Julia Braun Kessler (1926-2012) and Gabrielle Donnelly’s Presumptions: An Entertainment: A Sequel to Pride and Prejudice (1993) offers a continuation of the well-loved 1813 novel, from the perspective of Georgiana Darcy. Written under the nom de plume Julia Barrett, who has also written two other Austen engagements, Presumption introduces readers to the happy marriage of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, explores Georgiana Darcy’s coming of age, and follows the Bennet family through another set of crises. The focus of the novel is marriage, particularly the marriage of Georgiana Darcy. While echoing the beginning of Pride and Prejudice (1813), as any discerning reader will recognize, Presumptions opens with “If, as the prevailing wisdom has had it these many years, a young man in possession of a good fortune is always in want of a wife, then surely the reverse must prove true as well: any well-favoured lady of means must incline, indeed yearn, to improve her situation by seeking a husband” (11). This revision of the famous opening to Pride and Prejudice places the marital desires of the female characters at the forefront of the novel, particularly those of Georgiana Darcy.
Marriage, in the mindset of Georgiana, is an institution that should be entered into for love, rather than a sense of duty. Charlotte Collins serves as the foil for both Georgiana and Elizabeth Darcy, showing the dangers of marrying for duty and offering a warning against ignoring feelings of attraction to appease family and society. Barrett takes the unhappy position of Charlotte Collins, one of the least liked characters in Pride and Prejudice, and turns her into an indispensable figure in Georgiana’s evolution. As the plot develops, Georgiana moves away from society’s expectations, leading to a break with societal norms and into the unexpected. However, the novel does fall into traditional romance tropes. Overall, Presumptions successfully disrupts the traditional marital expectations of the courtship plot and, in the process of doing so, asks readers where women might find models that help them challenge the traditional roles that continue to be thrust upon us. This is in large part due to how Barrett revises Charlotte’s character, creating a figure who encourages Georgiana to follow her desires in a way that was not available to Charlotte.
Presumption begins with Georgiana’s coming out ball and her admitted lack of a desire to marry. In the wake of the Wickham scandal, Barret writes that “in truth, Georgiana now found herself much subdued. She feared her own heart” (12). Having once bucked society’s expectations for the behaviors of a young woman, Georgiana determines to never do so again. Faced with the effects of her attempted elopement with George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, and her narrowly avoided ruination “tonight especially, [Georgiana] had further aim [in behaving]: since the unfortunate incident with the young officer, her brother had grown stern, and she was eager to demonstrate to him just how much improved had been her cast of mind in the two years that had intervened” (12). These descriptions show a young woman who has recognized that conformity breeds approval, and by showing her serious nature Georgiana hopes to win back her brother’s approval and return to their old relationship. While it is understandable that anyone would want to stop their younger sibling from running off with an older man, the idea that Georgiana must change her behavior to receive Darcy’s approval furthers a narrative that teaches women to seek approval rather than their own desires.
Barrett quickly moves towards a more feminist plot, especially with the introduction of Charlotte Collins. For the purpose of this review, by feminist narrative, I mean that the novel re-imagines the traditional romance plot as a feminist narrative by challenging the patriarchal expectations of marriage that impacted women and girls in Regency society, and which continue to impact women and girls today. While certainly not a beloved character in Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Collins takes on an extremely important role in Presumptions. She disrupts the narrative of happy marriages presented through Elizabeth and Darcy and Jane and Bingley. Georgiana meets Charlotte, and Mr. Collins, when visiting Lady Catherine de Bourgh at Rosings. Thoroughly unimpressed with Mr. Collins, she is eventually able to talk to Charlotte alone and hear her perspective on marriage and duty. Offering a new perspective on Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr. Collins, Barrett writes, “‘The truth is,’ continued she, sighing, ‘that chance smiled upon Elizabeth, as, in another fashion it has it on you, too. Your sister happened to meet the one man who might make her happy; and you, if you so choose, may marry or may not. Not all are so comfortably situated. For myself, the case was different; I was not always as you find me today’” (141). Georgiana had already noticed the difference between Elizabeth’s marriage and Charlotte’s, but until this point in the novel none of the characters had spoken bluntly about what marriage means. The economic significance Charlotte alludes to in this scene echoes her motivations in Pride and Prejudice, while also highlighting the extent to which Elizabeth’s fortunes have changed.
