“I am so wearied by the common way” writes Charlotte Collins (once Charlotte Lucas) in a letter she will never send. The quiet, modest, less clever and less lovely friend of Elizabeth Bennet — now Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy — has made her choice. Bending to the needs of her father and the demands of society and custom, Charlotte has married and become a wife. And, had she not lost her son, she would even now be a mother. The common way has turned an intelligent, compassionate woman into a shadow of herself as she plays the role of Mrs. Collins. She sits quietly at Rosings, she sits quietly in church, she sits quietly all the days of her life until, unexpected and unsought out, Charlotte has the chance to rise to her feet and make a stand.
This is not a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and you need not be overly familiar with Austen’s work to be able to read and enjoy this story. It would add some background, but isn’t necessary to understand the story here of a woman who finds herself made less — who struggles to conform without giving up, entirely, on herself while living a lie. Wed to a man she neither loves nor likes, who is neither a friend nor even a foe, who is just … a fool, and one she holds in contempt without compassion, Charlotte writes letters to the ghost of her dearest friend instead of a diary.
By penning these unsent letters, she may be more censurious of those around her, poke more fun at their foibles, and make light of their small pettinesses in a way she can’t to anyone else, having no other confidant. Here she can imagine that these letters will be read by someone who knows her and loves her, who can be made privy to all of her secrets, share in her amusement, and yet, at the same time, has become a warped reflection of Charlotte’s own dissatisfaction at herself, who can be held as a critic of her thoughts and actions and who will bear witness to her own sour, bitter unhappiness.
Charlotte loved Lizzy, knowing that it was one-sided, knowing that Lizzy was only ever a friend. And to sit and watch as someone else courted her, to watch as Lizzy fell in love with someone else, it adds an extra layer of poignancy to her swift and matter of fact acceptance of Mr Collins’ offer of marriage. But when someone new enters her small circle of acquaintance at Rosings, Charlotte’s life is thrown akimbo because Miss Ailsa Reid, cousin to the doctor dancing attendance upon Lady’s Catherine’s daughter, is nothing familiar.
Ailsa is warm and spirited, much like Lizzy, but where Lizzy was bright with flash and wit, Ailsa is softer, gentler, and someone more akin to Charlotte’s own temper. It starts as an easy friendship, but quickly moves to something more, something wonderful and unexpected as Charlotte finds in Ailsa a kindred spirit in all the ways she never knew she wanted. Kisses that make her feel, touches that she welcomes rather than endures, and whenever the two are together Charlotte can feel nothing but joy.
No more does she write of how Lizzy must look down on her for accepting Mr. Collins; now it’s rapturous descriptions of she and Ailsa at tea, laughing, walking, embracing, making love … or even just being in the same room. Charlotte feels no shame in this, no sense of doing wrong by society, only a brief awareness that Mr Collins, should he discover, would be both angered and hurt.
I will not allow myself to veil my sin by linguistic mincing about. I have been unfaithful. I would— I will— be unfaithful again, should the opportunity arise. The infidelity of my flesh is as nothing, of no consequence, compared to the waywardness of my heart and soul. Even at that very moment, waiting for the door to be opened, for Travis to inform me of [my husband’s] return, I could feel her breath upon me. I could taste her sweet kisses on my lips. I was blushing. I was torn by guilt. I was defiant. If he could not tell from the merest glance, then he must be a greater dunce than ever even your papa would have reckoned him.
For me, that’s one of the few small flaws in this book,. Mr. Collins is painted as being a fool, but for someone who is such a large part of Charlotte’s life, he never actually makes much of an appearance. Ailsa’s brother has more time spent on him, has more to do with Charlotte and his cousin than Mr. Collin’s has to do with his own wife. The second problem, and the larger one I had is the later portion of this book.
The first half or two-thirds of this book is so well written that, while it isn’t quite in Austen’s style or voice, it is obviously written by someone who loves Austen’s worlds and stories (and similar stories) because it’s so well done, and Charlotte’s character comes through in her letters in painful, raw honesty. And then the tone takes an abrupt shift. I wondered, as I got further into the book, if it was going to turn into a murder mystery. Instead, it becomes more of an adventure story and begins to feel less and less a cousin to Austen’s works and more something with an edge of the fantastical. I’m a sucker for Austen retellings, and the writing in this book was engaging, but the second half just didn’t do it for me, story-wise. I also felt as if the characters began to take a back seat to the excitement rather than being the focus of it. Though because the entire book is filtered through Charlotte’s letters, and for a moment a letter from Ailsa, you’re never not aware of the people in the story.
As I vowed to myself then, and as I must repeat, each morning, ever since: I refuse to be the tragic heroine of a Shakespearean romance. I will not commit a double offence upon my soul by letting my spirit be crushed by those who pretend to control my hapless limbs. I shall live. Lord help me, but I shall.
I enjoyed watching Charlotte cast off her own insecurities and embrace both her love for Ailsa and Ailsa’s love for her. Her character arc is so very well done and Ailsa’s spirit and goodness are a perfect match to Charlotte’s own need to put others before herself. This was a fun story I read in one session, and — I know, I say this a lot, but good writing is addictive — I’m adding this author to my watch list.