Source- Review copy/ netgalley
Publisher- Penguin AU
Publication date- 26th April 2o12
Synopsis- ‘I prayed for a brother every night. My two older sisters also prayed. They felt the want of a brother equally keenly, for our father’s estate was entailed upon a male heir, and without a brother to provide for us or a rich husband to rescue us, we would all be destitute.’
Mary Bennet has been long 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 three gentlemen quite dispassionately (and, as it turns out, accurately), can she be equally clear-sighted when she finally falls in love herself?
In this elegant retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Mary at last learns – with a little help from the man she loves – to question her family’s values and overcome her own brand of ‘pride and prejudice.’
When I first started to see reviews pop up for Mary Bennett by Australian author Jennifer Paynter, I wasn’t initially sold. Mary Bennett is the sometimes forgotten sister of the famous Bennett’s from Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. This is my favourite classic alongside Little Women and Elizabeth Bennett is one of my all-time favourite heroines. So, when I heard that Paynter has painted her in an unlikeable depiction from Mary’s perspective, I was hesitant. But this was challenged when I read Paynter’s guest post over at 1Girl 2Many Books where she describes the process of creating Mary as a protagonist and the feedback she received by an editor about Mary’s lack of likeability to the reader. I thought it was very smart of the author to go back to the beginning to tell Mary’s story from her childhood until the events that emerge in Pride and Prejudice.
Mary Bennett is told in a similarly slow style as Austen’s classics with many detours off the plot, though I very much expect this in the classics, my interest began to wane in this adaptation. The early chapters provide a history of the Bennett family and there’s not necessarily much plot direction. I didn’t really feel hooked by the beginning. I started to read it while on holidays but just couldn’t get into it and set it aside when I was about 5% in. I picked it up again a couple of weeks later and read it over a two week period, which is quite a lengthy reading timeframe for me.
Mary is certainly difficult to like at first and I think that it was partly because of Mary’s dejected viewpoint and the negativity she perceives from her family, particularly her father and older sisters. She views herself as the black sheep and she doesn’t have a natural connection with her family; she’s quite awkward really. I felt some empathy toward her early experiences; she was separated from her mother and brought up by another woman, Mrs Bushell as Mrs Bennett likely had postnatal depression at that time. Then she re-enters into a family where she has no solid foundations. Her mother goes on to have two more daughters who remain with her and it seems she bonds more closely with. Any companions Mary secures outside of her family seem to relocate or marry and she experiences many losses in her first fifteen years of life.
Initially, reading Mary’s perspective of Elizabeth was uncomfortable for me. But I wanted to sit through that discomfort and try to see one of my favourite characters objectively. And as the story went on, I began to see Elizabeth in a more rounded way (not negatively!), but I could see her flaws, particularly the defences she employs to protect her pride and sense of self when she is offended by Mr Darcy. Mary is understandably jealous of Elizabeth and Jane- of their close sisterly relationship, their position in the household and the ease in which they relate to others.
What I did find most disappointing about Mary becoming protagonist in Paynter’s novel, is that she still seems to remain invisible. Much of the story was about what was happening for her sisters and her friends and family and there wasn’t really much happening for Mary. She just became another narrator for Elizabeth and Jane’s meetings with Bingley and Darcy. It wasn’t until the romantic sub-plot between Mary and her musician friend Peter Bushell began to develop did I start to see Mary as her own person. Someone with passion and desires and feelings. She began to individuate from her family and Peter, even just his image in her mind became someone or something that was just for her. Something she didn’t have to share with her sisters, though she did have to defend his position in society and his worth as a person from time to time.
The last 30% of the book was the most engaging, this was the time when the Jane-Bingley and Elizabeth-Darcy debacles resolve and Mary pursues a relationship with Peter. I wish that this 30% made up a larger portion of the book because there were some areas I would have liked to examine in further detail. Particularly Mary’s voyage to NSW to meet Peter.
Overall, I’m glad I stuck it out and read Mary’s perspective because I have a better understanding of the invisible sister and it hasn’t impacted on my fondness for the classic. I know that there are readers who have struggled to enjoy Mary Bennett because of the portrayal of Elizabeth but if you are open to see the world from Mary’s perspective and allow the author to tell her story then I think you’d find it an enjoyable, though not easy, read.
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About the author: Jennifer Paynter was born and educated in Sydney. She has previously written two stage plays: When Are We Going to Manly? (produced by the Griffin Theatre Company in 1984 and nominated for the 1984 Sydney Theatre Critics’ Circle award and the 1985 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards), and Balancing Act, produced by the Canberra Theatre Company in 1990 and adapted for radio by the ABC. The author of several anthologised short stories, she lives in Sydney. Mary Bennet is her first novel.
This book was read as part of the AWW2012 challenge: