Review: Follies Past, Melanie Kerr

 I was sent a copy of this by Petticoat Press in exchange for an honest review.  It took nearly a month to arrive and when it finally did, it was accompanied with an apology from the Canadian postal service which made me laugh.  I have mentioned on more than one occasion that I am a bit of an Austen fan.  This book serves as a prequel to Pride and Prejudice and came with a host of favourable reviews so I was intrigued to see if this was going to be a lovely Longbourn or a dreadful Death Comes to Pemberley.  Only a week or so ago, I read Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey and really enjoyed it, I think that the secret to writing well in the Austen-verse is to look at the stories from a fresh perspective.  Although there was much to praise in Kerr’s book, I am not entirely sure that she did.

Kerr looks at the life of the people in Mr Darcy’s circle before they ever encountered the good folk of Meryton.  Caroline Bingley is trying to ‘increase her family’s intimacy’ with the name of Darcy, Lady Catherine is preparing the rectory for her new curate, Georgiana is fretting about coming out in society and predictably, Mr Wickham is plotting something nefarious.  What impressed me from the very beginning was how well Kerr was able to maintain her use of authentic language.  While PD James’ novel was very bumpy in that regard, Kerr’s prose is always elegant and even.

This novel sets out to tell the story behind Georgiana’s intended elopement, the dark story behind Mr Darcy’s letter to Miss Elizabeth.  I have seen that story done in so many different ways.  In Mr Darcy’s Diary, he had raped Georgiana and she was left wondering whether or not she was pregnant.  In more modern portrayals, Bride and Prejudice had Wickham date ‘Georgie’ and abandon her while pregnant, necessitating a hasty abortion.  Lost in Austen cast Georgiana as the aggressor with Wickham too honourable to shame her through the truth.  The Lizzie Bennet Diaries had him be her swim coach who allowed Darcy to pay him off to abandon her.  Longbourn suggested something very sinister about Wickham’s predilection for fifteen year-old girls as he attempted to seduce the Bennet family scullery maid.  Follies Past keeps to a rather more decorous view of Regency life but still has its own perspective on What Happened Last Summer.

Caroline Bingley

I had very high hopes as this novel began.  Caroline Bingley spending Christmas at Pemberley was an absolute treat.  Convinced that Darcy would make her an offer, she naturally decided that the most logical thing to do would be to throw her weight around as much as possible to mark her authority for the servants as their future mistress.  It was entirely believable.  Her long pre-battle discussions with her sister concerning appropriate dress to attract Mr Darcy were also highly enjoyable.  Still, I found my credulity stretched when Caroline appeared to fall instead for Mr Wickham.  Caroline was many things but her main character trait was snobbery.  Her snooty disdain for those lower down the social ladder defines her far more than mere mercantile motivations.  The Bingleys had money.  They did not need more.  They needed rank.  The Bennets provided neither, hence their disdain.  Mr Darcy’s main attraction was that he owned Pemberley.  I could not imagine Caroline going anywhere near Wickham without thorough research beforehand.

Show me.  Don’t tell me.

I found Georgiana rather lifeless, despite the story being centred on her near-destruction, she was obviously not the lead heroine.  Her very dear friend Clare Langford had that honour but Clare was not particularly interesting either.  Kerr told us confidently that Clare had many virtues and an excellent character but she never showed us those.  For me, this was the major weakness of her novel.  The reader was constantly being told about character points without them being shown.  In the original, we know that Kitty and Lydia are dizzy and silly, we see them running about the ballroom with the officers.  We hear them arguing over bonnets.  We hear Mr Bennet loudly complaining about them. We sense Elizabeth’s shame.  Austen never needed to tell us.

That being said, there was much to be enjoyed here.  I particularly appreciated the further glimpses of Anne De Bourgh, who seemed increasingly eccentric as the novel progressed.  Anne De Bourgh is a muffled character in Pride and Prejudice; Elizabeth takes no interest in her and neither does the reader.  The idea that she sat in silence simply because she had no interest other than scandal and botany made me laugh.  I also imagined her silently hoping that Darcy and Elizabeth would marry in haste so that she could gain her inheritance.  Every time that Lady Catherine strode onto the page was also invariably a hoot.  Kerr has clearly done her research on the novel and knows her time period well.

For as long as there are books, there will be spin-offs from Pride and Prejudice.  I enjoyed this one, much as I did Maya Slater’s Mr Darcy’s Diary several years ago and indeed this one did seem loosely believable.  The problem comes from the fact that Austen was generally pushing her own ideas in her books.  Mansfield Park was about slavery, Northanger Abbey was about novels, Sense and Sensibility was about romanticism and Pride and Prejudice was about marriage.  Not just marriage, but why you should and should not enter into that institution.  It is difficult to add anything to a book that is quite so water-tight.  I think that Kerr is a gifted writer and that she has taken great care to craft an authentic piece of historical fiction but unfortunately this book did not have the same beating heart as its ancestor.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Follies Past by Melanie Kerr
on October 6th 2015
Pages: 280
Goodreads
ISBN: 9780992131036


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4 thoughts on “Review: Follies Past, Melanie Kerr

  1. Hmmm…I wish I could remember the title. I read it several years ago and remember enjoying it very much. But I don't remember anything about it except that it was a J.A. spin-off and that it was funny. I'll muse on it today and see if I can remember the title.

  2. Hmm indeed, it's annoying when the titles of books you like slip your mind. I remember quite liking Mr Darcy's Diary, mainly because the banter between him and his old valet was just really funny. Still, really good Austen spin-offs are few and far between. Follies Past was not the worst by any stretch of the imagination.

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