*I received a free ARC of this novel, with thanks to the author, Bonnier Books and NetGalley. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: For fans of Longbourn, The Other Bennet Sister and Bridgerton, this beautifully told story of marriage, duty and friendship follows Charlotte’s story from where Pride and Prejudice ends.
Everybody believes that Charlotte Lucas has no prospects. She is unmarried, plain, poor and reaching a dangerous age.
But when she stuns the neighbourhood by accepting the proposal of buffoonish clergyman Mr Collins, her fortunes change. Her best friend Lizzy Bennet is appalled by her decision, yet Charlotte knows this is the only way to provide for her future.
What she doesn’t know is that her married life will propel her into a new world: not only of duty and longed-for children, but secrets, grief, unexpected love and friendship, and a kind of freedom.
This is not a book for Austen purists, as Helen Moffett has taken the original Pride and Prejudice characters and used that plot as a background story, for a very different and more modern tale about a woman’s secret inner life, grief and yearning for independence.
Luckily, far from a purist, I revel in anything that expands the world of a book I love and gives me a peek into what could have happened next, before or during the main action, however unlikely it may be. And I struggled to think of anything more unlikely than the cool-headed, intelligent Charlotte Lucas growing to love the excessively small-minded and silly Mr Collins. Helen Moffett deftly proved me wrong there.
One of the most interesting feelings I took away from this story was the bias I had unwittingly fallen prey to when reading Austen’s novel. Of course, we get the whole of that story from the perspective of Elizabeth Bennett, and I wholeheartedly bought into her opinions on side characters like Charlotte, Mr Collins or Anne de Bourgh. But one of the underlying themes of that story is prejudice! Lizzie is proved to be wrong in her assessments of Wickham and Darcy, and in her understanding of how Bingley would view Jane’s behaviour. So why wouldn’t she have been wrong about the others too?
Not that this book completely reimagines the characters. Mr Collins is still not the brightest or most sensitive of men, but here he is seen as human – a kind, well-meaning family man whose edges are softened by his relationship with his sensible wife. We also see a very different Anne de Bourgh, who hides behind a listless exterior by day, but adventures like a highwayman at night; I quite liked this reimagining of her as a woman of some freedom and independence behind the scenes.
This also fit thematically with Charlotte’s story, which is one of the heavy grief of motherhood woven with the fainter healing strands of time, friendship and – eventually – passion. There was a languid lack of tension throughout the story, that allowed Charlotte and the reader to follow events somewhat passively. After all, the worst had already happened at the very start of the book… everything that follows is mere survival.
I found some of the themes, particularly that of women’s rights and of the treatment of Jews, were handled in a bit of a heavy-handed way. Instead of running through the story naturally, blocks of information and opinion were slotted in, interrupting the flow of the story. Similarly, I found it very hard to believe that a woman of Charlotte’s personality, place and time would speak freely to a young, handsome tradesman about her menses, childbirth or her sexual relations with her husband! As a narrative trick to tell the reader about such things, it felt clumsy and anachronistic.
Other than these small inconsistencies, however, I felt that the blending of modern attitudes (equality, openness) with Austen’s characters and setting worked to interesting effect, and really got me thinking about the issues and personalities in new ways. While a slow and mostly undramatic read, it adds nicely to the canon of classical spin-offs and retellings and so is worth reading, for Austen fans, on that basis.
Charlotte was tired to the bone. Tired of the universally acknowledged truism: that a single woman of no great fortune must be in want of a life, at the beck and call of all who might find her momentarily useful, a blank template waiting for the impress of others. Standing in a lane she had walked since childhood, a shuttlecock batted between the lives of others, she struggled to master sensations of both entrapment and aimlessness.– Helen Moffett, Charlotte
Charlotte is available on Amazon (and at other bookshops!) right now.