Friday 25 January 2019

A Discovering Diamonds review of Teaching Eliza by Riana Everly

"the author has fun shuffling some of the novel’s pairings in an entertaining manner" 


Fictional Drama / Humour / Regency

Subtitled Pride and Prejudice meets Pygmalion, the novel begins with Professor Darcy, an expert in linguistics and phonetics, bemoaning the fact that a man of substance such as himself must always be the target of fortune-hunters. His aunt, Lady Catherine de Burgh, is planning to announce his betrothal to her daughter, since he seems to have no intention of finding anyone for himself. Bingley suggests that if Darcy were to announce his own engagement, he would scotch that plan immediately.
The question is, where to find a lady who would suit his consequence enough for Society to be duped, and yet amenable enough to play the game, and withdraw at the end of it?

Bingley suggests that his friend might find a suitable partner among his Jane’s pretty sisters; but Darcy snubs Lizzy at the ball at Netherfield because her accent and country manners are insupportable – something which clearly has not concerned Bingley when making his own choice of bride.
When Jane marries, Lizzy realises that life at Longbourn will be intolerable. She has been invited to London for the Season by her aunt Gardner’s sister, Lady Grant; but hearing Bingley’s sisters denounce her as a rustic, she realises that she cannot presume to the heights of fashionable London society as she is. She asks Darcy to teach her how to speak; and though at first reluctant, he agrees to do so on condition that she play the part of his affianced bride. A bargain is struck.

Darcy is at first all Henry Higgins – rude, conceited and patronising, and unlikeable in a way that Austen’s Darcy is not. The author makes a nod to this, when Lizzy describes his ‘various moods as being almost those of separate men’. If the reader has never read Pygmalion, will they understand his behaviour? He is assisted by Colonel Fitzwilliam, in the role of Colonel Pickering, who unlike that gentleman has a romantic problem of his own to solve; and there is Freddy, another import from Pygmalion, as a suitor for Lizzy. The conflation of LIzzy Bennet, Regency gentleman’s daughter, and Eliza Doolittle, Victorian flower-girl, is, however, a little stretched. That which makes Eliza Doolittle so attractive is her fiery temper and her street-wise sense of self-preservation, and that which makes Lizzy so interesting is her certainty and her self-belief. All are missing here.

Lady Grant’s stated plan that Lizzy would be presented at Court in a spectacular London debut is nonsense, given her family’s status and lack of funds. Darcy says he will be able to pass her off as a duchess by the time he has finished her education, which is a claim from the play; here he’s speaking figuratively.

Until the story begins to broaden out from the professor-pupil relationship, it has all the flavour of Pygmalion, and Lizzy has none of the sparkle that the reader expects of her. After that the author has fun shuffling some of the novel’s pairings in an entertaining manner, and the plot picks up speed and interest. The Bennets take a much smaller role; Wickham is as dastardly as ever, though made stupid by a desire for revenge; Georgiana is suffering from depression after her mistreatment by him; and Caroline Bingley gives full rein to her dark side.

What starts out as an homage to both books turns into something of a romp of its own. The use of quotations from the original is like finding old friends in strange places, though the characters themselves are not as we know them. Shaw stated that Higgins should never be allowed to marry Eliza, whom he created to win a bet and in order to con Society, and there is something of that in Darcy here which the author must overcome. There is still pride and prejudice to be overturned, but whether they are less worthy or justified than in Austen’s version is a moot point, and perhaps unfamiliarity with the play may colour some readers’ judgement there.

There are some errors which stand out, one being a 'ring at the front door' (this is 1811) and 'discrete’ and ‘less discrete' where discreet should have been used. However, overall, a good read.

© Lorraine Swoboda


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