Book Review and Q&A: Mary Bennet by Jennifer Paynter

‘Pride, Prejudice and the forgotten sister…’ – cover of Mary Bennet

This book is a beautiful read, repackaging Mary Bennet from before Pride and Prejudice took place all the way through to after the novel ends, showing us the sisters and the scenarios through her eyes. It’s a refreshing look at the characters (Mr Bennet and Lizzy don’t always fare so well) and it’s written in a way that stays completely true to Jane Austen, but also gives us entirely new storylines and characters to enjoy.

I picked this copy up from Better Read Than Dead in Newtown, Sydney for $29.95 ISBN: 9780670075706 but I’ve also seen several copies in my local Dymocks (Rouse Hill Town Centre). Published April this year (2012) through Penguin’s Viking imprint, I was doubly excited to learn that Jennifer Paynter is a Sydney-sider, and that this is her first book. You wouldn’t know it! I read it somewhat nervously to begin with, having frowned upon another Australian writer, Colleen McCullough’s, attempt at re-writing Mary previously, but found these fears completely misplaced. Just as ‘No two views of a ball will be exactly alike,’ as is said in the book, no two views of the events in Pride and Prejudice will be alike (from readers or the characters) and this novel is an excellent exploration of this premise.

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering just why Mary is so dour, where these ridiculous preachy comments from her come from and why she sang at the Netherfield Ball, then you will love this. She’s fleshed out and crafted into, actually, quite an attractive personality. While Ms Paynter doesn’t attempt to make her a witty Lizzy, and she keeps her awkwardness, Mary gets more than just our sympathy and really becomes likable while retaining the character she is in Jane Austen’s text.

The way the alternative storylines Mary is involved in outside of Pride and Prejudice have been intertwined with the novel is skilfully done, allowing Mary to have quite an exciting and eventful life of her own, and we are never bored by hearing the ‘same old’ Pride and Prejudice storyline again. We are also introduced to many great new characters, including Cassandra (the painter and confidante of Mary), Helen (Cassandra’s sister who is caught up in her own Wickham scandal), the previous tenants of Netherfield Park and Peter Bushell (the sweetheart) that keep things interesting. Personally, I adore Peter as a character, and you almost believe that he existed all the way through P&P even if Austen didn’t write him.

For the Australians reading, there’s plenty to be excited about. Without giving away too much, there is plenty of talk of Sydney and Parramatta, as well as convicts and settlers. Being located close to Parramatta myself, and having visited the mentioned Old Government House with a lot of interest before due to the rich history it has, it was really fun to see them discussed and gave the book another dimension for me. I definitely think Old Government House is a worthwhile visit, especially if you have just finished reading this book, as it is full of beauty and information about the time frame (also, there are ghost tours available that I’m really keen on attending, and there are some gruesome details about the property that many of the tour guides will tell you e.g. when I was there, the tour guide pointed out where the wife of Governor Fitzroy, Lady Mary Fitzroy, was killed after she was flung from a carriage onto a tree due to the driver going too fast … who knew, road fatalities in the 1800s!).

Having moved from England to Sydney myself, I certainly related to some of the points discussed (such as the differing sense of natural beauty, with the coarse Australian bushland and wattle flowers being so different from the UK’s soft meadow-style and chirping birds, and the sense of being so far from home it’s almost backwards at times).

There are some nice descriptions that, I think, are indicative of the fact that Ms Paynter is widely read. For instance, nearer the end of the novel in describing a long journey, on a boat named Odyssey, there are certain passages that (upon speaking with my sub-editor at work about them) are thoroughly suggestive of Homer’s The Odyssey (‘rosy-fingered dawn’ I believe was the homeric passage that seemed reflected in Paynter’s line ‘the pink sky, the foam-laced waves, the sun fingering the dark horizontal rocks of the cliff face’) and throughout there are quotations from Shakespeare, discussions of Oedipus, as well as direct comments from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner etc. I really liked the way lines gave a whole new sense to a chapter (such as ‘O brave new world’ – The Tempest) and a backdrop that most of us literature obsessives can really sink our teeth into.

Jennifer Paynter (pictured below signing copies at a Jane Austen Society meeting) was more than happy to answer some questions for us here at The Bennet Sisters to shed some more light on the novel.

What was the first Austen novel you read, and how old were you?
Emma, and I was 20—the same age as Emma Woodhouse, and also Elizabeth Bennet. I read it as a university text and at first I found it slow-going, but because I had to read it carefully, it grew on me. Soon afterwards, I read Austen’s five other novels with great pleasure.

What is your favourite Austen novel and why?
Mansfield Park. The engine of the story, Mrs Norris, is such a monster, with as much malevolent energy as Shakespeare’s Iago, and then there’s the passivity of the heroine, Fanny Price—at least in the first half of the novel. It always unsettles me because Jane Austen seems to be writing against her own bias—vitality is suspect—and Austen also seems ambivalent about the (energetic) anti-hero, Henry Crawford. However, the book fascinates me. Every time I read it, I hope for a different ending!
I also love Persuasion. Jane Austen’s health was failing when she wrote it and the book was published after her death. For me, it’s the most moving of her novels and also the most modern in that it’s full of egalitarian sentiments. The heroine’s father, ‘a foolish spendthrift baronet’, is mocked for being obsessed with his rank, and the hero, a naval captain, is approved as a self-made man. Most editions contain the cancelled second-last chapter which gives a glimpse of Austen at work, how she revised and improved upon the earlier draft.

