did indeed have a pair of boots made specially, an adaptation of the Hessian boot, and dandies emulated their hero and called their stylish new footwear the Wellington boot – but these were gentlemen’s boots, not something to be found kicking around the stables. A “pair of Wellingtons” in the sense used here didn’t appear until the 1850s, when the first pairs were made of rubber. All the swearing is wrong: a well-brought up young woman of the period would never have said “bloody”, even with the intention of shocking, nor “he damn well better”; “winds up dead” is at least ten years too early, and “envision” isn’t recorded until 1921. The final straw came on page 247, where this exchange can be found:
“Mrs Nicholls, fire me if you want, but I won’t do it! I won’t be in there with her by myself - not with her cutting up her husband with that ring he gave her! Her sister sat with us yesterday while I did her toilette […] Not with all the goings-on round here and her acting so crazy!”
Elizabeth paused at the top of the stairs, surprised to find the housekeeper and Caroline’s maid openly arguing in a public part of the house. They stood in the corridor that led to the new family quarters. Though they did not shout, their voices carried in the empty hallway.
“Nan, I can’t spare anyone else right now just to-” Mrs Nicholls broke off as she spotted their audience.
Now, this is badly wrong. For a start the language: it’s “dismiss”, not “fire” (1885, US), and I’m not happy about “acting crazy” but that may be because Heyer would have had “acting like a zany”. What’s worse is the social situation – Caroline’s maid is not subject to the jurisdiction of Mr Bingley’s housekeeper, who has no power to dismiss her. Further, Mrs Nicholls calls her “Nan”, but a lady’s maid employed by someone as conscious of haut ton as Caroline Bingley would be well aware that she was a person of some status within the servant’s hall, would probably expect a degree of deference from even the housekeeper and would be within her rights to insist on being addressed as “Miss ---“. (I will allow that an exception might be made for Mrs Darcy’s Lucy, since Lizzie might well choose to bring on a young girl as her maid, but not the pretentious Miss Bingley.) The point is, anyway, that Caroline Bingley would not be employing a country girl as her lady’s maid, so both language and social standing are wrong.
After all this carping, you may be surprised to learn that I think that at times the writing does succeed in catching the spirit of the period – some of the exchanges between the Darcys are wittily handled, with Elizabeth in particular evincing some of the sparkle she has in Pride and Prejudice. Plot devices sometimes gave me pause – Caroline’s hasty marriage would lead to unwelcome comment if not actual scandal, and emerging explanations for such speed remain somewhat unconvincing – but the introduction of elements that would not have been dreamt of in Mr Darcy’s philosophy has both interest and relevance. The Age of Enlightenment, with the increasing dominance of reason over superstition, gives legitimacy to an exploration of this clash. Bebris introduces the comparatively new science of archaeology, which had begun to pique an interest in pagan and “primitive” beliefs among the leisured classes, who yet coexisted with a stratum of society where superstition was still rife. Their fascination led to the rise of the gothic novel, of which this is a rather fluffy example.
All in all, I think this is a novel written with love and enthusiasm for its subject, and some skill. Not all readers are as pernickety as I am. I had wrongly hoped that the gothic elements would go no further than reference to phenomena as yet unexplained in Regency times but, if you can bear the juxtaposition of the Darcys and the supernatural, you may enjoy this book.