I follow West Australian author (and farmhand) Fiona Palmer on social media so she’s writing what she knows in her books set in rural Australia. I do usually steer clear of rural romance, just because I’m not a fan of romance novels, however… my love of Jane Austen outweighs my meh-ness for romance so I found myself ploughing (ie. reading quickly and eagerly) through Palmer’s new release, Matters of the Heart, which is based on one of Austen’s more famous books, Pride and Prejudice.
Matters of the Heart
by Fiona Palmer
Published by Hachette Australia
on August 27th 2019
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Women's Fiction
Western Australia, 2019: The Bennets are a farming family struggling to make ends meet. Lizzy, passionate about working the land, is determined to save the farm. Spirited and independent, she has little patience for her mother's focus on finding a suitable man for each of her five daughters.
When the dashing Charles Bingley, looking to expand his farm holdings, buys the neighbouring property of Netherfield Park, Mrs Bennet and the entire district of Coodardy are atwitter with gossip and speculation. Will he attend the local dance and is he single? These questions are soon answered when he and Lizzy's sister Jane form an instant connection on the night. But it is Charlie's best friend, farming magnate Will Darcy, who leaves a lasting impression when he slights Lizzy, setting her against him.
Can Lizzy and Will put judgements and pride aside to each see the other for who they really are? Or in an age where appearance and social media rule, will prejudice prevail?
Of course the fact I’ve read P&P a few times and seen the mini-series featuring Colin Firth (and other people, but whatevs) many MANY times meant I knew exactly how this story was going to unfold.
Most interesting was probably what Palmer decided to retain faithfully from the original and how she updated and reinvigorated the tale to suit rural Australia in the 21st century.
Most characters are as we expect from the Austen tale, though Mrs Bennet isn’t quite as unlikeable. Happily also it’s not suggested Lizzy’s offered up to a cousin, but Mr Collins is (instead) a tenant on their land. We don’t have the dour Lady Catherine (Darcy’s aunt) but actually meet Mr and Mrs Bingley (who I don’t believe featured in P&P).
And of course, in this day and age, the Bennet family can hardly be socially cursed if the ditsy Lydia runs off with Mr Wickham (here a rodeo rider and occasional truck driver), although I do think she’s only 15, so… I guess there’s the whole statutory rape thing.
This was a delightful read. Palmer obviously knows farming and life on the land and effortlessly references technical stuff in a reader-friendly way. I particularly liked that Lizzy was not just feisty like her early 19th century counterpart but ambitious in terms of her farming future and passionate about the land. In fact, unlike the original Miss Elizabeth Bennet she’s not just smart and sassy but driven in a way the original wasn’t. (Or at least, couldn’t be in a professional / life purpose-sense in that era; with this Lizzie impressing Charlie and even Will Darcy with her crop-related knowledge and expertise, and leaving a university-educated agronomist in her wake.)
Obviously property is no longer sequestered away for male heirs, but there’s still a level of sexism given outsiders’ surprise that it’s Lizzie running the family farm (and making a go of it now) when her father couldn’t.
I really liked that Palmer reflects on challenges for modern day farmers, those on the land and in rural communities impacted by mother nature and the economy, and the fact her characters struggle with depression and anxiety.
She also incorporates ‘technology’ fairly effortlessly and the Bennet girls were able to cyber-stalk Charlie Bingley via Instagram before meeting him, and his sister Caroline (vying for Darcy’s attention here more than in the original) is a blogger and (ahem) influencer.
Like the original, our young lovers don’t get to spend much time together before declaring undying love, but at least there’s talk of ‘dating’ and – of course – sex. Although the latter is done very subtly and with no cringe-factor.
I really enjoyed Palmer’s take on Austen’s story of pride, conceit and judgement. I think she’s managed to stick to the intent of the original and give it a realistic feel. I suspect – in fact – there would be many who aren’t familiar with the original who wouldn’t see it as at all derivative and though that’s what drove me to read it, I’m very very glad I did and…. dare I say it (?!) am perhaps reminded that I should broaden my reading repertoire a little so my reading fodder isn’t all dark and dire.
Book-clubbers familiar with the original would certainly enjoy discussions on this book and how it differs from the original and how aptly it reflects today’s world.
Matters of the Heart by Fiona Palmer was published in Australia by Hachette and now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.