Tara was kind enough to alert me to the existence of a book about Charlotte Lucas, who is Elizabeth Bennet’s friend in Pride and Prejudice. We had so many feelings about this very strange book, which involves Gothic emotion and SO MUCH SEX, plus at least two flights across the moors, which I can only assume were dutifully wuthering.
Discussion of previous rape experiences
For those who are rusty on their Austen, here’s the background: Charlotte Lucas agrees to marry the odious Mr. Collins, to Elizabeth Bennet’s horror, in Pride and Prejudice. Austen did not write Gothic novels, with the sort-of-exception of Northanger Abbey, which has a protagonist who desperately wants to be in one but is stymied by ordinary events at every turn. While Lucas features an Austen character, it does not imitate Austen’s style.
Lucas begins after Charlotte has been married for several years. It is in the form of letters that Charlotte writes to Elizabeth even though she knows she can’t send them (too lurid!). It tells the tale of a forbidden and sexy romance between Lucas and a sexy newcomer, the mysterious Ailsa.
Tara: I haven’t read a Gothic novel since university, but holy shit did this book drag me back and remind me of all the stuff I loved about them. Angst, drama, and passion! Lucas had it all. It sucked me in right away because it captured the feel of early 19th century fiction just well enough, even if it had some stuff that raised my eyebrow on many an occasion and left me saying “wait, what?!?!!!”
CarrieS: It’s not that many Gothic things HAPPEN in Lucas, with the exception of Ailsa’s very Gothic backstory. It’s more the tone of Gothic. Why are Charlotte and Ailsa in love? They just ARE, OK? Their souls cry out to each other the moment their eyes meet. I don’t make the rules, people. That’s just how it is. Which makes it especially hilarious when the hyper-elevated emotion meets the everyday, to Charlotte’s immense frustration. These tensions are so cleverly done!
Tara: Yes, exactly! The writing itself is also often quite beautiful and I found myself frequently highlighting lines, like when Charlotte writes about Ailsa showing up at her home. “But there indeed was Ailsa, Miss Ailsa Reid, whose very name brings a thrill to my veins, spring to my heart in the midst of autumn.” Or when Mr. Collins is upset with Charlotte for not visiting Lady Catherine de Bourgh when he’d expected her to (the greatest of sins!) and she compares him to what their son may have grown into if he’d lived: “He was overwhelmed, an overgrown boy close to weeping. Would my Henry have looked something like it, had he been suffered to live? A phantom pain passed through my soul. I extended my hand to my son and found my husband’s shoulder.” (I actually shivered when I read that bit.)
Some of the characters worked very well for me because the author does such a good job of tapping into the essence of who they were in Pride and Prejudice. For example, Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine both continue to be the worst. Charlotte can’t stand either of them because Lady Catherine is just as insufferably snobbish as ever and Mr. Collins lives to serve her.
I thought Charlotte was true to who she was in the original, but with a character arc that hinges on the question of “what if she DID find the love of her life and that person just happened to be a woman?” She’s never grown to love Mr. Collins, occasionally gives in to sex with him because she feels obligated, and tries her best to spend as little time with him as possible. Her guilt at falling in love with Ailsa is kind of sad, because Mr. Collins clearly doesn’t love Charlotte either, but it’s also to her credit because she wants to do right by everyone in her life including the man who gave her protection by marrying her.
CarrieS: I thought the book did a good job of answering the age old question, “Why does Charlotte marry Mr. Collins?” This question is answered in Pride and Prejudice, where Charlotte explains her pragmatic reasons for marrying Mr. Collins. However, he is so awful, that generations of readers have questioned whether Charlotte’s answer is sufficient – is Mr. Collins really Charlotte’s best option? As pragmatic as Charlotte’s answer is, can it possibly justify her marrying someone as flat out odious as Mr. Collins?
This book gives more context to her decision, and even shows how, had she and Mr. Collins had children, she might have been relatively happy. The possibility of actually experiencing a requited passion is overwhelming to her in a way that I thought made a lot of sense even though she’s essentially falling madly in love with someone whom she does not know.
Tara: Some of the other characterizations came across as totally off the wall to me. Anne de Bourgh has a penchant for being spanked by strange women, which upon learning, I slacked CarrieS with “I don’t know the appropriate emoji for this” (and I still don’t).
CarrieS: Charlotte’s baffled response to this was hilarious – she doesn’t kink shame, but she has simply no frame of reference for this information. I have to confess that I was fine with Anne’s revelation and thought it described an interesting possibility for the life of her character.
Tara: Totally fair. And it didn’t throw me nearly as much as Ailsa’s maidservant, Lilly, who is like a mother to her. Lilly does some of the most off the wall shit I could never have anticipated. Like, she was the most bonkers of all in Lucas, and not in a good way.
Ailsa’s backstory includes being raped, regularly, by her cousin so she’ll be forced to marry him. Lilly had helped Ailsa escape, which is how she ended up moving to the area and how Ailsa and Charlotte meet. At one point, when Ailsa and Charlotte are accompanying the de Bourghs in Bath, Ailsa freaks out (understandably), because her rapist is there.
How did he find her? Well, Lilly is SO HORRIFIED that Ailsa and Charlotte are in love and she wants to save Ailsa from a sinful life, that she alerted the rapist to Ailsa’s whereabouts. We learn this through a deathbed confession to Charlotte, because Lilly poisons herself just enough that she looks sick. As soon as she gets Charlotte to agree to walk away from Ailsa, Lilly finishes the job with more poison. I wanted to throw my Kindle across the room, because what in the actual fuck?
CarrieS: I agree, I was willing to buy into many things in the course of this novel but I did not for a single minute believe in Lilly’s final words and actions, nor did I buy Charlotte’s response to them.
Tara: I also want to note that I was surprised by how much sex there is in this book. Because there is A LOT of it. These ladies have sex everywhere. I mean it. If they are at the same place together, there’s a really good chance they bang there. So, if you’ve ever said “I wish there were more sex in Gothic novels,” then have I got good news for you.
After sleeping on it, I still don’t know for sure how I feel about this book. I had fun reading it. I was occasionally making this face because of its contents (most of the things in the CW above made me seriously uncomfortable and took away from the fun factor). Like I mentioned under the spoiler tag, some of the character work didn’t make sense to me, which negatively affected my reading experience. Do I recommend it? Maybe, but with caveats: you should be familiar with Pride and Prejudice and treat this like P&P Gothic AU fanfic. For me, I think this hovers somewhere around a C+/B-.
Carrie: Yes, this is a very hard book to grade because its tone is so specific. I was in just the right mood for Bonkers Gothic Lesbians so I enjoyed it. It just hit a great spot for me even though it was ridiculous (they bang EVERYWHERE!!). But it does have some serious problems. For one thing, Charlotte and Ailsa fall into insta-lust the moment their eyes meet. That abides by the rules of Gothic, but it doesn’t make for a very nuanced relationship, although they grow closer in terms of mutual support and shared secrets over time. Also, a lot of the plot relies on the actions of Lilly, who behaves in a completely unbelievable manner. Everything is super melodramatic, which, again, is in accordance with Gothic but not with anything else, so if you don’t like the genre it doesn’t work.
This is for sure a love it or hate it book and not only reader-by-reader but even day-by-day. If you are in the mood for Bonkers Gothic Lesbians, then it’s at least a B+. If inconsistent and utterly nonsensical characterization is going to annoy you, then it’s no higher than a C-. Tara and I finally threw our hands in the air and split the difference with a C+.