A throwaway line inspires this latest Pride and Prejudice spin-off – when Mr Bennet remarks to Elizabeth that ‘I would not give up Mr. Collins’s correspondence for any consideration’, Rose Servitova’s imagination took over about what the possible contents of such a correspondence might be. Starting from the very first missive, with which loyal Austen readers will be already familiar, and tracking all the way to the day when Mr Bennet move on to his heavenly home, Servitova chronicles the relationship between the two men and their respective families. It is perhaps surprising that nobody seems to have tried to fictionalise Mr Collins’ correspondence before since he has long been a byeword for overly effusive thank you letters. By contrast however, Mr Bennet was always known for the tardiness of his responses, so the two together balance out into one of the more whimsical Austen spin-offs that I can ever remember reading.
Unlike so many authors of spin-offs, Servitova has no obvious axe to grind. Where Jean Rhys struck a blow for Mrs Rochester in The Wide Sargasso Sea and Jo Baker pointed out that servants have feelings too in Longbourn, here we see Mr Bennet and Mr Collins grow over time and mature, the latter becomes a father and the former a grandfather. There are times indeed where things are almost too gentle, with Mr Bennet in particular a little too twinkly-eyed for true character consistency. Still, the idea that he might have come to care for his pompous and rather ridiculous younger cousin is not an unpleasant one and Servitova chronicles his growing affection for the man over a number of years so it is not entirely unbelievable. While early on he wrote, ‘We none of use would rob Charlotte Lucas or any of the Lucases one moment of pleasure in your company‘, as the letters draw to a close, he instead writes ‘Come at once, if you please, my heir and friend‘. His stern words of warning when his cousin’s livelihood came under threat were also clearly borne from genuine concern – it is so easy for modern readers to turn against Mr Bennet, it is a little refreshing to find a writer who is sympathetic.
The major players of Pride and Prejudice exist solely in the background of this novel and are mainly heard of via the birth and marriage announcements shared between their two relatives. I was struck and mildly puzzled by the way that Servitova appeared to choose names which would have been associated with the middle and working classes for the offspring born to the upper class Bingleys and Darcys while the Collinses children all tended to have more aristocratic names. It was not surprising that Mr Collins named all of his children to please his patroness but the other names struck me as a slight note of discord in an otherwise plausible book. I particularly enjoyed the idea of Mr Collins storing up his ‘great passages’ for the marriage of Miss De Bourgh to Mr Darcy and his frustration at being continually thwarted at using them – this seemed entirely in keeping with the sycophant so celebrated in the original novel.
The Longbourn Letters is a piece of fan fiction in the best possible meaning of the term – written by a fan, for the fans and true fans will delight. Far from the scenes of passionate speeches and grand declarations, this is about two men squabbling over who grows the best vegetables and ending up liking each other despite their reservations. A lovely Austen-in-August treat!
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on January 1st 1970
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