Friday, May 8, 2020

Alone at Longbourn

I think most of us know that Jane Austen in general and Pride and Prejudice in particular have a few fans. And that some of those fans write novels about Austen’s characters or set in Austen’s world. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Bennet—everyone’s favorite, as Janice Hadlow notes in my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview about her just-published novel, The Other Bennet Sister—has entire series centered on her as well as individual novels about her married life with Mr. Darcy and his younger sister, Georgiana.

But Lizzie is easy to love. She’s attractive, witty, graceful, and sparkling. She dances well, and although less technically proficient at the piano than others, including her earnest sister Mary, she plays with such spirit that no one notices her flaws. Like her creator, Lizzie has a gift for skewering the smug with a well-turned phrase. She seldom finds herself at a loss in any situation. No doubt even she sometimes suffers from embarrassment or makes an error, but most of the time she has the enviable ability to do and say the right thing.

Not so Mary—characterized by Austen herself as awkward, plain, and pompous. Bookish in a time when reading was not a quality much valued in young women, serious and rather literal-minded, Mary doesn’t have a place in her family or in the social world the Bennets occupy. She appears only occasionally in Pride and Prejudice, always under circumstances that disadvantage her. Again quoting Hadlow, Austen doesn’t much like Mary, and it shows. 

It seems natural to wonder what life looks like through this under-valued character’s eyes and imagine what might happen to her in later years. But doing so convincingly is a more difficult proposition. This is where Hadlow excels: the years that went into this obvious labor of love produce a richly textured, wholly believable, and sympathetic Mary whose winding emotional path at last brings her into contact with the perfect person for her. It would be churlish to reveal more about who that is and how they meet, but I will say that Mary’s story develops within a series of contrasting futures extrapolated from the original novel. There are some intriguing parallels between this book and Pamela Mingle’s The Pursuit of Mary Bennet (2013), but many more differences. If you liked that earlier novel, I’m pretty sure you will like this one too.

Moreover, in recasting and extending Austen’s well-known novel, Hadlow ends up affirming a point made by Maya Rodale in another recent interview  about romance novels more generally: that happy endings need not be restricted to the beautiful, the rich, the witty, or the titled. Even the Mary Bennets of the world deserve to find someone who loves and appreciates them. And that’s an encouraging thought, especially in a time when so many of us can hardly get together with our nearest and dearest, never mind search the world for a long-time partner.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction:

It is well known that the novels of Jane Austen (1775–1817), which enjoyed at best a modest success during her lifetime, have become ever more popular in the last fifty years or so. They support a small industry of remakes, spinoffs, and retellings. As Janice Hadlow notes while discussing The Other Bennet Sister (Henry Holt, 2020), one reason for that interest lies with Austen herself. A genius at characterization, Austen drops tiny pearls of insight into one secondary character after another throughout her novels, and these seeds, when properly nurtured, can develop in unexpected ways.

The Other Bennet Sister focuses on the life of the middle sister in Pride and Prejudice. Stuck between an older pair—beautiful, gentle Jane and pretty, sprightly Lizzie—and a younger duo whose good looks and sheer love of life compensate for a certain lack of decorum, Mary is bookish, awkward, and plain. In a family where the daughters’ only acceptable future requires them to marry well without the plump dowries that would make them attractive to men of their own gentry class, Mary’s traits doom her (at least in her mother’s eyes) to an unhappy and lonely spinsterhood. Even her scholarly father underestimates Mary, because she lacks the wit and self-confidence that so distinguish Lizzie, his favorite.

Hadlow has given deep thought to what it would mean to grow up as Mary—what she wants, how she feels, which twists of fate and family turn her into the character we meet so briefly in Austen’s novel. But then The Other Bennet Sister goes beyond Pride and Prejudice to imagine how the Marys of the world might find happiness, even in the early nineteenth century. It is a captivating and heartening story, and you need not be an Austen fan to appreciate the journey.

Image: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, as illustrated by Hugh Thomson (1894). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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