My fascination – nay – obsession with all things Austen began inauspiciously enough. To quote Mr. Darcy, “I was in the middle before I knew I had begun.” 

 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged...” 

I never imagined the A&E Pride & Prejudice mini-series could have moved me so profoundly. Although it renewed my interest in all of Jane Austen’s novels, it was Darcy & Elizabeth who sent me headlong into an obsession that has not yet run its course. (Granted, my interest might not have been so keen had the role of Mr. Darcy not been so well cast.) My path to Jane Austen fandom in general and Pride & Prejudice specifically began like hordes of others. I was swept away by A&E’s production of the mini-series. Darcy & Elizabeth’s story transfixed me. I simply could not bear to have it end. (I really, really could bear for it to end.) In my quest for more, I dug out my hardback copy of P&P and read and re-read it. I reread Austen's other novels and several biographies. This little foray into all that was Austen was fulfilling in many ways. I learnt what any Jane Austen enthusiast worth their salt knows. Jane was not some humourless spinster.

Her cunning prose and societal insight announced itself early on. In what is described as her Juvenilia her heroine warns a friend prone to histrionics, decrying fainting fits – “Run mad if you must, but do not swoon.”

 

Her letters to her sister Cassandra were filled with local bits of news, some related with more than a little cheek. In one letter to her sister, Jane tells of a pregnant neighbor taken to the straw. “Mrs. Hall was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright,” writes Jane. “I suppose she happened to look unawares upon her husband.” (Who would have guessed Miss Austen was that irreverent?)

 

For all that, my appetite for Pride & Prejudice remained unsated.

I fantasized about what might have really come to pass behind Pemberley’s portieres.  Was she so inclined, Austen certainly could not enlighten us – and not just because she is dead. As a well-brought up maiden, she could not have presumed to know what passed between a married couple. (For that matter, if one looks carefully Austen’s novels, they do not contain a conversation solely between menfolk either.) Indeed, Jane Austen’s novels concluded with the wedding ceremony. Although Jane Austen is very nearly perfection, she is burdened by a single criticism. In ending P&P with the Darcys on the cusp of what undoubtedly would be a marriage of unrivaled passion, she has left many of her readers with a case of literary coitus interruptus.  

(It is a sad commentary on my character that Austen’s gifts as a writer took a backseat to Colin Firth’s incomparable portrayal of the smoldering Mr. Darcy.) 

Like countless others, I continued to moon about the Darcys. I was embarrassed by my lately-come fanaticism, but unable to shake it. While the internet was rife with fan fiction, a computer dunce, I was completely oblivious. So, to fill my need to learn what might have become of the Darcys, I eventually quit my explicit day-dreaming and began to fill page after page of legal-size yellow tablets with purple prose. Pen and paper soon deemed too slow, I continued to muse in the glow of my computer screen. Honing my limited fictional skills, I was content in the certainty that my words would never see the light of day. Indeed, that freedom unleashed my heretofore dormant imagination. Perhaps I was not the first sequelist, but none were more brazen.  

The whole enterprise was a lark – pages locked in a drawer to one day embarrass my children. My husband, a most reticent man, expressed his admiration for my accomplishment by insisting that I publish the book. Reluctant to expose myself in that fashion, I agreed only because I was certain that no one would buy it. We published Mr. Darcy Takes a wife as The Bar Sinister - a title that I thought as brilliant at the time. While I cowered in the car, my own dear Mr. Darcy went from bookstore to bookstore with The Bar Sinister in hand, asking to speak to the manager. Perhaps it was due as much to his quiet manner as the merit of my book, but every single one agreed to place The Bar Sinister on their shelves. Emboldened, we began selling them one by one via our own no-frills website. We soon began getting large orders from distributers, fulfilling them out of our garage.

 

In the year 2000, selling a book on Amazon meant a book was open for appraisal by anonymous reviewers. Hence, it was the ultimate test of my mettle – a trait I had already exposed to be dolefully lacking. I knew some might believe a sequel to Pride & Prejudice with The Bar Sinister’s explicitness of questionable merit. I was unprepared for a hue and cry that could be heard on several continents. The level of vitriol was quite off-putting. But I came to understand that amongst Jane Austen followers there is an element that could only be described as “lunatic fringe.” Although I received no outright death threats, some reviews were ominous enough for me to consider checking the ignition of my car for incendiary devices.

 

Fortunately, the wail of horrified Janeites was soon drowned out by those who loved the Darcys and my version of their passionate story.   

 

With the demand for the book increasing day by day, we sold the rights to Sourcebooks who resurrected the working title, Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife and endowed it with a beautiful cover. A national presence allowed professional reviewers a chance to weigh in. Most of them were surprisingly generous. Booklist, Library Journal –even the Chicago Tribune all gave good notices. While One Canadian newspaper reviewer generally liked it, she suggested that Mr. Darcy’s penis was actually another character in the book. I would have taken offense, but one could argue the point.

 

I am told there are thousands upon thousands of Jane Austen sequels, furtherings and retellings now. Most stay true to her vision. Others sport zombies, Dracula and at least one containing “love that dares not speak its name”. In comparison, MDTAW’s seething passion is positively sedate. To my complete surprise and untold gratitude, Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife has sold nearly 400,000 copies and has been printed in four languages. I have written four successive sequels (MDTAW 2004, Darcy & Elizabeth 2006, the Ruling Passion 2011, and New Pleasures 2016) and am writing a fifth. As a work in progress, it is lovingly referred to as Mr. Darcy Takes His Wife Some More.

 

When I recall the early groundswell of vituperation I once weathered, I am reminded of the story of a man who, upon being found guilty of some infraction, was swept up by a mob of citizenry. He was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail. Afterwards, he was asked by a reporter how he felt about event. He replied, “If it wasn’t for the honor of the thing, I’d just as soon walked.”

 

All in all, I’m glad I went along for the ride.  I’ve met so many wonderful people that it hard to recall the early days of eager dread as I awaited the overnight Amazon reviews to load. I still care about my readers’ opinions, but I am proud to say I can now read unkind reviews without falling into a fainting fit. However, my dearest friends would probably agree that I’d run mad long before.

 

Linda Berdoll
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