Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Forgotten Sister: Mary Bennet's Pride and Prejudice

Jennifer Paynter, The Forgotten Sister: Mary Bennet's Pride and Prejudice (January 2014)

You've heard the expression "the 'fun' in dysfunctional"?  That's Pride and Prejudice, wherein Lizzy and Jane are two level-headed, good-hearted girls who keep their calm (and sanity) while surrounded by fools.  Thank God for a sense of humor, right?

Not from Mary Bennet's perspective.  Relating the same events (and much more) in her first-person voice, The Forgotten Sister portrays a family that suffers deeply from Mr. Bennet's favoritism of his second daughter Elizabeth and contemptuous treatment of Kitty, Lydia, and especially Mary.  In this story Lizzy's sparkling wit-- encouraged by her father-- comes off as conceited and hurtful, although flashes of self-awareness redeem her character.  (A surprising backstory also adds complexity to her love/hate relationship with Darcy.) And Mr. Bennet's sarcasm absolutely wounds.

But it's Mary who makes this book.  While P&P dismisses her as a weak-minded prig, The Forgotten Sister interprets Mary as a survivor-- of depression, childhood abuse, and a dysfunctional family dynamic-- who dares to choose an unconventional future.  Every bit as intelligent as Elizabeth (and endowed with the same "fine eyes"), Mary's awe of her father nevertheless reduces her to hiding her own voice behind quotations and platitudes.  That embarrassing performance at the Netherfield ball becomes a pivotal moment, surprisingly rich and bittersweet; and her personal growth and ultimate leap of faith had me cheering!

This book's entire concept is so intriguing that I only wish that the author could have told us more about Bennet family psychology.  For example, how did Lizzy process her romance with Darcy in light of the posited backstory?  Does Lydia have any depth?  As it is, the book drags in places-- particularly during the events of Pride and Prejudice-- although it shines when interpreting the sisters' childhoods and lives post-P&P.

All in all, I don't think that this interpretation entirely "convinces"me:  It's definitely not what Jane Austen was getting at, and it doesn't "fit into" or complete the classic work with any staggering neatness. Pride and Prejudice fans, however, shouldn't miss it.  Originality (will I ever view Mary, Elizabeth, or Mr. Bennet in quite the same light??) and above-average writing make this one worth reading.  

....And I'll add that The Forgotten Sister slips in allusions to the 1995 BBC miniseries, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.  If you've watched that version as often as I have, you'll know them when you see them!


  1. This looks really interesting! I'd never really thought much about Mary, but now I'd love to read her POV.

    1. Thanks! Please do check it out-- this book is head and shoulders above most Austen spinoffs, as I'm fast (re)discovering. Heading over to your profile and blog...