An intriguing premise for this second novel by Molly Greeley which re-imagines the story of a minor character in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In The Clergyman’s Wife it was Charlotte Collins, in The Heiress it’s the turn of Anne de Bourgh. Well-written in a slightly modernised style of Austen, it is easy to slip into the head of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s sickly daughter who at first sight seems an unpromising protagonist. But keep reading. Greeley starts with the birth of a daughter to a young married couple. In order for this book to work you have to both forget Austen’s portrayal of Anne, to sink yourself into the life of this delicate child, but also to remember the original. That is the path to enjoying the asides, thoughts and occasionally darting but puzzling urges that Anne experiences growing up. Scenes I looked forward to, critical in Pride and Prejudice, were skirted over here in favour of new material. Familiar characters occur, some more importantly than others – Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Mr Collins – but this is 100% Anne’s story.
Sickly from birth, Anne is dosed twice daily with laudanum drops. She is protected from exertion, emotions and unspecified dangers of the outside. Playing the piano is too strenuous, novels and poetry too emotional. Then when she is twelve after an unsuccessful treatment of sea bathing, Anne’s life change when a governess arrives. This is not yet the nodding Mrs Jenkinson from Austen but Miss Hall, a young woman determined to teach her unschooled young pupil what she needs to know to be the future mistress of Pemberley and Rosings.
This is a story of laudanum addiction, the tentacles of the drug’s control preventing any small rebellion by Anne, any protestation that she feels healthy before her curative drops are administered and only weak afterwards. Cocooned from emotion, her true personality smothered, Anne lives at a distance from those closest to her. An article in a newspaper is to be the catalyst for change. But change of any kind takes immense courage, needing a confrontation with her controlling mother. Greeley gives Lady Catherine a moment of redemption though as we, and Anne, catch a glint of history that explains the elderly woman portrayed by Austen and challenged so gleefully by Lizzie Bennet.
For Anne to fulfill Miss Hall’s objective of being a fit mistress of the estate of Rosings, she must do more than break free of drugs. She must discover the truth of who she is.
A fascinating exploration of one woman’s search for freedom in a time of female subjugation to men, when females were labelled as delicate with little diagnosis or review, when many women were unable to live alone or manage their own inheritance. At times surprising, the detail of The Heiress is Austen-like but the emotions are of the twenty-first century.
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Click the title to read my review of The Clergyman’s Wife.
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THE HEIRESS by @MollyJGreeley #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5l4 via @SandraDanby