What is it about Pride & Prejudice that inspires so many homages? To my knowledge, there are no Wuthering Heights sequels, no spin-offs of Vanity Fair. Yet it seems we can’t get enough of the Bennets and their neighbours.
The latest addition to the Meryton universe is The Longbourn Letters by Limerick-based writer Rose Servitova. It’s a clever concept, written in letter form, recording the correspondence between Mr Bennet and his cousin and heir, the very Reverend Mr William Collins, over a long period after the curtains close on Lizzie and Darcy.
Austen fans can relax – the story is in safe hands here. While most pastiches lack the wit and astuteness that were Jane’s calling cards, Servitova pitches it just right, with a wonderful grasp of both style and character. Mr Bennet and Mr Collins are completely recognisable in all their quirks and failings, and what follows is a fond account of their growing relationship through years of communication. Even better, many familiar figures put in an appearance, with Lady Catherine de Bourgh in particularly fine fettle when a new vicar challenges Collins for her readily granted patronage.
The story starts at a familiar point, when Mr Collins accepts Mr Bennet’s invitation to view the modest home he is in line to inherit as the closest male relative. It then quickly romps through some high points – Mr Collins’s unsuccessful proposal to Lizzie, his subsequent marriage to the patient Charlotte Lucas, Lady Catherine’s apoplexy on discovering where her nephew Darcy’s inconvenient affections lie. It’s when we move into fresh territory that things really take off.
When we first meet them, the characters are portrayed exactly as in Pride & Prejudice – Collins a socially awkward buffoon, Mr Bennet merrily insular and taking great sport in baiting his clueless younger cousin. However, this changes over the course of their correspondence as one matures and the other mellows, finding common interests in gardening and their increasingly intertwined families.
If I have any criticism of this thoroughly enjoyable book, it would be that it is perhaps too gentle. I feel it could have done with more of life’s challenges and disappointments to test our two unlikely heroes. In an age where illnesses were often fatal, financial security easily lost and reputations quickly destroyed, the stakes could, at times, have been higher and the outcome not so rosy.
It also assumes prior knowledge of the characters – would Mr Bennet’s benign trolling of Mr Collins and his ‘great passages’ work without knowing the wicked sense of humour behind it? Then again, I’m not sure that many people would pick up this book if they weren’t already familiar and infatuated with Austen’s timeless characters.
But these are niggly points about a book that I found utterly charming and, ultimately, quite moving. The progression of the central relationship is just lovely, with a growing mutual respect and fondness that never feels forced.
If you’d like to know more, there’s an interesting article by Servitova on Writing.ie about how she came to write the story – “I really wanted someone else to write this book. I loved its central characters and the notion of what their letters might contain but no one picked up a pen to write it.” There are also some useful writing tips.
The publication of the book is also perfectly timed, tying in as it does with the Jane Austen bicentenary, which marks 200 years since her death. Festivals are taking place all over the world this year to pay tribute to her enduring appeal, with her work being scrutinised more than ever.
And can a lavish Sunday night BBC adaptation be far away? Hopefully not.