By Sheryl Pockrose
The Meyersons of Meryton, by Mirta Ines Trupp
Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice” is so well-known that there is a genre of historical fiction just for sequels to it written by modern authors. “The Myersons of Meryton” is one of these, picking up the action right where Austen left off, and introducing a Jewish family into the mix, based on some actual Jewish history in England during the Regency period.
As readers of the original novel will know, Elizabeth Bennet is about to marry Darcy in a double ceremony, with her older sister Jane set to marry Charles Bingley. In this sequel, before the two couples’ engagement period is over, the preparations in the Bennet household are interrupted by last-minute overnight guests, the Meyersons, rumored to have connections to the House of Rothschild. The Meyersons are friends of the Gardiners and are moving on short notice to Meryton due to work of a confidential nature that Mr. Meyerson needs to complete there. When they need a place to stay until they can find a permanent home, the Gardiners secure extra rooms at the Bennet’s for the family.
There are few tense moments when Mrs. Bennet makes some uncomfortable remarks upon hearing that Mr. Meyerson is a rabbi, but this provides an opportunity for an interfaith dialogue that goes into quite a bit of detail about Judaism in the first half of the book. One can imagine the stuffy Mrs. Bennet regretting that she started asking nosy questions as they all receive detailed lessons on Judaism from the rabbi, but it leads to an understanding that helps all of them become friends. Noticing the tense relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the rabbi tells them about the Jewish prayer that husbands say in praise of their wives, and suggests that Mr. Bennet remember the good things about his marriage.
The reality of Christians trying to get Jews to convert is mentioned, when Mary Bennet brings up “The Society Promoting Christianity Amongst Jews’ which she characterizes as an organization that “rescues” unhappy Jews. The rabbi pointedly assures her that Jews do not need to be rescued. The Bennet family’s interest and general cordial attitude towards a Jewish family would not have been unusual in the nineteenth century, when some Christian groups latched onto kosher dietary laws as possibly being better for health. “The Jewish Manual : Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery” was published in 1846 and is considered to be the first Jewish cookbook in English. It was written by Lady Judith Cohen Montefiore in response to their Christian friends who attended dinners at their home, where all meals were kosher, expressing interest in preparing the dishes themselves.
In addition to the Regency romance parts of the plot, and the relationship between the Christians and Jews, there is also a bit of espionage and suspense. Mr. Bennet is a government worker and has identified counterfeit gold bullion appearing in the funds needed to help the Duke of Wellington’s army defeat Napoleon in France. Since much of the funding originated with the Rothschilds, the government needs someone with connections in Jewish society to look into it. It is Rabbi Meyerson who is sent to Meryton to look into the situation and identify the traitors. And, while Meyerson and the counterfeiting story are strictly fiction, in fact Nathan Rothschild is credited with financing the majority of the British war effort from 1813 to 1815.
Mr. Meyerson’s investigation affects the wedding plans and brings his son David to town. It also leads to life-threatening circumstances for himself, Mr. Bennet, Darcy, and Colonel Fitzwilliam.
The new characters interact with the old, sometimes bringing out aspects of personalities that were not apparent in Austen’s work. Mary, who is the ignored quiet sister in Austen’s novel, finds acceptance and encouragement from her new Jewish acquaintances for her interest in study and literature. Not all of the original characters improve – Wickham is still greedy and insensitive, causing problems for his in-laws and Darcy. Readers of the original may feel some satisfaction when he is sent away to a penal colony.
Obviously there is a lot going on, keeping the various plots going, and readers who are not familiar with “Pride and Prejudice” may sometimes feel like they were left out until the end of some stories. In an author’s note at the end of the book, Trupp says that historical fiction of that time period is her particular interest, and so this sequel may appeal the most to readers with a similar focus. She has not been satisfied with how Jews were either left out of novels entirely, or were portrayed based on superficial stereotypes. She researched what Jewish life really was like at that time, and the historical details about the workings of British society provide a glimpse into how things might have been in the more privileged segment of society. The dialogue and descriptions are not written to reflect the exact style of Jane Austen, but they also seem to be from an earlier time than our current fiction. If you enjoy Regency fiction, and especially Austen, you will probably enjoy this continuation of the lives of those characters as they mingle with new ones.