I'm currently in the midst of a whirlwind blog tour to celebrate the launch of the Sourcebooks paperback edition of The Other Mr Darcy in the US, and two of the most frequent questions that keep coming up were: Why Caroline Bingley, of all Austen's characters? And why an American Mr Darcy?
I was reading somewhere that at the turn of the 19th century an English gentleman and an American “gentleman” from one of the prominent families in Boston were virtually indistinguishable. I was intrigued by this. I found myself wanting to explore that issue, because I really couldn’t imagine that they could possibly be the same. Even if their education was very similar, they were the product of completely different environments. I started imagining situations where the subtle differences would emerge, and the language they thought they had in common would lead to misunderstandings.
At that time I had gone through a spree of reading and watching Jane Austen dramatizations. I felt strongly that I wanted to write Caroline’s story. It seemed to me that Jane Austen is more forgiving of the men in the novel than the women. Wickham tries to run off with Georgiana to steal her fortune, spreads slander about Mr Darcy, seduces a fifteen-year-old and ruins her reputation, and leaves behind him a string of debts everywhere he goes.
Compared to him, Miss Bingley is angelic. Yet it is not Wickham who emerges as the villain of the piece. It is Caroline! True, she is a social snob. She looks down at the Bennets and makes snide remarks about Meryton society. She wants to secure an advantageous marriage. In other words, she is, at least at the beginning of the novel, the female equivalent of Darcy. But Darcy is redeemed later because he falls in love with Elizabeth, and, in his own words, is “properly humbled.”
If there is redemption in love, as Jane Austen implies, perhaps if Caroline were to fall in love, she could be “properly humbled” as well.
Somehow, in the way that these things happen when you’re writing, these two concepts crossed and then merged. I realized that Caroline needed exposure to something that would shock her out of her placidity. She needed to meet a man who was just different enough from the gentlemen she was accustomed to that he would throw her orderly world into disarray. It seemed to me that, if Caroline could be forced outside her comfort zone, she would be capable of changing. Because, despite some people’s view of her as a hardened criminal, Caroline is still very young. Charles Bingley is only twenty-two, and she is referred to as his younger sister, so she cannot be more than 21, possibly younger. Anna Chancellor does a wonderful job portraying Caroline in the BBC production, but she makes her seem older than she is. In the 1995 film version, Caroline is younger, but hardly appears on the screen. Lost in Austen's Christina Cole is closest to my image of Miss Bingley, though they do take a lot of liberties with Jane Austen's character!
A young Caroline, slighted in love, as she is with Darcy, might well be able to change.
In a nutshell, that’s how this other Mr Darcy — Robert — came into being. In a way I pictured the encounter between him and Caroline as a clash of cultures. Robert Darcy is from a country which, at that moment, is at war with England. It is a colony that, despite having won its independence, is still struggling to separate itself from its former rulers. Robert comes to England to inherit Darcy property, but he carries with him a healthy dose of scepticism towards the cultural rules and regulations which Caroline sees as carved in stone. Yet, at the same time, he is a Darcy, and very much part of that social order, even if he wasn’t raised in England. So he’s incomprehensible to Caroline, because he knows how to behave with propriety, but he doesn’t always choose to do so. The very idea of choice is a real eye opener for her, trained as she has been at her select boarding school. For Caroline, things are very clear. In order to be successful in society, one has to learn the rules and then follow them blindly. After all, that is what defines a woman who is gently bred.
But Robert brings with him a different perspective. I really can’t envision this new Mr Darcy as being from anywhere else. The New World at the time, with its pioneering spirit, was a challenge to the Old World. And I see Robert Darcy as throwing the gauntlet, so to speak, to Caroline, who takes it up, and grows because of it. Though it isn’t a one way relationship, any more than the relationship of England to the (former) colonies was a one way relationship. He, too, has to learn to accept his position in life, and to accept the inescapable responsibilities that come along with it.
For it is out of these challenges, and out of their parallel journeys of self-knowledge, that Caroline’s and Robert’s story emerges.
If you're interested in following some of my posts in The Other Mr Darcy blogtour, you can check out my Blog Schedule.