One of my last books scheduled for 2018 was a chapbook entitled Let Them Eat Cake by Ginger Lukas, published by the teeny tiny do-it-yourself Adjunct Press. Though I appreciate what the press is trying to do, I found the writing mediocre and the content mundane — simple sentences, usually, all without metaphor, imagery, or personal reflection. So, instead of reviewing Lukas’s chapbook, I’m going to review Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a play by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.
The play opens by reminding us what kind of woman Elizabeth Darcy is. At a time when Christmas trees were only a German tradition, Lizzy has one set up in Pemberley, causing everyone to think her odd and ill-mannered. Gunderson and Melcon immediately remind us that Lizzy is unconventional when she defends the tree to Mr. Darcy:
LIZZY: Because it is a Christmas tree. A popular German custom. An evergreen reminds us of life even in the deep midwinter. Isn’t that wonderful?
DARCY: It would be were we suddenly German.
LIZZY: I’m attempting a new tradition at Pemberley.
DARCY: Which entails cutting down perfectly healthy trees and humiliating them in the drawing room.
The banter is on point right away between Mr. Darcy and Lizzy, sending readers (or viewers, if you see the play) right back into Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice (or, if you’re like me, right back to the Colin Firth BBC mini-series).
Soon, guests arrive. The whole Bennet family is coming to Pemberley, as is Arthur de Bourgh, a distant relative of Mr. Darcy, a nerdy, bookish gent who just inherited an estate after that grump Lady Catherine dies. Guess who this love story is about.
Jane and Mr. Bingley arrive first, and we find Jane seven months pregnant. She’s still the top dame in the Bennet sister pecking order, demonstrated by her maturity and trek toward glowing motherhood that outshines Lizzy. Lydia comes solo; her wretched husband is not invited, and we learn that he’s barely around anyway. Lydia is like a puppy; left alone too long, once she’s let out of her domestic cage and into Pemberley, she gets into trouble. Namely, by flirting shamelessly with awkward Arthur de Bourgh. Thus, the characters all feel true to their original selves, and fans of Austen will enjoy this continuation in the world of Pride and Prejudice two years after.
Mary has changed, though. No longer depicted as an insufferably serious drain on warmth and love, she is curious about the world — maps and science, mostly — and has mastered the pianoforte. No more plunking away; she’s a true talent! Arthur de Bourgh is practically a female version of Mary to the point of making you roll your eyes, but it is nice to see serious people represented and shown love, too. In fact, when Arthur tries to write Mary a letter about his feelings, Mr. Bingley encourages Arthur to throw in something about Mary’s eyes or hair, or something. Not only does he struggle to write the words, but readers hold their breath knowing Mary will not appreciate them. In that way, Gunderson and Melcon suggest love transcends physical attraction, even upon first meeting.
A joyful Christmas-time play, I hope that Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is considered for the 2020 season at the theatre where I work. The only concern is people who aren’t familiar with Jane Austen’s novel. I’m thinking even those who know the gist of Pride and Prejudice would enjoy the play. Perhaps when Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley try to explain to Arthur how courtship may not be a straight line will some audience members miss out on the misunderstandings that sidetracked Bingley and Jane and Darcy and Lizzy.
On a final note, I appreciate that the authors, Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, encourage directors to consider interracial casting because “Jane Austen belongs to everyone.”