Book Review: The Courtship of Edward Gardener (A Pride and Prejudice Prequel)

The Courtship of Edward Gardener follows Mr. Bennet, his brother-in-law Mr. Edward Gardener, and little Jane and Lizzy as they embark on a trip to the North of England. Their tour is interrupted when Jane falls ill, and they are forced to stop at an inn in the village of Lambton, which is situated close to Pemberley. (If you remember the name ‘Lambton’ from the books, it’s where Mrs. Gardener is originally said to be from.) There, Edward Gardener’s heart is stolen by local girl Madeline Fairbanks, who has been appointed as temporary caretaker to Jane. As Edward and Madeline’s courtship progresses, there are serendipitous meetings between young Lizzy and Darcy, and young Jane and Bingley. Lady Catherine makes an appearance or two, as do Georgiana Darcy, Anne de Bourgh, and George Wickham. Through clever craftsmanship, Nicole manages to have the characters interact, without straying from ‘canon’. (The canon being, most of these characters had not met each other until Bingley rented Netherfield. Or so we thought.) How Nicole manages to do this, (and with great success), is something one must discover for themselves, upon reading the book.

Nicole’s carefully preserves and builds upon the canonical personality traits of our beloved characters. Even as children, Elizabeth displays an easy and playful nature, and her interaction with a teenage Fritzwilliam Darcy is familiar of their dynamic in Pride and Prejudice. The young Darcy has many POV chapters, and is represented sympathetically, as a sensitive young man, a doting brother, and dutiful son. In many ways, this book is as much about young Darcy, as it is about the courtship of Edward Gardener.

Nicole excels at recreating the linguistic style and phrasing of our beloved Jane Austen and her characters. I would think, writing dialogue for the ever sarcastic Mr. Bennet is one of the hardest aspects of writing a Pride and Prejudice fan fic, but Nicole’s Mr. Bennet is as good as the original. (That is high compliment, I assure you!) Consider this exchange between Mr. Bennet and Lady Catherine, as her carriage approaches Bennet’s party of three (young Jane, Lizzy and himself), who are stranded in the middle of nowhere.

“How dare you importune my carriage!” A shrewish voice lashed out from within the compartment.

                  Accordingly, Mr Bennet looked to the principle passenger, whose face now appeared at the window. “I believe, Madam, that it was your driver whom I importuned.” Coolly, he turned his attention back to the man. “As I say, sir, my daughter is unable to walk the distance. Would you find it within your means-”

                  “Absolutely not!” vowed the mistress of the carriage. “You dare to speak impertinently to a member of the nobility! You address Lady Catherine de Bourgh, sir!”

                  “Forgive my mistake,” he returned mildly. “Be it as your ladyship is, as I am corrected, a member of the nobility, then quite certainly your ladyship is well acquainted with the privileges and obligations of rank.”

                  She sniffed a little. “Quite so. Drive on, Matheson!” she commanded.

                  Bennet held up a hand. “One moment, if your ladyship pleases. Our driver is competent enough, but like most, I fancy, is a chatty fellow. Should his efforts to deliver another conveyance have been frustrated, he will quite naturally expect that any other honest travelers could not fail to render aid to an injured girl. So much will certainly be assumed at the livery and hotels in Lambton- I presume your ladyship is to pass through there?”

                  “My affairs are no business of yours!” she proclaimed.

                  “Indeed not, my lady. And surely I would not wish for your ladyship’s name to be misrepresented. One never knows what talk may propagate.”

                  The lady visibly bristled at this. “Miscreant! Sir, I shall have you before the magistrates for defamation!”

                  “Completely unnecessary, I assure your ladyship. A truly great lady’s character could never be in doubt,” he bowed theatrically. “It is perpetually evident in her gracious manner and ready condescension toward the unfortunate.”

                  “I am always generous toward the unprosperous,” she retorted icily. “Vagabonds on the roadway are quite another matter. Matheson! Drive on immediately!”

                  The carriage started to roll away- the driver scarcely daring to look the stranded folk in the eye. While the lady was still within earshot, Thomas Bennet sang out, “I applaud your ladyship’s caution. One never knows when vagabonds will take on the guise of eight-year-old girls!”

Ah, classic Mr. Bennet!

Another passage from the book that stands out, is the first meeting between little Lizzy and Darcy. Nicole manages to encapsulate the Lizzy-Darcy dynamic within the span of one game of chess. Remember this is little Lizzy  and teenage Darcy, so it is that much harder to maintain canonical character traits while appropriating them to the age-groups in which they belong. But Nicole manages it with an easy charm that’s hard to resist. I am tempted to share that passage, but you’ll just have to read the book for that treat.

I will, however, share this passage from the book. Here teenage Darcy  teaches his little sister Georgiana how to play chess, and they have the following exchange, which is in essence a wonderful metaphor for the future Lizzy-Darcy relationship.

She glanced from left to right, taking in the whole board with furrowed brow. “How do you win?”

                  He squeezed her a little in encouragement. What a surprise to see that she was interested, and what a treat it might be over the next years to enjoy this particular pursuit with her! That little lass from Hertfordshire was not the only child who would be able to challenge him, he promised himself.

                  “It is rather complex. Each piece has its own role- fear not, dearest, I will teach you all of them in turn. Eventually, however, a player must move his pieces to the other side of the board, to force the other king into check.”

                  She nodded, her eyes wide with interest. “The king is the most important?”

                  He laughed silently. “He likes to think so, but the real power belongs to the queen. It is she who directs the king’s movements, and she who protects him when he advances.”

                  She stared hard at the carven piece, contemplating it deeply, before at last turning to him. “You need a good queen, then!”

                  “Indeed,” he chuckled.

Be warned however, this is not a book for those who love some romantic angst. Our Edward Gardener is a good man, who falls for a good woman. There isn’t much hand-wringing and misunderstanding and pining. Edward Gardener is less Darcy and Rochester; more awkward-yet-lovable boy-next-door. It was refreshing to find a male protagonist in a romance book who isn’t a rogue for once. If anything, Edward Gardener will remind you more of your real-life husband than a romance-cover leading man. There’s some merit in that.

If the plot sags a little around the 2/3rd mark (it was a literal and figurative calm after the storm) one doesn’t notice it much. The charming epilogue ties in the events in this book with book canon (i.e. Elizabeth and Darcy’s wedding, Jane and Bingley’s wedding), and we see how our characters have progressed since we left them last. The epilogue brings the story full circle and is the perfect ending to a sweet Pride and Prejudice prequel.

This book is listed in our JAFF books list. Check out our list here.
You can buy the audio book of The Courtship of Edward Gardiner at Audible here.
The kindle and paperback editions are available on amazon.com here,
and on amazon.uk here.

P.S. A word about the narration of Stevie Zimmerman. She’s got their quivering soprano voices down pat, and effortlessly switches her voice from child to teenage boy to commanding dowager. I thoroughly enjoyed her voice characterization of Lady Catherine and Mrs. Bennet.

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