Regardless of how busy her days were, at night her mind raced with unwelcome thoughts. She feared the nightmares that sometimes followed her submission to sleep. Over the years, they had lessened, but still happened often enough to be a cause for anxiety each night as her head found the pillow. Elizabeth wished she could divulge her secrets and unburden her troubled soul… She was tired of being fearful of exposure, and she was tired of being tired.
(from Goodly Creatures, page 215)
Beth Massey’s Goodly Creatures is subtitled “A Pride and Prejudice Deviation,” and readers can expect just that. Although this retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is much darker than any other Austen-inspired novel I’ve read (different from the Gothic darkness of The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy by Regina Jeffers), I was glued to the book for the entire 600+ page ride.
In Goodly Creatures, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are connected long before he visits the Netherfield estate with Mr. Bingley and gets Mrs. Bennet all excited about the prospect of rich bachelors for the daughters she’s so desperate to marry off. Darcy meets a 15-year-old Elizabeth when she attends the theater in London with her aunt and uncle, and he is captivated by her reaction to Shakespeare’s play and her ability to make him laugh. However, when they first meet, Darcy is a married man, having entered into a marriage of convenience with his cousin, Anne, daughter of the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Darcy also is accompanied that evening by his cousin, Lord Wolfbridge, a well-known rake and a pervert who enjoys compromising teenage girls with childlike features. What happens between Elizabeth and Lord Wolfbridge during her time in London sets the tone for the entire book, sucking the life — but not the impertinence — out of Elizabeth. She is broken by this incident, vowing never to marry because of her fear of men and her fear of this secret being exposed, but she exacts revenge in a way that both protects her sisters’ reputations and ruins Darcy’s opinion of her.
When Darcy and Elizabeth cross paths five years later in Hertfordshire, they are much different people from when they first met. Elizabeth has endured years of gossip, but not even her dearest sister Jane or her father know her secret. Darcy can’t deny his attraction to her, but misunderstandings involving Anne and Mr. Wickham, the need to conceal their prior acquaintance, and the wall Elizabeth has built around her heart stand in the way of their happiness.
It’s hard to say more about the plot of Goodly Creatures without giving too much away. Massey’s take on Pride and Prejudice is quite different, and she indicates in the Acknowledgements that the novel is her way of righting the wrongs in Eliza Williams’ story in Sense and Sensibility using the basic plot and characters of Austen’s most popular novel. In doing so, she raises a valid question: What if the compromised women in Austen’s novels weren’t merely silly girls who allowed themselves to be seduced? And what follows is a story both fraught with pain and filled with hope.
I liked many things about Goodly Creatures, especially how Massey was fearless in injecting such dark themes as rape and murder into a novel I’ve always thought of as a humorous social commentary…minus Lydia Bennet’s horrible fate. I’m not an Austen purist; I can separate the original novels and characters from those of the sequels and retellings, so I don’t mind when the characters become almost unrecognizable as long as the book is unique, interesting, and well written.
I thought the various literary and political discussions were interesting and added context, and I especially loved the allusion to Austen’s Persuasion through the character of Sir Walter Trent, the longtime friend of Mr. Bennet who leases Netherfield to Mr. Bingley, moves to Bath because of his extravagant spending habits, and is overly concerned with his outward appearance — very much like Sir Walter Elliot. Massey also makes Mr. Collins more likable, and she allows us to imagine a world in which Lydia is sensible and not self absorbed and Jane is reckless and needs saving.
Although Goodly Creatures is a decent self-published novel, it would have benefited from some additional editing. I came across several typos and font formatting issues, and I grew tired of hearing Elizabeth’s secret retold in its entirety nearly every time it was disclosed to another character. There also were several scenes that were more telling than showing; one toward the end had Mr. Darcy traveling to quickly meet his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, to take care of a very major problem, and it was all resolved in a single paragraph.
Even so, I enjoyed the book and appreciate what Massey was trying to accomplish in her handling of the characters, especially Elizabeth, who is haunted by her memories of Lord Wolfbridge and focuses on the happiness of her sisters because she doesn’t believe she’ll ever be whole again. I couldn’t help but think that if Elizabeth and Darcy could overcome the obstacles Massey put in their path, then they could overcome anything. It’s amazing to think how many unique stories have been written in response to a single novel, and I just can’t get enough of them. If you love Austen-inspired novels as much as I do and don’t mind lengthy tales, then go ahead and give Goodly Creatures a try.
Disclosure: I received Goodly Creatures from the author for review.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.