Where did the idea to write Mary Bennet come from and how long did it take you to write it?
It took me ten years to write—far too long—but I intended at first only to write a prequel about Mary’s childhood, and then it just sort of grew. The idea came from a throw-away line in John Bayley’s memoir of his wife, Iris Murdoch. Bayley, a one-time Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, observed that ‘the unfortunate Mary is the only one among Jane Austen’s characters who never gets a fair deal from the author at all, any more than she does from her father’. (p.69 Iris)  (But  then Bayley as a scholar and pedant would surely be biased in Mary’s favour!)

Why did you choose Mary out of all of the sisters to write about?
The nerve-centre for me was the father-daughter relationship: Mr Bennet is brilliantly unkind to Mary and I wanted to even things up a bit. (He’s unkind to Kitty too, but Mary is the main victim and poor Kitty’s too insipid to build a book on.)

This novel definitely made me think about Mary in a different light. Did you find yourself changing your opinion of Mary, and of the other Bennet girls, when writing this book?
I don’t think I had an opinion about Mary—other than wondering why she persisted with her singing—until I started considering her as a possible heroine. But I didn’t really change my mind about the other Bennet girls. I share Jane Austen’s opinion of Elizabeth Bennet—she is ‘as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print’—but in my book I was trying to see her through Mary’s eyes, and Elizabeth rivals Mary in so many areas. They both play the pianoforte and sing, for instance, whereas none of the other girls do. They’re both readers (Elizabeth declares herself to be ‘not a great reader’, but her conversation belies it). And Elizabeth is ‘the least dear’ to her mother of all her children (Ch.18 P&P) and so understandably looks for surrogate mothers—in Jane, in her Aunt Gardiner and also in Charlotte Lucas (who’s seven years older). My Mary and Elizabeth thus compete for Jane’s affection. And of course Elizabeth is her father’s favourite while Mary is an object of ridicule!

What was the most difficult part to write?
The ending, set in Macquarie’s New South Wales. While I enjoyed writing about my home-town, Sydney, it was hard work trying to imagine it two hundred years ago and through Mary’s eyes. (I’m much more comfortable writing dialogue than descriptive prose.) The four months’ voyage was also hard to imagine—until I went on the ‘James Craig’ and tried balancing on the deck when the sea was rough and the ship heeling in the wind.

You go through so many different elements of the era that weren’t mentioned in Pride and Prejudice (e.g. you discussed different medical treatments). What sort of research did you undertake to write this book?
A lot of research in so many areas—early 19th century music, singing and dancing; the food and the clothes; leisure activities and work (they weren’t all as indolent as Mr Bennet and Mr Hurst!) But you have to do the necessary research in order to convince the reader—even though you may only use a small part of it directly. One subject I needed to research pretty thoroughly was the treatment of mental illness. My Mary suffers an episode of melancholia, and although it’s only a short chapter in the book, it took me a while to read up on it.

How did you align Pride and Prejudice with Mary Bennet so closely, and where do you think you tripped up?
I re-read Pride and Prejudice many many times and charted a time-line. I may well have tripped up, but so far nobody’s told me about it!

Would you change any of Mary Bennet if you had the chance?
Yes, if I found I’d made a mistake. But generally speaking once a book’s out there, I think it’s best not to tinker with it.

Can we expect any more books from you in the future?
Yes! I want to ‘inhabit’ another unsympathetic character—Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park—although Maria and Mary Bennet have little in common, apart from their initials, as Maria’s an older sister, handsome and confident—and headstrong.  

And finally… which of the Austen heroines are you most like?
Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (but there’s a side to Fanny I really don’t like, just as I don’t like it in myself—a tendency to judge).

Thanks to Jennifer Paynter for taking the time to answer those questions for us! I really recommend picking up a copy of the book, as it’s well researched and, as far as I can tell, seamless with the original. I’m looking forward to seeing more from her. Have you read it? What are your thoughts?

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3 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Q&A

3 responses to “Book Review and Q&A: Mary Bennet by Jennifer Paynter

  1. Re: The Fitzroy death. My Year 7 history teacher once told me that Parramatta was to be the capital of NSW with Sydney as its harbour (as with many other metropolises with harbours) but because of Lady Fitzroy’s death, the governor couldn’t bear to go to Parramatta so made Sydney the capital city. So that road accident changed history.

    • JennieDuke

      That’s incredible! They should have told us that fact on the tour. I’m surprised it stuck in my mind so much. It’s interesting how incidents that seem small (in the grand scheme of things, although I have no doubt it was a big thing for Governor Fitzroy) can have really big implications for the future…

  2. Pingback: BOOK REVIEW: The Pursuit of Mary Bennet: A Pride and Prejudice Novel | The Bennet Sisters

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