Tag Archives: Jane Austen

MARY B. by Katherine Chen

Katherine Chen’s Mary B. is a novel told from the point of view of Mary Bennett, the famously plain, ridiculed and unloved middle Bennett sister from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Unlike her sisters Jane, Lizzie, Kitty and Lydia, Mary is presumed not to be interested in frivolities like men and fashion, as she is too often found with her nose in a book or playing the piano. In Austen’s original, Mary is a caricature, one of the many sources of humor in the book.

Chen’s novel opens during Pride and Prejudice, soon after the Bennett’s odious cousin, Mr. Collins, comes to Longbourne.  Before his visit, Mary confides to the reader that despite what people think of her, she has, in fact, been in love three times, immediately signaling that this Mary is not the same Mary from Austen’s novel. Mary B. explores those three relationships and how they shape Mary’s life and her future.

I have so many conflicting feelings about Mary B. I have a lot of admiration for Chen, who clearly spent a long time with the original to develop the right language for Mary B.  She’s faithful to the era and the writing style of the original, and that’s fun in and of itself. And I was happy just to revisit these beloved characters and extend my time with them.

On the other hand, Chen took these familiar characters and sent them in some unexpected directions. Lizzie, Colonel Fitzwilliam and even Darcy turn into very different people from what one would expect of them. That’s Chen’s right, of course, but when you reimagine a book as beloved as Pride and Prejudice, you’re going to make people mad if you mess with what they love about it. I love Lizzie and Darcy – the romance of their relationship, the fiery passion, the intellectual connection – so I was pretty upset to see that relationship taking a different turn in Mary B. and I seriously questioned Darcy’s judgment. Other characters suffer similar fates: Charlotte Lucas, for example, who is so sympathetic in the original. Mary B. is a darker and more bitter book than its witty, sly inspiration, for sure.

I did appreciate Chen’s feminist update of the novel – Mary’s independence at the end is certainly an anomaly for her era. That was a nice twist.

So if you want to read Mary B., approach it with caution and consider your own feelings about the original. If you can’t tolerate tampering, you might want to stay away. And if you’re looking for other books in the Pride and Prejudice-industrial complex, try Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld or Longbourn by Jo Baker.

I listened to Mary B. on audio. The narration by Marisa Calin was quite good, perfectly capturing Mary’s shrillness and judgmental temperament and showing off Chen’s skillful writing. I definitely recommend the audio.

ELIGIBLE by Curtis Sittenfeld

When one of your favorite authors does a “modern retelling” of perhaps your favorite book of all time, it can go one of two ways. You’ll either end up terribly disappointed or you’ll be thrilled with the results. I am happy to report that in the case of Curtis Sittenfeld adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the result fell into the latter camp.

As part of The Austen Project, Sittenfeld has recast Austen’s beloved Bennet sisters in 2013 Cincinnati in her upcoming novel Eligible. Lizzie (now Liz) is a NY-based writer for a woman’s magazine called Mascara. Jane is a yoga instructor in New York, and the three youngest Bennet sisters still live at home with their parents in Cincinnati. The younger two, Kitty and Lydia, are rather vapid Crossfit addicts, and Mary doesn’t really have much of an identity at all.

The sisters all end up in Cincinnati when Mr. Bennett has heart surgery and faces a long convalescence at home. Mrs. Bennett, who is exactly like the Mrs. Bennett in the original, is too busy to care for her husband, as she is planning a benefit lunch that takes up all of her time. But she’s not too busy to get involved when a new, eligible doctor enters the Cincinatti scene – Chip Bingley. She is all too eager to set him up with her aging, unmarried daughters, in the hopes that one of them will finally get hitched.

All of our favorite characters are here: Mr. Collins (now Liz’s dotcom millionaire cousin), Charlotte Lucas, Ms. de Bourgh, and of course, the dreamy Fitzwilliam Darcy. They’ve each been given a 21st century update, but they play their parts perfectly.