Despite identifying the economic reasons for her marriage, Charlotte is not a character that espouses the institution. In a departure from traditional marital expectations, she is written as stating “‘Had I my youth to live again Miss Darcy, nothing—not duty, not even my father’s vanity—could prevent my following my heart. For a loveless life, however graced by respectability or establishment, is little more than wretchedness” (142). This serves as a direct contrast to the reasons she gives Elizabeth Bennet for her decision to marry Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice: “I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state” (Austen 85). The lived experience Barret writes for Charlotte serves as a warning for Georgiana, leading to Charlotte’s characterization as the feminist hero of Presumptions, advocating self-expression instead of following the mores of male family members.
The final phase of Georgiana’s evolution is her decision to marry James Leigh-Cooper, an architect brought to Pemberley by Darcy. He pursues her throughout the novel, although she herself is interested in another gentleman (Captain Thomas Heywood) for much of the plot. Leigh-Cooper defends her honor, yet as soon as she is available seems to give her the cold shoulder. In fact, the relationship between the two is very similar to the relationship depicted between Charlotte Heywood and Sidney Parker in PBS’s Masterpiece Sanditon (2019). It is only upon an apology that he begins speaking to her again, apparently overcome by attraction: “‘My dear Miss Darcy,’ he began; but colour soon overspread his cheeks and emotion prevented him continuing” (227). After refusing to acknowledge her presence for days, and then asking her to marry him Barrett writes an acceptance as though there is no problem with this behavior. Georgiana’s inner monologue reveals her unequivocal acceptance of his proposal:, “And how infinitely greater was her amazement when his declaration aroused in her, not indignation, but so exquisite a flutter of joy as she had never dreamed possible, and that hardly had he framed his plea before she accepted him with all the ardour of a loving heart” (229). Yes, this acceptance is typical of Regency novels, but in Barret’s feminist narrative, pushing Georgiana back into the marital social structure reads as a bit forced. There is some self-reflexivity in Georgiana’s surprise that she is not angry with his proposal, but the immediate acceptance quickly erases that hint of concern. Although the couple is depicted as flirting throughout the novel, Georgiana does voice an uncertainty about accepting the proposal as an audience member, which left me a bit uncomfortable, especially with Charlotte’s warning ringing in my ears.
At first glance Presumption is not an overtly feminist novel. It is, at its core, an engagement with Pride and Prejudice—a sequel to the beloved novel. Barrett is successful in this engagement with Austen: characters are represented in familiar ways and feel recognizable to the audience. I think this familiarity helps further the feminist elements of the novel; it provides a jumping off point. Throughout the novel, familiar characters discuss questions of marriage and who should be able to choose to enter into marriage. To be sure, the pressure Georgiana puts on herself to conform to society and please her family, and her eventual marriage, need to be explored in more detail. Women today face similar pressures to be in relationships, generally without the same economic considerations the characters in these narratives face. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a Charlotte Collins figure to speak truth to power, and in the absence of those characters a greater conversation about the relationship pressures facing young women should be held. For women in the Regency period, these pressures continued into marriage and childbearing, two areas where strong female role models are urgently needed. Today, the pressure felt by young women to marry for money is less acute than the pressure felt by Charlotte Collins, but take one look at an Instagram page and you’ll be bombarded by imagery of how young women are marketing themselves. Charlotte Collins may be the kind of influencer we all need, the woman who tells us just how hard it is going to be, but that we should also take the chance to chase our dreams.
Presumption: An Entertainment: A Sequel to Pride and Prejudice, by Julia Barrett
University of Chicago Press (1995)
Hardcover, Paperback, eBook, (238 pages)
ISBN: 978-0226038131, $15.00
Barrett, Julia. Presumption: An Entertainment: A Sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, Print.
Austen, Jane and Donald Gray. Pride and Prejudice. 3rd Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. Print.