Poor plain bookish Mary Bennet, caught halfway between pretty Jane, clever Lizzy and silly Lydia and her shadow Kitty. She is a dim presence in Pride and Prejudice, a foil for the brightness of the others. Mary Bennet is her story and, as such, it is a fascinating alternative look at a much-loved tale. But it goes well beyond the boundaries of Austen’s work with an ending that offers an unexpected surprise for Australian readers.
The ins-and-outs of the tight social circle of the Bennets and their family and friends are recounted in minute detail. The cadences of Austen are captured without sounding either archaic or anachronistic — which is in welcome contrast to many of the numerous modern day sequels to her body of work.
While Mary Bennet does read as an independent work, the first half is reliant on the reader having at least a passing knowledge of Pride and Prejudice — even if just to understand what this retelling is being contrasted against. Mary does not really share the humour of her family, although she certainly understands its agonies. Austen wrote of the delicate balance of social niceties and the iniquitous position of women in a society where they had little power or standing outside of their marriage prospects. Jennifer Paynter recounts this with a slightly more twenty-first century sensibility, but one that is so well couched that it does not feel out of place. Mary and her friends are strong and they might be considered rebels; but they are also believable as Regency rebels.
This is billed as ‘pride, prejudice and the forgotten sister’, although it is not the first attempt at retelling Mary’s story — Colleen McCullough’s 2008 work, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennetreceived a lukewarm reception and was heavily criticised by diehard Austen fans. In contrast, Jennifer Paynter has not sought to deconstruct, but rather to illuminate.
Jennifer Paynter is the author of two stage plays, When are We Going to Manly? and Balancing Act, along with several short stories. She lives in Sydney and Mary Bennet is her first novel.