The Clergyman's Wife
So far I’ve read novels from the perspectives of Georgiana Darcy and Caroline Bingley, and when I saw there was one about Charlotte Lucas, I had to check it out. I always thought of Charlotte as someone who evaluated her situation in life and then did the most reasonable thing she could do to secure her future, so I was eager to try Molly Greeley’s The Clergyman’s Wife, and on the whole it’s a recommended read.
Three years after Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins, they live in the parsonage near Rosings Park with their baby daughter Louisa, the only real source of joy in Charlotte’s life. Mr. Collins is as much under Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s thumb as ever, and when she tells him to have rosebushes planted in his garden, he all but tugs at his forelock in acquiescence even though he had different plans for that particular spot. Lady Catherine sends a farmer, Mr. Travis, to plant the rosebushes, and Charlotte, who’s taking a teething and fretful Louisa for an early-morning walk, meets Mr. Travis as he’s working. The two of them have an immediate, easy rapport, but matters between them can never go any further than friendship – even when their feelings for each other grow far deeper.
Mr. Travis is everything Mr. Collins is not – irreverent, affectionate, playful with Louisa, and most of all, appreciative of Charlotte as a person. It’s easy to see why she can’t help liking him, but the author is careful not to demonize Mr. Collins either. At one point, Charlotte realizes she’s never asked her husband about his parents, but when she inquires, he awkwardly reveals that his father was a harsh authoritarian who constantly pushed him to rise above their humble origins. No wonder he’s so willing to accept Lady Catherine’s unpleasantness and put-downs.
Speaking of Lady Catherine, she’s as domineering and snobbish as ever, but fortunately she’s not the only Pride and Prejudice mainstay to appear here. Elizabeth and Darcy pay a visit, and are as caring and supportive a couple as you could hope to read about. Case in point: when they visit, Mr. Collins rambles on and on and on until Darcy says he needs advice on a new rector, and perhaps the two of them could discuss it while the ladies step out into the garden. No greater love hath any man.
The background of Regency England is very well-depicted, with descriptions of the woods and the garden so authentic that I could smell the drying rosemary in the stillroom. It’s also clear that the story is taking place in a society where distinctions in both class and gender rule daily life. As a result, Charlotte often finds herself hemmed into a narrow, stilted existence.
Though the garden is still blooming, the blossoms are growing blowsy and losing petals; the sun, rising swiftly now, is still bright, but there is a particular smell in the air, sharp as autumn, like damp leaves underfoot even though they have yet to turn and fall. The world is in transition, and I stand inert as it changes around me.
Charlotte is a quiet, contemplative person who thinks with her head rather than her heart, and as she reminds herself from time to time, this is the life she chose to have. I liked the realism as well; this is not a heroine who declares she will only marry for love. This is a woman who made the best of the bad hand that life dealt her, and who is determined that her daughter will have better choices than she did. And that culminates in the climax of the story, which I won’t spoil for readers, but which made me hopeful that there are better times ahead for Charlotte and her family. Sadly, this does not involve the sudden demise of Lady Catherine (It was Charlotte, in the conservatory, with the candlestick!).
The only caveat I have is that this book may not appeal to readers who want a tightly plotted or fast-paced story – or, for that matter, to readers who want a more forceful heroine. There were even short sections I skimmed because I can’t stand village gossips who make it their métier to meddle in other people’s lives. But for the most part, The Clergyman’s Wife was a poignant and memorable read that made me wish there was more to the story.