Pamela Aidan’s An Assembly Such as This, A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman (2003) is a partial retelling of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) from the perspective of Mr. Darcy. It is the first in a series of three novels by Aidan that follow the story of Pride and Prejudice, and this volume covers the first part of Austen’s famous novel once the Bingleys have moved into the neighborhood bringing their friend, Mr. Darcy, with them. Aidan’s novel covers the events that take place from the Netherfield Ball up until Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley’s departure to London through Mr. Darcy’s perspective. She creates a character who looks composed and impassable on the outside but is really uncomposed and unrestrained in his thinking. In general terms, Aidan’s novel succeeds at offering an alternative perspective on the original in how it allows us to experience events through Mr. Darcy’s own thoughts and perceptions. Writing through Mr. Darcy’s eyes allows Aidan more freedom with his character, establishing his behavior among his intimate acquaintances. For instance, Aidan’s depiction of Mr. Darcy’s interactions with Mr. Bingley expand upon their established deep friendship, an understood but underplayed element of the original novel. While the reader is perhaps placed too close to the events and misses out on the nuances present in Austen’s novel, it imagines how Mr. Darcy might have processed the key moments of the romantic plot, providing us with a chance to see how a gentleman would keep his ardent feelings private while putting a cold front to the public.
In An Assembly Such as This, Aidan narrates entirely through Mr. Darcy’s viewpoint and without much meaningful or weighty regard to pride or the class divide. While class is present throughout the novel, Mr. Darcy doesn’t seem to care much about class differences. Instead, he is more concerned with Elizabeth’s feelings and perception of his character. The expressiveness of Aidan’s Darcy contrasts with the appeal of the taciturn and reserved Mr. Darcy of popular culture. Jane Austen fans find his brooding and removed nature appealing, an ideal of mature masculinity. However, Aidan’s Darcy does not tap into that appeal through her characterization of him as an overemphatic man. His thoughts and motivations are laid bare for the readers upon opening the novel. Rather than a closed-off Mr. Darcy, we are treated to an open Mr. Darcy. Her portrayal creates a sympathetic Darcy from the beginning, whereas in Austen’s text we must first see him grow and learn about him before we see beyond his cold and seemingly uncaring exterior. Aidan’s Darcy stresses how reserved Austen’s Darcy is and how his deep feelings come as a surprise when he proposes to Elizabeth.
Aidan’s Mr. Darcy breaks away from Austen’s nuanced and reserved character in key scenes. For example, at the Netherfield ball, when Mr. Darcy asks Elizabeth to dance and is rejected, the narrator explains that Mr. Darcy requested her hand “with grave propriety” and that while “[h]er resistance had not injured her with the gentleman,” Mr. Darcy “was thinking of her with some complacency” (Austen 20). This reveals that Mr. Darcy was restrained and complacent in his thoughts towards Elizabeth. By contrast, in An Assembly Such as This, when Mr. Darcy early on scrutinizes his enthrallment with Elizabeth, he reflects that “the danger the young woman presents is to [his] heart…[his] very soul… No less thrilling… and certainly no less terrifying. Miss Elizabeth Bennet, what have you wrought?” (Aidan 60). This passionate reflection made within the earliest moments of their acquaintance shows a deeply feeling romantic who is immediately infatuated with the heroine. Neither Mr. Darcy or Elizabeth knew each other very well, and yet Aidan’s Mr. Darcy is already enthralled with Elizabeth.
Aidan’s novel sometimes trails along Darcy’s inner monologue, asking what Mr. Darcy thinks about his fellow upper-class acquaintances, including his busy and agitated thoughts about Caroline Bingley. Aidan’s Mr. Darcy is indignant at Caroline Bingley’s attempts to ingratiate herself to him and he is overwhelmed with his annoyance in their exchanges, sometimes resulting in an overly stiff physical reaction. For example, after Caroline enthusiastically suggests that she gets Stevenson—a servant—to refill his cold coffee cup, he thinks that “he would not give Caroline Bingley encouragement to play out the cozy domestic scene she was creating in yet another unwelcome bid for his personal interest” (11). The revulsion he feels towards Caroline is clear in how his displeasure comes across in facial expressions. He must try “valiantly to twist the grimace he felt surfacing into something that resembled appreciation.” When she steps closer to him, it takes “all of Darcy’s years of training to rock smoothly back on his heels away from her,” as he cannot stand her being at all close to him (52). In Austen’s novel, Mr. Darcy listens to Caroline’s irritating remarks “with perfect indifference” (Austen 20). While he is aware of the meanings of her behavior, Austen’s Darcy does not care enough to get worked up over it.
