BOOK REVIEW / They lived, not very happily, ever after: 'Pemberley' - Emma Tennant: Hodder & Stoughton, 9.99

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The Independent Online
'WHY should it be thought that, when two people want to live happily ever after, they would do so, unless they understood themselves and each other better?' Thus the mournful Mrs Darcy broods, while determining to spend the rest of her days looking after orphans in Hackney, for 'I am good with children, I earnestly believe,' she said simply, 'even if I am barren.'

Can Jane Austen's most spirited and witty heroine really have come to this? Even though she seems to be having a little difficulty conceiving, surely life with the unspeakably gorgeous Darcy, in the magnificent Derbyshire splendour of Pemberley, has compensations enough to keep her from such despair?

Apparently not. She seems to have unlearnt all the painful lessons that taught her to overcome his pride and her prejudice before their marriage. In fact, sadly, she is almost unrecognisable. She wilts under criticism, she panics in company and she dithers and flaps about domestic arrangements, despite having available to her the excellent services of Mrs Reynolds, the world's most desirable and inconspicuous housekeeper.

In the current crop of sequels, you can find yourself wondering how Susan Hill's Mrs De Winter might have managed with Mrs Reynolds, instead of being haunted by the grisly Mrs Danvers - or even whether the first Mrs Rochester might have perked up and enjoyed happy holidays in the wide Sargasso Sea if she had sacked Grace Poole and found herself a bit of sensible help in the house.

In any case, Emma Tennant's Elizabeth simply cannot cope. The story revolves around a Christmas party at Pemberley. The saintly Jane, blissfully married to Bingley and expecting her second child, will arrive in time for her confinement; Bingley's bitchy sisters will be there; Lady Catherine and her ailing daughter; flighty Lydia and her brood of wicked Wickhams; Kitty Bennet, bored by the lack of local soldiery, and silly Mrs Bennet, whose widowhood seems to have sent her right over the edge. She feels no hesitation in publicly recommending intimate methods of conceiving a son (though she never managed it herself) and announces her intention of marrying a bogus colonel with a wooden leg.

The novel becomes much more enjoyable when it breaks completely free of its famous forebear. At first, Emma Tennant's usually enjoyable and vigorous style seems to have been too constrained by the effort of trying (and sadly failing) to live up to the inimitable Austen elegance. When she relaxes a little and introduces her own characters, they may step right out of the mind of Nineties woman, but a breath of fresh air follows them.

In the proper Austen tradition, these characters are usually somebody's cousin. The sham Colonel is one, Master Roper is another. He has also come for Christmas, his visit dignified by his being the heir to Pemberley, should there be no little Darcy boys forthcoming. Like his model, Mr Collins, he is enjoyably appalling, given to entertaining the company by his 'disquisition on the habits of various piscine varieties resident in the South Atlantic' and proffering a chamber-pot for the relief of the Colonel, in the sumptuous splendour of the Pemberley dining room.

He thoroughly deserves his fate, which is to marry the plain Bennet sister, Mary, whose piano playing has not improved and whose character has become a good deal more waspish.

Towards the end, the book becomes really good fun. The plot gathers pace, galloping off into Gothic complexities involving mysterious Frenchwomen, an orphaned child of unknown parentage and scandalous gossip at the court of St James. It skeeters at breakneck speed towards a highly satisfactory conclusion, which not only leaves Mrs Darcy happily pregnant, but also clears up the little problem of why Mr Darcy discouraged his friend Bingley from marrying Jane Bennet all those years ago. You may remember that his story at the time seemed a little thin, leaving hints of something yet to be explained. Zounds] Could Jane Austen herself have been paving the way for a sequel?