I first became familiar with Mary Simonsen when she published Pemberley Remembered in 2007. Now that book has been republished in expanded form by Sourcebooks under the title Searching for Pemberley. My husband and I read this book aloud to each other, which proved a great way to weather the enormous snow storm we had over the weekend. It is the story of an American, Maggie Joyce, who while working in post-World War II London becomes intimate with a family, the Crowells, who are the direct descendants of the Laceys, the historic counterparts of the fictional Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. What is most striking about the book is the juxtaposition between England in the Regency period and England in the post-war era, achieved through the Lacey family's surviving letters and diaries, which provide a slightly altered account of the Pride and Prejudice plot, and bleak accounts like the following:
"If you are thinking about going to Canterbury, I should tell you that the city was bombed heavily during the Baedeker raids. The cathedral had some damage, but the chapter library and many of the buildings near the cathedral were completely destroyed." Neither Rob nor I had ever heard of the Baedeker raids, so I asked Mrs. Ives if they were a part of the Blitz.
"No, the Blitz was in 1940-41," Mrs. Ives replied. "According to Lord Haw Haw, the British traitor used by the Nazis for their radio broadcasts, the Baedeker raids were in retaliation for the RAF bombing of German cities. Using Baedeker's Guide to Great Britain, cities that received three stars in the tourist guide because of their historical importance were bombed by the Luftwaffe. Before Canterbury was bombed in June 1942, Exeter, Bath, and York were also bombed."
For anyone who loves English literature, who has traveled to Canterbury with Chaucer, to Bath with Jane Austen, and has wandered along the Arno with Forster's Lucy Honeychurch, Baedeker in hand, this passage must evoke heartache. The stoicism with which the British people endured such destruction continually impresses the reader of this book.
Searching for Pemberley portrays an England humbled. There are still parties and balls amongst the upper crust, reminiscent of those their ancestors attended but for the understandable limitations of banqueting on rations and the patched clothing of the attendees. Also, the Derbyshire of the late 1940's is a far more egalitarian place than that Austen depicted and those who used to live below stairs are now invited to dine side by side with the heirs. The old social order that hindered Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship has been decimated by the two World Wars; while decaying Georgian mansions dot the country side, a reminder of past glory, England is now a strikingly different place. Yet despite all the deprivation, great love can still blossom and flourish just a successfully as it did in Austen's time, perhaps more so. Gone are the stringent moral strictures, though hint of them remains in characters like Mrs. Dawkins, with whom Maggie boards. The characters are free to explore each other in ways which would have led the Bennet ladies to utter ruin, as by the 1940's "loss of virtue in a female" isn't quite so irretrievable. There is no graphic sexual content in this book but sex is present in a way that it is not in Austen's work, understandable when taking into consideration what is emphasized in this novel: the difference 150 years can (and cannot) make.
I greatly enjoyed the new part of the book, which brings Maggie back to her small, Eastern Pennsylvanian, coal mining hometown. It is the most humorous part of the story, though depressed coal country isn't a much more uplifting setting then war worn England. I especially enjoyed the character of Maggie's grandfather, a caricature of the cantankerous old man very reminiscent of Austen in his universal familiarity. Most of Ms. Simonsen's characterizations have a hint of Austen to them: they are the inhabitants of small towns, revealing themselves through their actions, and are archetypal. The only one who I never managed to establish much sympathy with is our heroine, Maggie. I found her somewhat frustrating and kept mentally invoking Anne Elliot's silent censure as I read: "... she had a delicacy which must be pained by any lightness of conduct in a well-meaning young woman, and a heart to sympathize in any of the sufferings it occasioned ...." As I do not wish to spoil the story for those who have not read it, I shall say no more of the matter.
I am very pleased to say that Ms. Simonsen is a follower of this blog and has kindly offered to do an interview with me about her work on January 11th. I have never done anything of the sort before so please indulge me with your patience, as I will surely stumble my way through the endeavor. I am particularly interested in learning more about her experience with the publishing industry (as she has achieved what I hope to), her relationship with Austen's novels, and her foray in to the paranormal with Mr. Darcy on the Eve of All Saints' Day. Please stop by and check it out!