Book Review: The Late Mrs. Willoughby by Claudia Gray
I enjoyed this pastiche of Jane Austen’s works – where the characters and their children are embroiled in murder mysteries after the events of her novels – even more than the first in the series, The Murder Of Mr. Wickham! I certainly squealed with even more volume and delight whenever our detecting duo thought of matters of the heart, particularly in regard to one another.
Let us speak of them first, these two characters invented by Claudia Gray almost entirely from whole cloth. Juliet Tilney is the 17-year-old daughter of Catherine Tilney, nee Morland, of Northanger Abbey and her parson husband Henry. While Juliet knows that her parents care far more for her personal growth than for her potential as a bride, she’s also aware that the primary job of a young woman of her status is to marry well. That’s only one of the reasons she’s accepted an invitation to visit Colonel and Mrs. Brandon (yes, of Sense And Sensibility) at their Devonshire estate, so she can expand her social circle beyond her own Gloucestershire home. More importantly to her, however, is the fast friendship she’s formed with Marianne Brandon over the course of their fateful visit to Surrey just a short while earlier.
Another visitor to the area can’t stop thinking about what happened at Surrey either. Jonathan Darcy, son of Pride And Prejudice’s Darcy and Elizabeth, knows he’s always been a bit of an odd duck. He greatly enjoyed getting to the heart of what happened to Mr. Wickham, and also deeply cherishes the friendship he struck up with his co-investigator, the young Miss Tilney. For now, however, he must put up with the odious faux friendship of the schoolmate who invited him to visit a newly inherited estate in Derbyshire. He wouldn’t have gone at all were it not for his parents’ fervent desire for him to cultivate his few links to his schooldays, never mind that Willoughby was always more tormentor to him than anything else.
Jonathan arrives in Derbyshire to discover that the small party Willoughby has assembled – consisting of themselves, two other schoolmates named Follet and Bamber, and Willoughby’s new wife Sophia – is already more prickly than even he, socially oblivious as he can be, finds comfortable, as this chat one evening proves:
Follett said, “Many do marry for fortune–it cannot be denied. I doubt whether they are always happy with the bargain they have struck.”
“I suspect they are not,” said Mrs. Willoughby. “Nor do they deserve to be. Those who marry for purely material considerations, with no thought of love, or even concern for the person they marry–I say there is no punishment too great for them.”
“No doubt their marriages are punishment enough.” Willoughby said it as though it were a joke. Why did Jonathan sense that it was not?
Anyone who’s read Sense And Sensibility knows that Willoughby led on poor Marianne when they were younger and single, then abruptly threw her over when he had the chance to marry someone with money instead. That someone was Miss Sophia Grey, who is repenting at leisure her decision to believe her beloved instead of the country girl who was besotted with him. Jonathan has already been calculating the minimum number of days he can stay without arousing reproach from his hosts, his parents and society at large. His dismay at being forced into such a poisonous atmosphere is swiftly alleviated however when he learns that Juliet is in the area, too.
The two friends are ecstatic to reunite, leading the gossips to wonder and tease. But our duo finds they have even more pressing business to attend to when Sophia is fatally poisoned at the very first party held during their stay. Gossip, of course, immediately lays the blame on Marianne. Once more, Jonathan and Juliet must keep their investigations incognito as they race to discover the truth and stop their friend from being socially ruined at best, or condemned to the gallows at the very worst.
I often find modern day pastiches of great authors more laudable for the effort than the entertainment, but I absolutely adore this series, and love the intriguingly realistic way Ms. Gray has posited murder mysteries out of the very rich universe Ms. Austen originally created. I also love the way that Ms. Gray, much like her predecessor, muses on important topics such as death, integrity and, of course, the complexities of love, as Colonel Brandon worries about the effect Willoughby’s residence in their neighborhood will have on his young wife:
What I believed Willoughby to be, you truly are, Marianne had said to him, professing her love for her husband in warmer, more heartfelt words than he had ever dreamed he might hear. Yet who could say how being with Willoughby again would influence her? Even if she had come to love Brandon–did it necessarily follow that she could not still love Willoughby as well? Brandon carried in his heart both his true affection for Marianne and the embers of feeling for his long-dead Eliza, so he knew better than most that the spirit can contain more than one passion and that those passions could contradict without ever overcoming each other.
The Late Mrs. Willoughby was wholly satisfying to me as an Austen fan, though as a mystery fan, I thought the motive could have been fleshed out just a wee bit more. I was very enraptured by the very plausible, and often hilarious, extrapolations Ms. Gray made as to what might have happened next in the lives of Ms. Austen’s characters, though. The Ferrars family visit, in particular, was a wincingly funny contrast to the tragedy of Sophia’s death.
I am already so impatient for the next book in the series. It is allegedly set a week after the events in this one, and I wish it were only a week till I could get my hands on it, too!