Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.
-Pride and Prejudice
When I first opened my copy of Second Impressions,
I knew little of the story other than the obvious fact that it was a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
(which, in its early stages, was titled First Impressions
) I knew much more about the author, Ava Farmer, in reality, Sandy Lerner, the Fairy Godmother of women’s Literature.
As many readers may know, in 1987, American business woman and philanthropist Sandy Lerner (co-founder of Cisco Systems and Urban Decay Cosmetics) purchased a 125 year lease on Chawton Great House and the surrounding lands. Chawton Great House
was the home of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Knight, and it was his residence there, that made it possible for Jane, her mother and her sister Cassandra to settle at Chawton Cottage during the last years of Jane’s life. All of Jane Austen’s novels were either written or edited for publication from this home, just a short walk down the lane from the Great House.
In July 2003, after a ten year renovation and restoration project, the Great House was finally able to open it's doors as the Chawton House Library. Today the library boasts an outstanding collection of over 9,000 books, highlighting English women writers from 1600 to 1830. Most of these were gathered and donated by Sandy Lerner prior to the library's opening.
The library's Novels On Line project makes the full text of many of their works freely available to the public. Also housed at the Chawton House Library is the Knight Collection, a private collection of the Knight family's books. These works were once owned by Jane Austen's brother, Edward, and it is known that she enjoyed reading through his library.
Ms. Lerner is a lifelong fan of Jane Austen’s work and during her time working on the Chawton House Library project, she poured that love of Austen into a sequel, an homage really, to not only Pride and Prejudice
, but many of Austen’s other works, as well. 23 years in the writing Second Impressions
is indeed a commanding volume (two volumes, really, bound as one, in the old style) It arrived beautifully bedecked in a charming dust jacket, also “in the old style” looking much like a gilt embossed leather bound album. The heavy paper and excellent typesetting, fonts and other decoration all give the feel of substantial, vintage work. One that might have come, even from Mr. Darcy’s extensive library.
These were my “first impressions”.
Ms. Lerner, it appears, is no mean Austen scholar, having lectured and spoken extensively on the author as well as her works (look up “Lerner’s Theory of Austen” for one example, housed in the Epilogue of the book.) With all the resources of Chawton House Library at her disposal, and a passionate love for Austen’s work, her novel comes across, not as a light follow on or quick summer read, but as a labor of love. As much as she desired to give all Austen fans, herself included, another taste of Pemberley, and even of the lives and loves of figures from Emma
, among others, she sought, even more so, to create characters and settings that might actually have existed in Austen’s Regency.
To this end, language—from actual spellings to sentence structure—is modeled on the English used in generations past. Paragraphs brim over with descriptions of events, places and feelings. While engrossed in the story, the reader is treated to a veritable primer of Regency life, and though the typesetting, use of correspondence, and even omission of peerage designations make the pages appear, at first glance, as though they could have been taken from an Austen novel, it’s closer to reading an annotated version, where the notes have been incorporated into the text—a novel, if I may say so, approach, that leaves one to resurface, after reading, a bit dizzied, into the frantic pace of 21st
Make no mistake though, this is not Austen. No longer must the Darcys be confined to “three or four families in a country village”. This “little bit of ivory” has grown up and gone to London. Ms. Lerner writes with engrossing detail of not only Regency country house life, but also town life, and even gives the Darcy’s a long and descriptive “Grand Tour” of the Continent. (Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen-Knight made a four year "Grand" tour of the Continent in the late 1780s, and his journals have recently been published as Jane Austen’s Brother Abroad
Ms. Lerner does take some liberty with Austen’s intended endings for various characters, however, I, for one, cannot complain, for surely some characters were most certainly destined for each other, and everyone deserves some happiness, after all. Other pairings are truly remarkable, and only possible in the fertile imagination of a devoted Austen enthusiast. They are, however, entertaining, and, in the words of the immortal Miss Prism, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means."
Ms. Lerner now resides in Virginia and spends much of her time experimenting with heirloom breeds, agriculture and farming techniques. The proceeds from the sale of Second Impressions
are being donated to the ongoing work of the Chawton House Library.