The Second Mrs. Darcy (Darcy #4), by Elizabeth Aston
I have to say that this book is my favorite of the Darcy series I have read–and this is the fifth book I have read of that series. Although there are certainly problematic aspects of this book (more on those below), the book certainly has fewer of them and has an appealing heroine with her head on her shoulders that is certainly a fitting figure for feminist wish-fulfillment of the sort that this book is. Again, though, one senses that the author has a secret (or not-very secret) sense of disdain for the men in her novels, as she portrays the romantic hero as one who is somewhat fierce and whose honorable nature is undercut by his willingness to entangle himself in a long adulterous relationship. Although he is very rich and politically powerful, are we really supposed to be quick to believe that this man is going to settle down loyally and easily to a wife as bluntly honest as Octavia Darcy, whose claim to that name comes from being the second wife of a cousin of the more famous Darcys who was impoverished by a first wife who had gambled away much of his own fortune. And how is the odious George Warren the next male heir in the entail of Darcy’s estate? How did this happen? I need to see a family tree.
As far as the plot goes, this particular novel is very episodic. We begin in India, where Octavia mourns the death of her husband and then finds out a few days later (this bit is crucial) that she has inherited a lot of money and property from a great-aunt she never knew about whose family was big in the Indian tea business. She returns to England where her seven older half-siblings (which explains her name) want her to marry again and are upset that she shows no inclination to seek their advice or welcome their attempts at influencing her, and after interfering in the politics of a Yorkshire rotten borough she happens to be the new landowner of to place her tenant in the House of Commons she sets up a household with an actress named Lady Susan (not that one). Meanwhile she is consumed by helping her niece with her attachment to a cleric, dealing with her complicated feelings for Lord Sholto Rutherford, who has been entangled in a longtime adulterous relationship and could use a wife and children to carry on the family name, and whose sister is definitely in full spinsterhood in her mid 30’s, but suddenly attracted to a charming London banker. Meanwhile, the hateful George Warren is trying to scheme to control Octavia’s new-found fortune, and the author works busily to tie up these (and other!) various loose ends in a proper deus ex machina fashion.
While this novel is certainly the best I have read of the series, it does demonstrate the author’s flaws even if in more mild fashion than usual. For one, the author seems obsessed with referring to Regency and Victorian homosexual behavior, and manages to have some of her characters accuse Octavia of lesbian tendencies, something which she seems deliberately intent on quashing, to the point of being reluctant to play Viola in some Netherfield (yes, that Netherfield) dramatics because it happens to be a breeches role. For another, the author simply cannot make her characters sufficiently honorable. Even though Octavia is a decent woman (if a bit too feminist for her time, likely to make her more appealing as a figure for contemporary audiences), Sholto has all kinds of lady trouble in unappealing ways, being pushed to prey on a young and not very bright Miss Goulding of Meryton (yes, that one), being entangled with an adulterous relationship of long standing and being pursued by a young widow and being a bit irritated about these circumstances and womenfolk in general. It would be nice if the author could avoid trying to write late 20th and early 21st century feminist wish fantasies that dwell too much on contemporary sins while portraying them as Regency and early Victorian-era novels that miss the most important parts of Jane Austen’s framing of her heroes and heroines as being honorable people in a frequently dishonorable world, but it seems unlikely that will happen at this point.