Following the end of World War II, young American Maggie Joyce is living and working in war-torn London. Desperate not to return home to the tiny Pennsylvania town where her family lives quietly and uninterestingly, Maggie has made her way through Europe and settled in England, where she makes new friends through her work with the American government’s administrative offices abroad and visits the countryside.
It’s on one of these outings to a historic home in Derbyshire that Maggie first hears a story behind a story: that of the “real” Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, beloved characters from Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride & Prejudice. Desperate for something to distract her from the trials of the post-war world, Maggie goes off in search of Beth and Jack Crowell, an English couple who claim to have ties to Elizabeth and Darcy — or Elizabeth Garrison and William Lacey, as they were so called. Beth shares letters and diary entries with Maggie, somehow desiring to prove what they claim is real, and Maggie eagerly devours the information — all while entertaining the interests of the Crowells’ son, Michael. A hot-and-cold romance with an American pilot adds another dimension to Maggie’s life, simultaneously delighting and frustrating her.
And me, as a reader.
My desire to love Mary Lydon Simonsen’s Searching For Pemberley was palpable, but I never quite got there. To start, I realized something dangerous about the book almost right away:
I don’t want to believe Jane Austen’s characters were based on real people.
Isn’t part of the intrigue of Austen that this clever, intelligent and witty woman wrote some of the most lasting novels in the English language — books that are still read and loved more than one hundred and fifty years later — and never married herself? That she lived with her sister and mother until her untimely death, and that her manuscripts were largely crafted in her very own room? That we have no substantial evidence of any great romance in her life, save one hastily accepted (and then rejected) marriage proposal in her twenties? That she knew so much of love, and could articulate it so well, but we can never quite know what was in her own heart?
I’ll tell you, it is for me — and reading a book that suggests, but not in an unkind way, that Austen “borrowed” the stories of a real family, the Garrisons, and made both their follies and triumphs public actually hurt me. Hurt me. Though the romantic in me wants to believe Darcy was a real person, when I actually sit down and think about my fantastic Miss Austen merely lifting a true story and changing it slightly, I’m bothered. Just the suggestion bothers me.
But let’s put that aside for a moment. Searching For Pemberley functions, for me, far better as historical fiction than any sort of romance. As a character, I found Maggie flat and unemotional — and Simonsen’s writing, while skilled, lacks the nuance I would expect from a love story. The novel is full of telling and less showing, and if I were to play a drinking game whereby I took a shot every time a character launched into a monologue? I’d be sloshed by the 100-page mark. Or sooner. I can’t speak to the “dialogue” because there really wasn’t any — it was mostly Jack launching into a story about his romance with Beth, or Rob talking about the horrendous things he saw during World War II. As a reader, I didn’t feel engaged with what was happening — it was like putting on a documentary and sitting back with a cup of coffee. I wasn’t in the action.
The novel functions better as a look at post-war life in England than as an Austen story, even, and I hate to say that . . . but it’s true. I was most interested in the stories of Beth and Jack Crowell because, unlike William and Elizabeth’s tale, they weren’t ones I already knew. And while I wanted to cheer for Maggie and hoped she would find true love, I simply found it difficult to care about her. For as reserved and unemotional as she was and seemed, I reserved my own emotional attachment.
But there is plenty going on — and plenty to discuss. Simonsen certainly knows her subject, and her details about life during the world wars are specific and heartbreaking. For readers interested in World War II and life for the citizens it most affected, both in the fighting and at home, there’s plenty of material to process and digest. And for literature fans who don’t shudder at the thought that Elizabeth and Darcy really were two proud, prejudiced people? This one might make a nice addition to your Austen library.
3 out of 5!