The Ballad of Gregoire Darcy by Marsha Altman. Ulysses Press (May 10, 2011). ISBN: 978-1-56975-937-0. Pages 424 plus Bibliography and Acknowledgement. Trade Paperback. $14.95 (Amazon: $10.91 / Kindle: $9.99).
Previous books in the series: The Darcys & the Bingleys: A Tale of Two Gentlemen’s Marriages to Two Most Devoted Sisters (Sourcebooks); The Plight of the Darcy Brothers: A Tale of The Darcys and the Bingleys (Sourcebooks); and Mr. Darcy’s Great Escape (Sourcebooks).
With The Ballad of Grégoire Darcy, Marsha Altman has changed publishers — however, the writing and story crafting are as well executed as ever. This book moves forward the lives of Jane Austen’s original characters as well as those that have been added over the last three books. Since the end of Pride and Prejudice, children have been born to Darcy and Elizabeth, Bingley and Jane, Charlotte and Mr. Collins, Carolyn Bingley and her husband Dr. Maddox, Mary Bennet, and to Lydia and Wickham and also to Lydia’s new husband. The children now are of an age to be looking forward to going away for the education (if they are boys) and to be finished if they are girls.
The world is changing rapidly and the society that Austen wrote about, while still in existence, is being changed by the rise of the middle class and the movement to gain government funding for public education. This book is purportedly about Grégoire Darcy, though it also moves between the lives of the other characters — the changes in Grégoire’s life impacts others as they have an impact on his life. The first change was when Darcy made him promise to stop whipping himself and found him a place in a Benedictine cloister where Darcy believed he’d be safe.
Grégoire has devoted his life to the church. Now-a-days there are many ways of serving — of helping to make the world a better place — but in this age the church, as it had been for many many years, was the first such thought for those who wanted to dedicate their lives to a higher good. The problem for Grégoire is that his desire is not politically motivated but from a deep commitment to God and his religion. It’s his desire to help that leads him to use his funds to help those in need within the range of his abbey. When the church learns of his funds, they punish him for hiding it from them and demand he turn control over to the church, which he cannot do for Darcy can deny the church access. His punishment nearly causes his death — which moves the bishop to want to declare Grégoire a saint. Meanwhile, Grégoire’s abbot is trying desperately to find a way to save him from this fate, for the abbot comes from a family highly placed in the church and he knows the political maneuvering that goes on in Rome. Luckily, Grégoire is rescued from this conflict of interests because Darcy, worried when he hadn’t heard from his brother, sends a trusted family member to check on him. Grégoire is returned to England — near death and excommunicated from the church — and into the care of Dr. Maddox.
It’s from this point that Grégoire struggles to understand what has happened to him and how to reconcile his beliefs and his desire to serve God to the facts of his excommunication. He now questions everything and feels that he has no compass to guide him. Meanwhile other family members are also having their own problems.
Altman manages to move from one part of the story to another and to weave together a coherent tale of the duties, joys, sorrows, and importance of family using the various threads to explore the variations on a theme. When a continuation of the Pride and Prejudice story grows through the addition of characters and a second generation, the author usually narrows the focus of the books to a single story line and will then follow with bringing another character up through the same time period. Altman manages to balance the narrative by time-slicing — moving in order between the various plot lines to bring them all to some conclusion by the end of the book. This is great news for the reader for you don’t have to wonder what is happening to one group while reading about another — you just need to keep reading and you’ll find out. On the other hand, it’s a difficult task for a writer to balance the narrative between plot lines and to keep it all coherent with smooth transitions for the reader. Marsha Altman gets an excellent grade for this — though I can’t help wondering if with the increase in family she’ll be able to do this much longer.
However she does the next book, I know that I will read it. I will most likely enjoy it. And, I’m already looking forward to it. She’s managed to keep the integrity of the original characters and allow them to grow and change with the times while telling interesting and historically relevant stories. Who could ask for more?