Creating a novel with an anti-heroine as the main protagonist is going to be tough for any novelist. Especially when that anti-heroine is part of one of the most celebrated novels in the English language and sister to one of literature’s most loved heroines.
The anti-heroine in question is Lydia Bennett, a lady of questionable scruples following her elopement with the devilish rake Mr Wickham in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. Lydia is a character known for her pursuit of fun and an eligible man, much to the shame of her elder sister Elizabeth, whose chances with the noble Mr Darcy were almost ruined due to Lydia’s elopement. It was Mr Darcy who came to the ungrateful Lydia’s rescue, ensuring that Lydia and Wickham married.
Before I started reading Jean Burnett’s novel, Who Needs Mr Darcy?, I approached it with uncertainty. The novel gives Lydia her own story, taking place after the death of Wickham, who perished on the battlefields of Waterloo. Pride and Prejudice is one of my favourite novels and Lydia was originally my least favourite character, so I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy reading a novel focused on her. But I put aside my own prejudices and was soon drawn into Lydia’s world and won over by Lydia herself.
Lydia is taken from supporting character to leading lady as she makes her own way in life, striving to achieve the higher social standing she so desperately craves while somehow embroiling herself in trouble at every turn. Burnett makes the novel accessible to anyone unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice by creating new characters like Selena, Miles and Lord Finchbrook, and a story far removed from the comparatively genteel one of Pride and Prejudice - one that includes murder, fraud and the Royal Family. Who Needs Mr Darcy? doesn’t have a clear cut plot, but neither should it – who knows where the enterprising Lydia will guide the reader? Lydia is embarking on her own adventure, stepping out as an unattached lady and ready to make her fortune, for the first time. The novel follows Lydia as she does so, taking in Bath, Brighton and London, and foraying into international territory in Paris and Venice. Lydia meets many new acquaintances along the way, most of which Mr Darcy would steadfastly disapprove of, especially the roguish highwayman, Jerry Sartain, and the other male players who enter Lydia’s life and constantly shake it up.
Turning Lydia into a likeable and sympathetic character was perhaps the biggest challenge that Burnett faced. I had known Lydia to be selfish and silly, but Burnett seamlessly showed Lydia to be quite harmless and misguided. In fact as the novel progressed and Lydia came into contact with Mr Darcy again, I started to reconsider my original stand on both characters. Had Lydia been unfairly treated by Mr Darcy? This was quite a revelation as I didn’t think I would sympathise with Lydia, but Burnett effortlessly makes the reader privy to Lydia’s perspective, and carves out a heroine status for her.
Who Needs Mr Darcy? turned out to be a pleasant surprise from a debut novelist. Like Lydia, it is fun and frivolous, and will garner new fans for both Jean Burnett and Lydia Bennett.
WHO NEEDS MR DARCY? is out in September