Aidan adds a dimension to Mr. Darcy’s character through her inclusion of references to political turmoil in England that would have taken place during Pride and Prejudice. These references show how her Darcy does care about class in some regards but not in his fixation with Elizabeth. In fact, the extent of Darcy’s interest in class comes across in, for instance, the novel’s references to historical events concerning America as they establish his political position, although this does not prove to reflect deeply on his character. One noticeable reference is how the novel integrates the British loss of the American colonies. An example of this is a squire’s response to Mr. Darcy’s silent dislike of tea. The squire remarks, “When I heard about the Americans throwing a shipload of it into their harbor many long years ago, I knew that we had lost the colonies. Any group of people with that much sense would be the devil to stop in whatever they decided to do” (54). This very emphatic and earnest remark by the squire is met with warmth on Mr. Darcy’s part as he suddenly begins to reconsider his prejudice against his social inferiors thanks to a shared distaste for tea: “It occurred to him that his condescending opinion concerning such men and their function in the empire might profit from some refining” (54). But what about the squire’s support of the colonies and raucous distaste of tea makes Mr. Darcy instantaneously think the man would be useful for the Empire remains underdeveloped. Indeed, the allusions to American history throughout the novel come across as historical Easter eggs rather than facts important to the plot. Given that readers often turn to Pride and Prejudice to become absorbed in a Regency novel, a reference to Anglo-American politics, albeit small, seems like a jarring connection. The inclusion of the American colonies actually served to take me out of the novel.
Allusions to American history and politics are even more incongruous considering Aidan’s choice to have her version of Mr. Darcy strongly prefer coffee over tea. This is also connected to a childishly vindictive character trait as he condemned the drink with a stubborn and petty refusal to like it. Perhaps this is another understated but stressed aspect of his character that is meant to reveal his prejudice. Perhaps, as this is the first of a trilogy, his distaste for tea will prove symbolic as he gets over his class prejudice and he learns to become more forgiving and less vindictive. We must always remember, however, that his “good opinion once lost is lost forever” (Austen 42).
The focus on Mr. Darcy’s opinion of Elizabeth throughout Aidan’s novel emphasizes his romantic interest in her so much that it becomes the main and somewhat sole motivation for the character. His growing obsession and affection for Elizabeth are what drives and informs his character development, a stark difference from the original who is described as speaking well but “not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride” (Austen 131). By contrast, when Aidan’s Darcy sees Elizabeth encouraging a young girl, he reflects on how, “[t]he natural grace of her figure, inclined in sweet concern […] tugged at something within him that had easily resisted the officious attention and elaborate blandishments of those with a fourfold Miss Bennet’s consequence” (Aidan 54-55). At times, this fervent attraction to Elizabeth is not convincing, but Aidan achieves consistency by providing her Darcy with the strong convictions of Austen’s Mr. Darcy, whether it is in the form of a strong distaste for something (like tea) or attraction to someone.
Aidan’s decision to have Mr. Darcy be internally unrestrained is probably the most interesting choice that she made in writing this novel because it changes the substance of the character from reserved and calm to someone who acts against his thoughts. Aidan’s emotional and empathetic Darcy renders him a friendly albeit quiet man. Even when Mr. Darcy is expressing warmth and emotion around the closest of his companions, such as Mr. Bingley, he is still far more visibly temperate than his thoughts suggest. Aidan’s Mr. Darcy seemingly never reveals who he really is around anybody, at least not in this first installment. This allows her to make him likeable to readers without making him likeable in the eyes of other characters thereby remaining consistent with Austen’s novel.
Austen’s Darcy has been translated to the stoic Darcy of television adaptations, such as the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries (1995), starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. Firth’s reserved and calm Darcy is seen as the epitome of elegant masculinity and as a perfect example of an ideal man for many fans of Austen’s novel. One would not assume with popular media interpretations of Austen’s Darcy, like Firth’s, that he would be capable of the unrestrained thoughts that Aidan grants him. Overall, Aidan’s novel sets up a solid foundation for the rest of Mr. Darcy’s retelling of Pride and Prejudice to stand. Yet, while Mr. Darcy learns from Elizabeth how to become a better and less prideful person in Austen’s texts, I am intrigued to see how his potential growth is handled in Aidan’s second and third installments: Mr. Darcy already does not hold much prejudice.
An Assembly Such as This: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman, by Pamela Aidan
Atria Books (2006)
Paperback, eBook, (246 pages)
ISBN: 978-0743291347, $18.99
Aidan, Pamela. An Assembly Such as This. New York, Touchstone, 2003.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice, edited by Donald Gray and Mary A. Favret, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2016.