Mary, Mary quite contrary: Mary Bennet

I’ve always been fascinated by the cult following attracted to romance novelists such as Jane Austen, and Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Even I have at least four copies of Pride and Prejudice in my collection and I’d hardly say that I was a die-hard fan.

This large and dedicated group of readers have allowed for an industry of sorts, based on the re-imaginings of these favourite stories. The Bennet’s story, for example, has been retold in many forms; on screen – silver and small, and on the page – some in earnest, others wild and bizarre.

Jennifer Paynter has, in her new novel Mary Bennet (Penguin) taken on the challenge of revisiting Longbourn, with her eyes set firmly on middle child Mary:

“Mary Bennet has long been overshadowed by the beauty and charm of her older sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, and by the forwardness and cheek of her younger sisters, Kitty and Lydia. From her post in the wings of the Bennet family, Mary now watches as Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy – and Mr Wickham – glide into her sisters lives. While she can view these gentlemen quite dispassionately (and, as it turns out, accurately), can she be equally clear-sighted when she finally falls in love herself?”

Mary barely rates a mentioned in the original Pride and Prejudice, and this in turns allows Paynter to re-imagine the Bennet’s story in fantastic and original detail, whilst introducing a brand new tale of maladies, the challenges of polite society and of course, romance.

In the tradition of novels like The Red Tent and plays such as Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Deadthe author has taken a neglected, nearly invisible character and ‘revealed’ their untold story, providing us with a new perspective of a story we already know so well.

Mary Bennet is beautifully true to the original story most particularly in its cast of many characters, all whose stories intertwine. Read alongside the original Pride and Prejudice, it provides a pitch-perfect accompaniment.

Jennifer has also recreated the tone, time and language expertly. Obviously, much time has been taken to research and rehearse this style of writing, and in my opinion the author gets it very right. I’d say that there’s few pages that wouldn’t have required careful research and construction, making for quite a rewarding experience on the part of the reader.

That’s not to say that this novel doesn’t present a few challenges as well. I’ve always found the intricacy of relationships and the numerous cast members of this type of writing quite difficult to follow. I found myself having to back track a bit, until I’d gotten to know the characters and their relationships to each other.

Secondly, I found Mary herself somewhat unlikeable, which made the first half of the novel a little difficult. Mary, in her youth, is melancholy, quite judgemental and overly pious. I got the impression that Paynter wanted her to come across as a ‘typical’ middle child who sees herself as neglected, isolated, and as just never quite fitting in.

Nonetheless, as her character grew so did my connection with her. I became accustomed to her tone and her habit of referencing her ‘Commonplace Book’ for lines to preach at friends and family. And, essentially, she’s not often proven wrong in her judgements of people, however harsh they may seem. So, although she’s a little holy for my liking, as a character she makes a fine protagonist an intriguing storyteller.

Paynter’s Mary Bennet would be particularly enjoyable for those who are familiar with the Pride and Prejudice story, and it’ll no doubt having you reaching for your well-thumbed copy of the original. In saying that, I am sure that the novel would also hold appeal to new readers, those who’ve not necessarily read Austen’s original, as an interesting, original story in its own right.

What do you think?


Tomorrow, I’ll be reviewing a very different novel, Andrew Nicoll’s If You’re Reading This I’m Already Dead (Pan Macmillan)


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