Charlotte by Helen Moffett
The character of Charlotte Lucas in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is perhaps a minor one; the young woman who marries the challenging Mr Collins in order to secure her future. In this book Helen Moffett breathes life into a woman who seemed to be willing to settle. It accomplishes a lot as a novel, as it is set at first in 1811, several years after the event’s described in Austen’s classic, but goes back in time to reveal how Charlotte felt about accepting that she cannot wait for a better offer, and also follows Charlotte as she copes with tragedy and makes a new friend, before a momentous visit to a special house. It is vividly written, describing the feelings and emotions that Charlotte experiences over a substantial length of time. This novel introduces new characters, but significantly also new previously unsuspected aspects of well-established characters of the original novel.
Written in the same spirit as Jo Baker’s “Longbourn”, this is more than a continuation novel as it gives another dimension to the original classic, conveying much about minor characters and giving them real presence. The research into such things as herbal “cures”, the life of a careful housewife in the early nineteenth century and the music of the time is immense, yet never interrupts the flow of the narrative. My edition of the book includes suggestions for further reading and Book Club questions, and this would be an interesting selection for group reading. A sensitive and powerful book, it works hard to give a sense of what really happened with Charlotte Collins, nee Lucas, and the family and friends that she created.
The book begins with a tragedy which affects Charlotte deeply. Not only a death of a family member, but also a reminder that the legal position of women can be threatened by so many aspects of life. As Charlotte fights off despair she finds an unexpected ally at Rosings, who has some understanding of her fears for the future. She thinks back to the events surrounding her marriage to Mr Collins, and how she coped with her marriage and assuming her responsibilities as mistress of a rural vicarage. The detail of picking and preserving produce, of her responsibilities to other people, her love for her children is all described in a way not to slow the story but give it real depth. An invitation to visit Mrs Darcy opens up a whole new world to Charlotte, as well as bringing back memories of their life long friendship. As beautiful gardens, music and more give some respite to her upset life, she discovers new emotions and interests that will affect so much. Moffett conveys this time with real skill and passion, a real feeling for a famous house and estate. By including short passages about the progress of other characters from Pride and Prejudice, this book continues the original novel in a respectful way and expands on the events that are so well known, such as the restrictions placed on Kitty Bennet. Letters received from Rosings keep Charlotte informed of other events of a somewhat surprising nature.
This is a thoughtful book which deserves to attract a lot of readers. As a reader of Austen continuation novels, this a special one which would also stand as an independent female led book of historical fiction. The progress of a woman frequently dismissed as someone willing to settle for a dislikable character emerges as a wonderful character for a realistic book of a woman’s experiences of life in the early nineteenth century, and is much more than a tribute to a well loved classic novel.