If we were all being honest, I wonder what the actual percentage of women would be who ever thought even for a moment that it would be better to be a man? I’m sure age, maturity, and situation would be major factors in the outcome. For Alethea Darcy it is more than a passing thought. In The Exploits & Adventures of Miss Alethea Darcy by Elizabeth Aston, Alethea goes so far as to actually pose as a man in order to escape an unhappy marriage.
Alethea is the youngest of five daughters of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. With the help of her loyal maid Figgins, who also dresses as a man, Alethea runs away from her husband’s home in the English country and sets out on a journey to seek refuge with her second oldest and dearest sister Camilla in Venice, Italy. However, it is a long journey from the English country to Venice with unexpected detours, strange encounters, and plenty of adventures as Alethea’s path crosses with Titus Manningtree.
Titus is on his own mission to recover a lost painting that belonged to his father. He is a grouch of a man after fighting in the war, and having his heart broken. To further his general ire with the world there is someone out to get the painting first without any care to whom it truly belongs. Retrieving his painting becomes a kind of cloak and tagger race with his rival, George Warren.
All journeys converge at a little inn where Alethea, Figgins, Titus, George, along with four other interesting characters are stuck until the mountain pass clears. Althea and Figgins must hold on to their charade while tensions (sexual and social) among the guests with their various agendas and interests conspire to make things difficult. Being all English, with the exception of one, the guests are contently encouraged to dine together and carry on in English social fashion. Once the pass is clear enough the group take their chances together, but the adventures also continue.
Aston explores some of the less savory aspects of human behavior and vice, and while much is only hinted at or spoken of without vulgar detail this is not the world of which Jane Austen had written. At times my mind wanted to balk, but Alethea’s story is one of great interest, appealing to that part of me that prefers bittersweet endings rather than completely sappy ones. I like characters that struggle for their dreams and freedoms, that win, but at a cost. Alethea is that kind of character, as are others in Aston’s world.
My favorite character is Lady Hermione Wytton, who spends most of the novel receiving letters from Belinda Atcombe sharing the latest news in London. When Lady Hermione finally does come on to the scene she proves the most wise and level headed of people. In a strange way she is like the fairy godmother of the book, though she has no magic–just a shrewd, clever mind wrapped in a calm, comforting surety. One of my favorite quotes from the book is spoken by her to Alethea.
“All women become disillusioned with men, as I dare say all men do with women. When we are young, we make gods and goddesses of one another, then we soon come to realise that we are all merely human and imperfect.”
It should be noted that the title of the book is The Exploits & Adventures of Miss Alethea Darcy and so one should not pick up this book and expect a sedate and steady story. There are exploits and adventures along with scandals and intrigue. I enjoyed it, and am even curious to read Mr. Darcy’s Daughters which is the book that Aston wrote before this one.