Falling in Love

This entry is part 8 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

I love Jane Austen, and I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

If I could jump in a time machine I’d go back to see her at age twenty or so and bring her a lifetime supply of cortisone supplements — still the only treatment for Addison’s disease, which is what killed her. Imagine another five or ten books by her. Wouldn’t that be worth a spin in a time machine?

At any rate. Other people love Jane as much as I do, and some of them are very … exacting. Austen Purists do not like anyone to fuss with the Work. Purists are opposed, unilaterally, to the small industry that has sprung up around Jane’s stories, particularly to the dozens of sequels that have been published. The list of such works over at the Republic of Pemberley numbers 68 (and needs updating).  Personally I try to judge every after-the-fact sequel on its own merits, but thus far I haven’t run into one that really worked for me.

All this by way of introducing Linda Berdoll’s
Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife — which works in a very limited way.

One thing I would love to ask Jane (when we’re sitting in her garden and after I’ve explained to her the [asa left]1402202733[/asa] function of cortisone and why her inability to produce it is going to be fatal) is this: when we get to the most crucial scene in Pride and Prejudice, the one we’ve been working toward for so long, why does she step away? Darcy and Elizabeth are finally declaring mutual love and a future together, but we are no longer in scene. Very frustrating, really. I would guess she’d tell me that it was far too personal a conversation to put down on paper. I expect that’s exactly what the purists say, too: if Jane didn’t want it told, we should be satisfied to leave it at that. But of course, nobody is ever satisfied. Fictional characters live on and independently of their creators. Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy are a case in point; maybe the ultimate case in point. Linda Berdoll was not the first to sit down and write the story of what happens after they get married, and I doubt she’ll be the last. What sets her apart, though, is her willingness to explore the sexual relationship between them.

There is a lot of sex in this novel, probably too much. Some of it works very well; other bits don’t. Part of the problem is that Berdoll decided to try to emulate Jane’s late 18th century style and tone, which she pulls off only inconsistently. What she does do well is to give us scenes between Darcy and Elizabeth that go beyond sex, the very kinds of scenes that reveal so much about the inner person and the relationship. The passage I’m quoting here is after-the-fact. They have been married a very short time; Elizabeth, of course, has come to the marriage bed with very little concrete idea of what’s going to happen, but great willingness and an open mind (she is, thus far, still in character as Jane created her) — but she is also confused and at odds and worried that she’s not performing to expectations, because she doesn’t know how to interpret some of Darcy’s reactions and comments. That’s where this begins, with her misunderstanding of something he’s said having to do with her loss of virginity.

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. Copyright Linda Berdoll.

Before she had found reason or even anger at fate, which would have been a truer reaction for her nature, she bitterly (and with a great deal of self-pity) announced her obvious shortcoming.

“I am stunted,” she proclaimed.

Still in heaving contrition atop her, he raised himself upon both elbows and inquired, “You are what?”

“I cannot accomodate you. I am obviously stunted.”

Still raised upon his elbows, breathing heavily, but blinking at her remark in non-comprehension, he could only repreat, “You are ‘stunted’?”

“Yes.”

Impatient that he did not follow her reasoning, she explained to her exceedingly satisfied husband thusly, “My body obviously cannot meet your needs. I thought it was only at first, but you see now, it is not. I am stunted and cannot perform satisfactorily as your wife.”

“Lizzy, that is absurd!”

“‘Tis not absurd! You yourself said, ‘This will not do.’ Indeed, last night you said again and again that I was too small.”

“I said you were small, meaning….” he searched for an explanation.

“Paltry,” she answered for him.

“No. I meant, small — diminutive — petite. Lush and tight.”

At that unprecedented explictness, he well-nigh blushed.

Then, hastily, he continued. “It was a compliment, Lizzy, not a complaint. As far as my saying ‘it will not do,’ I only meant it would not do for me to continue to hurt you. That is my failing, not yours. I must rein myself in, for you are not too small. I am…” He flailed about for a delicate way to put it. “…rather large.”

“Oh.”

This was an interesting turn of events. The entire conundrum was the fault of his body, not hers.

She bid, “Do you mean too large?”

“I mean to say, you are small, but not too small.”

“You mean to say, you are not large, but too large?”

“I am not all that large…” he made a frustrated little half-snort, obviousy unhappy at the direction the conversation was taking, but that did not deter her curiosity.

“How large are you?”

“As you see.”

“Well, you must understand, sir, my frame of reference is somewhat limited. Would you not grant I have no true way to compare it?”

He almost smiled then reclaimed it, not wanting to encourage further discussion of the meritoriousness of his member. But he was tardy by half, leaving Elizabeth feeling saucy enough to inflict a tease.

“Are you large enough to incite gossip? Are you large enough to be put upon display in Piccadilly?”

By then thoroughly defensive, he said, “I said I was large, not a freak of nature.”

“I am just trying to get some idea of what sort of largeness we are dealing with here…”

“I should have said I was not small.”

“There is a very wide gap in definition betwixt ‘too large’ and ‘not small’.”

“It will have to simply remain so, for I refuse to discuss it further.”

He shook his head slightly, then said, “I truly believed I would be whispering endearments in your ear at this moment, not discussing logistiques.”

“But the dilemma has not been solved…”

“I promise you, Lizzy, it shall be solved,” he said. “With very diligent practice.”

I find this touching and funny, the idea of the very correct Mr. Darcy unable to extract himself from such a conversation. This playfulness is something we don’t see at all in Pride and Prejudice, but something we suspect is there beneath the surface — something we hope for. We want this Mr. Darcy for Elizabeth. A sexually aware, adventurous, considerate Darcy who is able to talk to Lizzy about their relationship, who stretches outside of his areas of comfort because he likes and loves her.

There are many little bits like this in the novel, where we see what falling in love has done — and continues to do — for Darcy. They both evolve, but he especially changes and grows, and it’s a delight. Those bits alone made the novel worthwhile for me; I could overlook or forgive almost every other kind of infelicity, given this window into the way the newly married are continuing to fall headlong in love.

Tomorrow I’ll try to draw out some guidelines that have been rising to the surface while I looked at these various sex scenes, or, maybe, I’ll do one more. If I can find the book.

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