Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Janespotting: Ladysmead by Jane Gillespie

Like Joan Aiken, British writer Jane Gillespie wrote several Austen sequels, including ones to Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility. Published in 1982, Ladysmead is her earliest effort at attempting Austen; like the other sequels, she takes one or two of the more colorful (ie, naughty) characters and drops them into a completely new situation. In this case, it is the family of Reverend Thomas Lockley, a widower who has managed to marry off five of his seven daughters. With four younger sisters already wed, the second daughter, Sophia, "felt the cage of spinsterhood beginning to enclose her," at the decrepit age of 23. She has resigned herself to managing her father's household and keeping an eye on her youngest sister, Lucinda. This proves a challenge, as the family is continually economizing, and Lucinda is depressed: her best friend has just moved away and she has few other distractions, living in the remote countryside of Lancashire.

Luckily for the story, the friends' cottage at Ladysmead is let to another set of tenants, an older widow and her niece: of course, it is Mrs. Norris and Maria Rushworth (here going by Rushton) from MP. Although she knows nothing of the scandal that led the two to leave London, Sophia is somewhat unsettled by her new neighbors: Mrs. Norris is interfering, while Maria Rushton is aloof and snobby. She finds it convenient to befriend Lucinda, however, bossing her around and encouraging her to develop a contentious attitude. She encourages her young friend to flirt with one of her father's students, even though she has no real liking for the boy. This concerns Sophia as well as her father's rector, Charles Williams. Charles has a secret devotion to Sophia, but his offers to assist her only make her angry.

When the owner of Ladysmead and the neighboring mansion passes away, his heir Mr. Dalby comes to the area to decide what to do with the property. His manners are pleasing and he makes Sophia laugh, but Mrs. Rushton decides he should be the target of Lucinda instead. Several meetings and excursions are alternately planned, thwarted, and executed, with no one satisfied with the outcome. When Mr. Dalby invites a friend to the area and he turns out to know Mrs. Rushworth's sordid history, it leads to another shock: not only does Dalby elope with Mrs. Rushton/Rushworth, but they leave the poor Mrs. Norris behind. The events disturb poor Lucinda so much that she runs away from home, seeking solace from her new friend's betrayal by visiting her old friend.

Charles follows her and discovers her, of course (shades of Mr. Darcy finding Lydia in P&P). While he is gone Rev. Lockley declare he intends to marry Mrs. Norris, giving her a home and thus freeing poor Sophia to go out into society. This shocks Sophia so much she shows her disappointment to Charles, who reveals his own feelings and offers to marry her so she can escape. When Sophia realizes his proposal is based on love and not pity, she discovers her own heart is glad for his devotion despite her mistreatment of him. She accepts him, Dalby returns to take Mrs. Norris back to Mrs. Rushworth, and all ends happily with Sophia and Charles ensconced at Ladysmead.

As I mentioned, this novel follows a similar pattern to Gillespie's other Austen sequels: an upright, steadfast, suffering heroine; one or two flawed but entertaining minor characters from Austen's original; and a virtuous hero who demonstrates his worthiness of the heroine. Is it formula? Pretty close, but since Gillespie's style is entertaining and her borrowed characters are true to the original, I don't consider that a problem—especially when the novel is less than 200 pages, making for a light, quick read. This one was fun if somewhat forgettable.

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