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Review: Charlotte by Helen Moffet

Not many people finish Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice wondering about the fate of Charlotte Lucas. Post-canon interrogations of the novel have included: What if a murder happened on the Pemberley estate? What if Elizabeth Bennet was a millennial vlogger? What if zombies attacked England? All the above questions have been placed before: Whatever happened to Elizabeth’s friend, Charlotte?

The absence of Charlotte Lucas in modern retellings of Pride and Prejudice is understandable on paper. Charlotte marries arguably the most insufferable man in the novel (Wickham might have been a rake but at least he was entertaining) in a passionless, economically-motivated marriage. In comparison to the stirring will-they-won’t-they of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, Charlotte’s life appears cold and unfulfilling. Like Elizabeth, the reader observes Charlotte’s marriage as a necessary, pitiful evil. For a woman of thirty, with no dowry or remarkable beauty, Charlotte is what is known in Victorian England as a ‘woman with no prospects’— shown to be a polite euphemism for ‘old hag’.

Enter Helen Moffett’s debut novel Charlotte—both a re-telling of the events of Pride and Prejudice and a continuation of the novel. Charlotte Lucas is introduced as both a shrewd rationalist and loving mother, reeling from the loss of her young son, Tom. The marriage between Charlotte and William Collins is treated by Moffett as less of a death sentence than a mutually beneficial partnership. In recent years, the marriage economy has seen a renewed critical interest, whether it be the lavish scheming of Bridgerton or whispers of a new Austen-style dating show.  At its best, Charlotte emulates Austen’s own shrewd gaze of the marriage economy and the savviness required when your worth cannot be properly bartered. Confessions in the rain and marrying for love are possibilities if you have beauty and a dowry—but Charlotte Lucas must be calculative. At times, I wished the novel leaned further into the heroine’s savvy. Economic scheming can be narratively engaging (Austen’s own Emma and Lady Susan are evidence of this) while also critiquing the socioeconomic setting. In a confrontation with Lady Catherine, Charlotte is at her most engaging when forced to rely on her shrewd observations and economic know-how. This is the Charlotte Lucas that immediately recognised Bingley’s affections for Jane, who managed to finesse a marriage proposal only days after the man propositioned her best friend. At times, the novel spends too long in attempting to make these actions sympathetic instead of leaning into their scheming fun.

Helen Moffett’s Charlotte is firmly located as a character study, likely appealing more to fans of the book than newer readers. For lovers of Austen, Moffet deftly re-introduces a well-loved universe through the eyes of a peripheral character while providing an interesting meditation on what constitutes a romantic heroine.

 

 
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