Sunday 15 December 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Clergyman’s Wife, Molly Greeley (2019)

I’ve already reviewed ten novels this year as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, dedicated to books written in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth. And the final and eleventh was a book I was particularly excited about—The Clergyman’s Wife, Molly Greeley’s 2019 debut.

The Clergyman's Wife (2019), Molly Greeley
I’ve previously written about a few other novels inspired by Jane Austen’s perennially popular 1813 Pride and Prejudice (e.g. Longbourn, which tells the story from the perspective of the Bennet family’s servants, and Mary B, which takes up the perspective of Lizzy’s least beautiful sister). The Clergyman’s Wife revisits the novel from yet another viewpoint—that of Charlotte Lucas, Lizzy’s friend who chooses to wed the risible Mr Collins since she has few other prospects.

Jane Austen fans love to imagine which Bennet sister they are most similar to, with the majority of us hoping that we’re “a Lizzy”. But I’ve always felt that Charlotte Lucas’s pragmatic attitude is one that most of us would adopt if we lived in a society that forced women to marry or become a burden.

Greeley dives into this topic a little deeper. Her story begins a few years after Pride and Prejudice ends. Charlotte is older, a mother and a wife. Mr Collins is his usual loquacious self. And the couple lives near Rosings under the gaze of Lady Catherine, who is as commandeering as ever. The novel asks us to imagine “what if”. What if we were in a marriage of convenience? Would affection grow between husband and wife? What if true love came knocking years after you’d concluded it was an unattainable dream?

Molly Greeley
Charlotte confronts these questions and more when local gardener Mr Travis plants roses near the parsonage under Lady Catherine’s orders. Their relationship is believable and nuanced, with Greeley doing a great job balancing period etiquette with a modern desire for action and drama. One strength in her writing that helps with this is that her characters all feel entirely human, despite the more stilted manners of the Regency period. No one, not even Lady Catherine or Mr Collins, feels like a caricature. And descriptions of movement and physicality, especially related to Charlotte’s baby daughter Louisa, are recognisable and charming.

Just as the roses instigate Charlotte and Mr Travis’s first meeting, so botany is a thematic thread throughout the novel, with beautiful descriptions of the Kent landscape. There’s just enough of this to add colour, texture and interest without alienating readers who (like me) might know little of gardening.

Austen purists will be delighted by how Greeley is true to the spirit of Pride and Prejudice while adding her own commentary. Lizzy and Darcy make a cameo and don’t worry—their marriage is going well! There’s a scene at the Bennets’ dinner table, another at a ball. This isn’t a radical revision of one of literature’s best loved books but a delicate, understated story that asks us to look closer at the people not born to be protagonists who are often left on the peripheries, the choices they make and the happiness they can find.

I’d love to hear your recommendations for books I should review in my Neo-Victorian Voices series in 2020! Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

I am also delighted to share that Molly Greeley was kind enough to read my own forthcoming novel, Brontë's Mistress, and offered an endorsement.

She writes: Brontë's Mistress gives voice to a woman who, until now, has been voiceless; and, indeed, to thousands of women whose lives, like Lydia's, were so terribly suffocating.”

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