Here’s what I admire most about Eligible: Sittenfeld must have carefully diagrammed the entire plot of Pride and Prejudice, marking the precise points in the novel when Liz and Darcy have chance meetings, when she learns certain things about him, when various scandals plague the Bennets, etc., and then crafted the Eligible plot around those points, because it is just perfectly paced. She’s such a great storyteller already, but having her story match and adapt Austen’s equally compelling storytelling is just a treat.

A few warnings: there is a lot of sex in the book (some of which happens quite a bit earlier in Eligible than in its predecessor), and the end gets a bit absurd. It’s all a lot courser than Austen’s refined 19th-century England. Which is of course the point – how would a family like the Bennets fare in present-day America?

If you’re a Sittenfeld fan, you’ll enjoy Eligible. If you’re an Austen fan, you’ll appreciate Eligible. And if you’re a fan of both, you’ll be in heaven. (Due out April 19.)

LONGBOURN by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker
The October EDIWTB online book club pick was Longbourn, by Jo Baker.  Longbourn is wisely aimed at two passionate audiences: Austen-philes eager to extend Pride and Prejudice through yet another companion novel, and Downton Abbey enthusiasts interested in what happens downstairs in old, grand English estates while the aristocracy fuss and dine and needlepoint upstairs. The main characters in Longbourn are not the Bennets, but the Bennets’ servants: Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah, Polly and James. Sarah and Polly were orphans taken in as young girls by the Hills to help serve the Bennets, and James is a mysterious young man who shows up with little explanation and is hired as a footman. He develops feelings for Sarah, but has a painful past that he cannot escape, threatening their relationship as well as his security in the Bennet’s employ.

Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books of all time, but I am not an Austen freak. I haven’t read any of the MANY P&P sequels, and while I did see the Keira Knightley movie version (that kiss at the end!), I most recently skipped Austenland, the latest film loosely based on the book. To me, the original was so perfect that when I am in a P&P mood, I just re-read it, rather than trying to recreate the magic elsewhere.

That said, I loved Longbourn. It felt less like a companion book to P&P than a standalone novel that was merely punctuated by the key plot developments in the original Austen work. The Bennets were relegated to a minor status in Longbourn, allowing Sarah and Mrs. Hill in particular to carry the narrative weight. The story moved along beautifully after a somewhat slow start, and I had a hard time putting the book down.

Interestingly, the key dramas from P&P – Elizabeth’s ambivalence about Darcy, Bingley’s abandonment of Jane – are not touched on at all in Longbourn. Wickham and Lydia’s elopement is addressed, as is Mr. Collins’ thwarted pursuit of Elizabeth, but the Bennet plots are largely subverted in Longbourn, playing a distant second fiddle to Sarah’s romantic yearnings and Mrs. Hill’s quiet grief. This is a grittier, sadder book than P&P, as evidenced by Mrs. Hill’s conclusion in Chapter 8: “Life was, Mrs. Hill had come to understand, a trial by endurance, which everyone, eventually, failed.” This makes sense, given the differences in quality of life between the gentry and the servants. Though while the servants often yearned for the leisure and comforts of their employers, Mrs. Hill ultimately decided that “no matter how they got [to the end of their lives], after all, the end was all the same.”

The Bennets themselves really get taken down a notch in Longbourn. They are much less sympathetic here than in the original novel. Each of them comes across as self-absorbed to an extreme, giving hardly a thought to the private lives of servants they have known most of their lives. Not even our beloved Elizabeth escapes unscathed; she may be better than the others, but she is still pretty inconsiderate at times. We see a much more inhibited, insecure Elizabeth at the end of the book as she settles into life at Pemberley and tries to live up to the ideal of a man whose opinion she once regarded as prejudiced and pretentious. And Mr. Bennet, who is mostly just cranky and derisive of his wife in the original, is a much colder, self-interested man in Longbourn.

Baker clearly did her research; there is a lot of period detail in Longbourn and many historical touches that made life at Longbourn very vivid for her readers. I had to look up a lot of words, several of which didn’t even appear in the dictionary.

I could go on and on about Longbourn, and I think that I will enjoy it even more as I go over it in my mind in the weeks ahead. But I want to hear what EDIWTB book club participants thought of Longbourn. Did it affect your feelings about the original? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Please leave your comments below.

And thank you to Knopf for facilitating this online book club!