The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh
Molly Greeley’s The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh, inspired by the tertiary character in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is a pleasant enough – but not remotely revelatory – piece of historical fiction.
Anne de Bourgh, daughter of the infamous Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and cousin and unofficial intended to Mr. Darcy himself, spends the first three decades of her life under the influences of her mother and laudanum, the latter of which she’s become addicted to as a result of receiving it every day since infancy as a medical treatment for an unknown malady. The encouragement of her governess (on whom Anne has an unrequited crush) to question her dependency on laudanum, and the tragic death of a random child, eventually galvanizes Anne to go detox in the London home of her cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam and his wife. There, Anne begins to live the life of a lady, dabbling in London culture, literature, and feminist thought, most of which is introduced to her by Eliza Amherst, a wealthy businessman’s daughter, with whom Anne falls in – this time requited – love.
Anne narrates the entire story, and Greeley gives her a highly specific voice which is the highlight of the novel. Anne is told at one point that she is like “a poet”, but I thought of her more as a painter in the vein of Picasso – she has the ability to perceive, particularly the natural world, with innate appreciation and the precision of a born botanist/geologist/Charles Darwin, but also with a slightly blurred, even mystical perspective. She envies the capabilities of a spider, but in a sense she is like a spider: if anyone has eight sharp eyes, all in perpetual use, it’s Anne. Her calm narration and her considerate, goodhearted character make her a heroine easy to sympathize with, if not a boldly inspiring one.
As you might guess given such a first person narration, the writing tends to the literary and descriptive, so fans of quick, witty dialogue will be disappointed. The book itself is divided into four parts. The first details Anne’s childhood and early adulthood, most of which she spends at Rosings, her estate. It’s a frustratingly long section, especially for a book that is so short for the story it’s trying to tell. When Anne finally arrives in London, far from it being the explosively revelatory experience one might expect, Anne herself thinks “for all that I had seen such marvels as I only dreamed of as a child – I may as well have been at Rosings Park.” Anne toodles around town and learns to shop, enjoy a good book, and have an orgasm, but she doesn’t do much that drives the plot in an engaging way.
The principal problem of The Heiress is that Anne doesn’t so much achieve success in her life as accept it. Once she sobers up (to discover her health is excellent – it’s never clear what, if any, illness she had, though Greeley suggests Anne’s treatment by her doctor and mother was not malicious but simply misguided) Anne finds a life of financial and personal freedom awaiting her; such freedom that most men and women today can never hope to achieve. By the time Anne goes to London, her father has died, and she is no longer an heiress but a woman of independent means. She has no desire for a husband or children and has no legal or financial need to have them. Her money and estate are in excellent repair, and she quickly finds a mentor in her steward, who teaches her how to control her holdings. The story, consequently, has no sense of urgency or high stakes. A life devoid of challenges and flush with opportunity is at Anne’s fingertips and no one can take it away from her, which is all well and good for Anne, but makes for a story that feels purposeless.
The Pride and Prejudice angle is almost totally unnecessary, other than to act as a lure for Jane Austen’s preexisting reader base. Though The Heiress is not classified as part of a series, Greeley’s prior novel, The Clergyman’s Wife, features Charlotte Lucas, also of Pride and Prejudice, as its protagonist. Elizabeth and Darcy appear in The Heiress, as well as Colonel Fitzwilliam and Lady Catherine, and they are, except for the colonel, largely unappealing as seen through Anne’s eyes. This story would have worked just as well if Anne had been any old Regency heiress. The book ends with a bizarrely melancholy epilogue tacked onto a perfectly acceptable HEA, casting the shadow of death over Jane Austen’s immortal characters in a way that is deeply unsettling.
Had The Heiress offered a longer, more complex story rather than a montage of linear, ever-escalating triumphs for its protagonist, it could have been, if not a revelation, more than satisfying.
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