It is with considerable trepidation that I ever read a sequel to one of Jane Austen's novels, because they seldom accord with my own opinion of how the story could or should continue. The tagline of Willoughby's Return, though, drew me in straight away - "A tale of almost irresistible temptation".
The premise is delicious. Marianne Dashwood is now happily married to Colonel Brandon, and mistress of Delaford. Her life is everything it should be, and she is perfectly happy and conscious of her own good fortune. All that remains is to see her now eighteen-year-old sister Margaret settled as advantageously.
Enter the "almost irresistible temptation". Willoughby's sudden return into the neighbourhood disrupts this happy scene and makes Marianne increasingly uneasy. He makes it clear, very early in their reacquaintance, that he greatly regrets his marriage and is as much in love with her as ever.
Colonel Brandon's ward's daughter, Lizzy, is a frail, ill child, and Brandon frequently travels away from home to help tend to her. This places an increasing strain on the Brandons' marriage, and makes the temptation of Willoughby's attentions all the more powerful.
Jane Odiwe follows the form of Jane Austen's novels admirably. She weaves the existing characters with such new characters as Jane Austen herself would approve. We are introduced to the indolent invalid Lady Lawrence; her dashing son Henry; and my favourite new character, Mademoiselle de Fontenay, who is surely modelled on Jane Austen's own cousin, Eliza de Feuillide. Old favourites, such as Lucy Ferrars, make a number of appearances and are as irritating as ever.
But, here's the rub. My objections to Willoughby's Return are not based on any failings in the novel itself, but rather in my own expectations - as I mentioned at the beginning. My Marianne would be happily married, but in a quieter, more sedate way, rather than the passionate love affair portrayed here. My Marianne would be more jaded, grateful to Colonel Brandon for loving her despite her indiscretions, because my Marianne was no virgin when she married.
(Regular readers of this blog might remember an earlier post on this subject - if you'd like to read it again, it's here: http://janetravers.blogspot.com/2010/02/jane-austen-and-sex-before-marriage.html )
However, the ending is satisfying and is all that it should be, even for me. Jane Odiwe's interpretations of Jane Austen's works might differ slightly from my own, but I thoroughly enjoyed this sequel, and the characters have stayed with me - particularly the masterful creation, Mademoiselle de Fontenay, who could have been created by Jane Austen herself.
As an Austen-related work I give it 4 out of 5.