The Exploits And Adventures Of Miss Alethea Darcy (Darcy #2), by Elizabeth Aston
This was a hard novel to really appreciate. Throughout her body of work, Elizabeth Aston has written a lot about the Darcy family as she imagines them in the next generation, making these novels anachronistic in their dealing with concerns and behavior that is more au currant than it was of the times that she is supposed to be writing in, roughly the period just before the Victorian age, when English royalty was at a particularly decadent level. Both the hero and heroine of this particular novel are meant by the author to be highly appealing to contemporary audiences but also somewhat daring to the past in ways that I thought undercut their appeal to me personally. Alethea Napier (nee Darcy) makes a disastrous misalliance for understandable reasons–she is on the rebound from someone who took her virginity but did not propose marriage and falls in love with a superficially charming and wealthy person who ends up being an abusive and insanely jealous flagellant who openly keeps his mistress in his house as a torment to his young wife, who quite naturally seeks to escape him and brings upon herself the madcap adventures of this novel.
Nor is the young woman alone in being a magnet for drama. The romantic hero here is equally troubled, one Titus Manningtree, a PTSD afflicted veteran of the Napoleonic wars where he fought with Wellington in Spain and at Waterloo who is off to stop the ever-villainous George Warren in order to retrieve a Titian painting that has gone missing under strange circumstances in Italy that his father bought for reasons unknown. Manningtree is brooding and handsome, a rather Byronic hero of sorts (and one who claims a friendship with Byron, which makes sense), but while he is insightful enough to recognize Alathea’s capers in a pants role as she tries to escape her horrifying marriage and find a life as a free woman, he has the downside of having carried on in an openly adulterous relationship for several years with a woman who, as soon as she was a widow, eloped with her Italian voice teacher. Meanwhile, there is a near-deadly duel, a mugging, Alethea’s brave attempts to avoid being charged with the murder of her husband when he is killed in darkly mysterious circumstances, family quarrels over who believes Alethea’s tales of domestic abuse, and some very unpleasant efforts to try to save herself (while pretending to be a young man) from the unwanted attentions of various homosexuals. Even if the book ends happily, it often seems as if Alethea, for all her spunk and resilience, simply cannot catch a break.
Nevertheless, even if the plot is exciting, it is all too evident that the author frequently forgets that she is writing a novel set in the 19th century among respectable young women (and men) of the gentry and aristocracy and instead tries to win the Lambda Award for best Austen adaptation. One of the most charming aspects of Austen’s writings was her sense of restraint, in the way that she avoided trying to write about those whose perspective she could not grasp even as she dealt in a quiet and understated way with the realities of her time and the restrictions that were placed on women. Austen did not write strident and tawdry novels about the seamier sides of life in her times, even though she was certainly aware of them–there are references to duels and to adultery and illegitimate children in Austen’s writings, but nothing as descriptive as what we find here, and certainly nothing as dispiriting and tawdry. The author would have been well-served to ponder what restraint and wit has made Austen endure rather than pandering to contemporary decadence.