Jane Austen’s minor character Mary Bennet is not exactly heroine material. With only eight passages of dialogue in Pride and Prejudice she has made a lasting impression on readers over the centuries as a pious young woman who often insensitively offers advice of “threadbare morality” to her family at the most inopportune moments. Author Eucharista Ward has taken a bold step in devoting an entire novel to this pedantic and socially clueless young lady. She is not the first to tread this path. Last year Janeites were dishonored with Colleen McCullough’s irreverent treatment The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet. In both instances, Mary Bennet has been given a make-over. However, two novels could not be farther from honorable intent. While McCullough mocked the Austen sequel industry, Ward embraces it with integrity and reverence. Happily, A Match for Mary Bennet has brought Austen’s character back into the fold and rescued her from the fiery depths of sequel Hell.
Previously self published in 2007 as Illusions and Ignorance: Mary Bennet’s Story, this new edition by major Jane Austen sequel publisher Sourcebooks fortunately bring this wonderful story to a wider audience. Publisher’s description:
Written by a Franciscan nun, this is a sympathetic tale of the middle Bennet sister from Pride and Prejudice. Pious Mary Bennet tries to do her duty in the world as she thinks God envisions it. Initially believing (mistakenly) that her sister Elizabeth married well only in order to provide for her sisters, Mary is happy to be relieved of the obligation to marry at all so that she can continue her faithful works. But she begins to have second thoughts after further studying marriage through her sisters’ experiences as well as spending time with two young men. One is a splendid young buck whose determined courtship must have ulterior motives; the other is a kindly, serious young clergyman whose friendship Mary values more and more. One day she realizes that God very much made man and woman to be together…but which is the man for her?
Prim, judgmental and pedantic, Mary’s evolution throughout the course of the book is surprising as she soon discovers that there is more to life than her Godly studies, music and books. The author has an excellent understanding of Austen’s style emulating it reverently, placing the story within a historically context of the era with aplomb. Many of Austen’s characters from Pride and Prejudice reappear: her sisters Jane, Elizabeth, Kitty (Catherine) and Lydia, her parent’s the Bennet’s, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Georgiana and Lady Catherine. We also meet two new men that change Mary’s perspective on what she thinks God intends for her life: the dashing rakish James Stilton who courts Mary with determination and charm, and the stoic young clergyman Charles Oliver who wins her friendship and respect by understanding and enlightenment. If she chooses her head over her heart is never much in question. After all, a woman’s “reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful — and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.” Even if the outcome is predictable, the ride is quite enjoyable.
Where others have failed in expanding her character, Ward has given Mary Bennet depth and interest, allowing readers to see her faults, understand their origins, and rejoice in her evolution towards enlightenment and happiness. My only quibbles are that in Ward’s new world, poor Colonel Fitzwilliam is destined for a life of misery after succumbing to Caroline Bingley’s fortune and marrying her, and that the pacing at times was slow and too introspective. The first is indicative of the era, and the second is actually who Mary Bennet was at the beginning. If the author had allowed Mary to be more succinct toward the end, it would have showed a nice character development. After all, “every impulse of feeling should be guide by reason”!
4 out of 5 Stars
A Match for Mary Bennet, by Eucharista Ward
Sourcebooks, Landmark (2009)
Trade paperback (350) pages
Cover image courtesy of Sourcebooks © 2009; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2009, Austenprose.com