This is an update of ‘Pride & Prejudice’ with an unusual premise: what if our beloved Jane Austen was to somehow find herself in California in the year 1999. What type of book would ‘Pride & Prejudice’ have been if Jane Austen had been writing it now?
Elizabeth Bennet lives with her large family in Ohio. The Bennet family comprises the lugubrious Mr Bennet, who hides away from his family in his den, Mrs Bennet, who is a bit of a social climber, and five children, John, Lizzy, Mary, Kitty and Lydon (yes, the Bennet children are mixed sex here, with a Bennet brother oldest and youngest). Lydon is married to Jenny, the daughter of an army Brigadier General, being persuaded to marry after he was caught in a somewhat compromising situation with her. Although Mr Bennet was lucky enough to inherit a beautiful house he hasn’t made much of an effort to better the family’s financial situation and Mrs Bennet is still bitter that her husband was overlooked for an inheritance, which instead went to his estranged sister, Evelyn. The story begins with the Bennets receiving word that Evelyn Bennet has died. She hasn’t fulfilled Mrs Bennet’s dearest wishes by righting wrongs and leaving Mr Bennet all her money. Instead, Elizabeth, who was Evelyn’s goddaughter, has been appointed as Executor of the estate and received instructions to oversee the creation of a non-profit enterprise, the purpose of which is to act as a public library for all the citizens of Lambtown, California. Evelyn has requested that she keep her bequest a secret, but without giving a reason for the secrecy.
Lizzy hopes to go to Lambtown alone, but she is foiled in this by her mother, who wants to take the whole family along to try and iron out this inheritance issue. Mr Bennet can’t be bothered opposing her, so they rent out the house for a year, and the entire Bennet family goes to California. They find Lambtown a sharply-divided community. On the one hand there are the families who are members of the Enclave, a country club where the members are all rich ranch or vineyard owners – the conversation revolves around horseracing, horse breeding or polo. At the other end of the scale there are the Mexican migrant workers, some of whom are in the country illegally. Lizzy isn’t that impressed with the young people she meets from the Enclave:
“The people around here are insufferable! They’re so class-conscious and self-satisfied, as if just being rich made them important.”However, she is more impressed and flattered by the dashing George Carrillo (who goes by the name Jorge Carrillo), who is descended from Mexicans who immigrated to the area many years ago, before people of European origin arrived there. Jorge pours a tale of woe and land-snatching into Lizzy’s ears and she’s eager to listen. Jorge has cultivated a persona of somebody in touch with the land which his family has had roots in for many years, and Lizzy really gets caught up in the romance of the idea. Obviously as this is a ‘Pride & Prejudice’ retelling, we the readers won’t be so easily fooled and will realise Jorge isn’t the person he’s making himself out to be.
John Bennet, Lizzy’s older brother, is gay, which I thought adds a different dynamic to possible objections to a relationship between Jane Bennet/Charles Bingley of canon; these days a person’s relatives being a bit uncouth is not such a barrier, but becoming part of a gay couple when you’re not officially out in a small community that you fear may not accept you is a believable barrier that could prevent a relationship if Bingley isn’t completely committed to taking that irrevocable step:
“Charley certainly is good-natured and he has a way of disarming even those who might be prejudiced against him – this a pretty conservative area you know.”You may be wondering, what of Darcy? Well he’s here but in my opinion he doesn’t really get enough page time. I would have liked to have seen more interaction with him and Lizzy so you could see his feelings towards her grow. As it is, aside from insulting her within her hearing, he is just a very quiet man who Elizabeth has decided to hate mostly in what appears to be a fit of inverse snobbery. She is determined from the first that the people with money are bad and those with none are good and of course, things are really not that simple. There is certainly more that the rich people of Lambtown could be doing for the poorer in the community, and a huge amount of snobbery going on, but Lizzy lives up to the title of the book and takes some steps which are guaranteed to set people’s backs up at a time when she should really be being a bit more humble and currying favour with the powerful people in the community to ensure her aunt’s bequest to the community can succeed.
Style-wise, this book really stands out, because it’s not entirely modern. There are quite a few lines of text taken from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or in the style of that book, but in a modern setting. I wouldn’t have thought that this would work, but I felt that it actually worked really well. It is like modern circumstances being described in an older style:
“I give you permission to like him John; such a paragon of every imagined virtue indeed cries out for admiration. And it’s important to take care that we admire those who admire us already: it makes for a pleasing symmetry in our social relations.”One thing I always enjoy about reading Jane Austen is her humour, she would add in some very dry asides and droll utterances, and there were some nice instances of a similar humour here, such as Mr Bennet’s reflections to his wife on the loss of Mr Collins’ society:
“Morris Collins’s conversation was indeed a joy to us all, and I for one shall miss it,” remarked Mr. Bennet. “Greatly though I valued his discourse, however, I can’t go so far as to say that we are bereft of any joy when deprived of it. After all, there remain all the pleasures of your company, my dear.”I thought the plot of this book stayed very close to ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in so far as the relationships between the characters went. Though quite a few plot points were different, such as the library and the Lydia/Wickham storyline is entirely altered as Lydia here is Lydon, a male and neither he nor Jorge are interested in each other that way. For those who like to know these things there are no sex scenes in this book. In fact, at one point a character mentions 'sleeping with' somebody and I was actually quite shocked!
I felt the spirit of the update was very close to ‘Pride & Prejudice’ and some of the changes in the plot were to make it work in modern times. I very much enjoyed reading this book. I enjoyed the author’s style particularly, the mix of the old and new language, and the humour, and I’d rate it as a 4½ star read.
*I received a copy of this book in return for my honest review.
As I said at the beginning of the post, Abigail Bok is giving away three paperback copies of 'An Obstinate, Headstrong Girl' to commenters on this blog, open internationally. To enter, all you need to do is comment on the giveaway post, and you can comment on this review for a bonus entry. The giveaway closes on Monday 25 May. Please note this giveaway is now closed. Please leave a way for me to contact you should you be the winner.