Book Review: Unequal Affection: A Pride and Prejudice Retelling

When Elizabeth Bennet first knew Mr. Darcy, she despised him and was sure he felt the same. Angered by his pride and reserve, influenced by the lies of the charming Mr. Wickham, she never troubled herself to believe he was anything other than the worst of men–until, one day, he unexpectedly proposed.Mr. Darcy’s passionate avowal of love causes Elizabeth to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about him. What she knows is that he is rich, handsome, clever, and very much in love with her. She, on the other hand, is poor, and can expect a future of increasing poverty if she does not marry. The incentives for her to accept him are strong, but she is honest enough to tell him that she does not return his affections. He says he can accept that–but will either of them ever be truly happy in a relationship of unequal affection?

Diverging from Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice at the proposal in the Hunsford parsonage, this story explores the kind of man Darcy is, even before his “proper humbling,” and how such a man, so full of pride, so much in love, might have behaved had Elizabeth chosen to accept his original proposal.

While I’m a fan of Pride and Prejudice (and all of Jane Austen’s works), I’ve never read a P&P spin-off or retelling or any of the other hundreds of variations on the story. Somehow, I stumbled across Unequal Affection, and thought the premise was interesting enough to make me want to give it a try. And I’m glad I did.

In a nutshell, what would have happened if Elizabeth Bennet had not refused Mr. Darcy’s initial proposal?

Yes, all the circumstances leading to this moment remain the same as in the original. Elizabeth is stuck on her initial impressions of Darcy, dislikes him, and believes he dislikes her. She’s flabbergasted by his proposal, and insulted by his presentation of it, especially by his statements about how inferior she and her family are to him.

But what if? It’s not unreasonable to think that a young woman in Elizabeth’s situation might actually pause and consider. Here’s a very wealthy, very prominent man, educated and handsome, who says he’s in love with her. He’s offering her a life beyond anything she could imagine. And what’s more, he’s prepared to care for her mother and sisters and provide them with a secure future, rather than the poverty that seems to be lurking just over the horizon.

Now, we know that Elizabeth is an unusual woman for her time. She’s outspoken in her likes and dislikes, and has sworn that she’ll marry for love. But, here is a man who loves her and is offering her a secure life. Is it so farfetched to think she’d at least consider his offer?

In Unequal Affection, she does just that. She asks for time to consider, rather than rejecting him on the spot. She’s stunned to learn of his regard for her, and realizes that she may need to rethink her former opinions of him. From there, the story follows the seven weeks from Darcy’s proposal to the agreed-upon wedding, during which both have time to get to know one another properly and to acknowledge their faulty assumptions and mistreatment of one another.

It’s interesting to see how some familiar scenes play out. Lady Catherine’s visit to Longbourn still takes place, with much the same tone, but with the circumstances rather different. Lydia’s elopement is prevented before it ever happens, because with Darcy as the future brother-in-law, her well-being is now his concern as well. Certain secrets come out much later, so that Wickham’s undermining of Darcy is allowed to continue much longer — but even so, this gives Elizabeth time to start to realize that Wickham’s charm might be a cover for a lack of character.

Overall, Unequal Affection is quite charming and well-written. This clever retelling lets us see familiar events unfold differently, and yet the dialogue and writing style feel very true to the spirit of Jane Austen’s masterpiece. The developing understanding and affection between Elizabeth and Darcy work in light of what we already know about them, and this different path to marriage feels quite natural and plausible.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I mean, if the original is perfect, why tinker with it? Author Lara Ormiston proves that there can still be something new to say about a classic, and presents an engaging, compelling tale about favorite characters in a brand new way.

And now, a question: For those of you who have read Austen spin-offs, are there any in particular that you consider outstanding and worth checking out? I’ve read three of the Austen Project books, and have Eligible on tap for future reading. How about any others? Recommendations welcome here!

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The details:

Title: Unequal Affection
Author: Lara S. Ormiston
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: January 7, 2014
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Fiction
Source: Purchased

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