I was so excited to read this book when I heard the premise; Pride and Prejudice, but with the genders swapped! So we see Miss Elizabeth Darcy, the proud granddaughter of an Earl, going into Hertfordshire to stay at the estate of the Widow Davenport (nee Bingley) where she meets William Bennet, one of five brothers, and a very poor match for an heiress like her. I thought this was a very interesting idea. I know there are Pride and Prejudice-inspired books out there with a gender-swap element, but the ones I know of are modern, and I thought that a historical gender-swap would be harder to make work due to societal constraints at the time.
The Characters: Firstly, not all of the characters are changed, although nearly all the main ones are - I thought this was entertaining in its own right in a lot of cases. Mr Bennet is a slave to his nerves, and determined to get his 5 sons married. Mrs Bennet is a reclusive alcoholic.
‘In no particular order of precedence, Flora’s main occupations were reading ribald romances, sampling grapes in all their myriad, fermented forms, and maintaining her husband’s frangible nerves’
There are five Bennet brothers, but the order is different from Pride and Prejudice. Here Martin (Mary) is the eldest and the heir to Longbourn, followed by the handsome Charles (Jane) who is apprenticed to Uncle Gardiner. William (Elizabeth) is next, he is training to be a clergyman and will be in line for the living that Longbourn can award, once the present incumbent inherits an estate, which is expected soon. William doesn’t feel he’s well-suited to be a clergyman, his dream would be to inherit an estate. Twins Christopher (Kitty) and Laurence (Lydia) follow, they are intended for the army.
The family are friends to the Lucas brothers and all look forward to the arrival of Mrs Davenport’s party, the supercilious Bingley brothers (Casper Bingley in particular I found very amusing, due to his foppish clothes and Miss Darcy’s distain for him). When Mr William Bennet meets Miss Darcy, he asks her to dance and is turned down with little ceremony, deemed only tolerable. He is teased by practically everybody about this, and his vanity turns him against Miss Darcy, so that he doesn’t realise when she falls prey to his ‘smouldering eyes’:
‘With a start, Elizabeth realised she had stared for what must have been an improper extent. Proper duration for ogling deacons was not a subject touched upon at the London seminary she had attended.’
Unfortunately for Miss Darcy, William doesn’t appreciate that she has feelings for him and he dislikes her heartily, although he feels attraction for her that he fights against admitting.
‘William’s hand dropped to his side and developed a quiver. He slowly backed away. The woman is downright dangerous. A god-awful jolt from her hand at Netherfield, and now she is the source of inexplicable palsy. Heaven help de Bourgh should he embrace her’
I thought it was interesting to see the characters with their genders swapped, William Bennet is a much less alpha male type than Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (understandable, as Darcy causes many events to happen, a role taken on by Miss Darcy here), but he’s quite light hearted and loveable. I was not impressed with his rudeness towards Miss Darcy though! Miss Darcy was a very interesting character. She was quite spoiled and used to getting anything she wanted, willing to be a bit improper and forward in achieving this aim, rude and snobby, but she was quite different behind closed doors, sweet, loving, and hoping to be loved in return. This brings me on to my next point...
Sexism – I wasn’t expecting to get this from reading the book but the way I reacted to the characters’ qualities differed when applied to the opposite gender. I really wasn’t expecting this, and it caused me to wonder how far I have double standards between the sexes. For example, the Hunsford scene in Pride and Prejudice left me feeling extremely sorry for Mr Darcy, but also fairly sorry for Elizabeth Bennet as it was a bolt out of the blue. There is a Hunsford-style scene here and I didn’t have much sympathy for William Bennet, in fact, I wanted to line up behind Lady Cassandra Fitzwilliam (Colonel Fitzwilliam!) for his blood due to his lack of gentlemanliness. Nearly all my sympathy in this scene was reserved for Miss Darcy, and the amount of forgiving she has to do over the course of the book made me feel that she was almost saintly. This certainly gave me new appreciation for Mr Darcy in P&P, the man takes on a family from a lower social class, who are not especially good company for somebody who he has loved steadfastly even though they’ve made their disdain of him clear and it’s cost him a load of money to do so! It also highlighted to me how many instances of rudeness towards Elizabeth Bennet just exist in her head, viewed through her prejudices.
Miss Collins is another character I felt differently about than her male counterpart in Pride and Prejudice, but I put this down to societal reasons – Mr Collins was full of self-importance, and Miss Collins had to be more humble, and I found her much more likable as a result, as does her cousin.
The Difficulties – The difficulties with gender swap in a historical setting seem to me to be how you get key events to happen. Getting Mr Bennet to ask Miss Darcy to dance when he doesn’t want to isn’t too hard, you have to get him forced into a situation where it would be rude not to ask (Elizabeth is impertinent to Darcy, but she doesn’t cross the line to absolute rudeness until Hunsford), the real difficulty is getting a Hunsford style scene – how can you get a situation where William Bennet would be so rude as to tell a lady that she’s the last lady in the world he would ever marry?
Also, to my understanding, a gentleman wouldn’t usually ask a lady of a higher social class to marry him, unless he had a fine fortune, which Mr Bennet doesn’t have. It’s particularly problematic that Miss Darcy is an heiress, as a man with no money proposing to a woman with a lot of it would very likely be seen as a fortune hunter by the lady’s relatives (and in 20-year old Miss Darcy’s case, her guardian, the Earl). When you add to this the fact that he doesn’t initially want to marry her at all it becomes especially problematic! I also couldn’t foresee how Laurence could be endangered by Miss Wickham. I will be fair to Ms Croft, she manages to work around all of these issues in what I felt was a plausible way, although I despaired as to how it would be possible.
The Story – the story is largely very similar, although there are areas which differ as Miss Darcy would obviously have less say over her life and movements than Mr Darcy would, although she is one hell of a heroine, she is a lady who makes things happen! There were some differences in storyline that I felt differed unnecessarily from the original, but other changes were necessary due to the gender reversal. Since Pride and Prejudice is more focused on Elizabeth’s viewpoint this is also focused on William Bennet’s view of things. I would have liked a bit more Miss Darcy, but we don’t get more Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice so I accept this!
The Wordplay – Ms Croft is obviously a lover of words, and there are quite a few puns and instances of alliteration. If you don’t like these they may begin to grate on you, but I don’t mind them. There are quite a few word-plays within the text that gave me a smile:
“Pig-headedness runs in the family, as I have often reminded you.”
“And I have steadfastly refused to believe it.”
The Areas I Felt Could Have Been Improved – Not much actually. There was the odd American word like ‘dang’ and I thought there was too much mild swearing, feeling that gentleman should have refined the language a touch more around ladies. There were some things I might like to have been different, but when I thought about it, often these were reflections of Pride and Prejudice, for example, I would have liked more time in Elizabeth’s head, but we get very little of Darcy’s feelings in P&P so it was fitting.
In Conclusion: I really enjoyed this book. I liked the initial gender swap premise, I enjoyed how the author changed things around to make it work and I appreciated that it made me reflect on my own reactions and consider new things about the original story. I found the book very readable, in fact I read the first 70% in one sitting and gave myself a headache because I didn’t want to put it down! I just couldn’t see how the author could give this couple a happy ending. I found myself thinking about this book after I read it, which is always a good sign, and I had LOADS I wanted to say about it, so kudos to you if you’ve made it to the end! For these reasons, I would rate this book as a 5 star read.