What is it about Mary Bennet—that pedantic, unromantic middle daughter in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? She has less than a dozen lines of dialogue in the entire novel, but what an indelible impression she has made on centuries of readers. How could anyone forget such gems like these?
“I admire the activity of your benevolence,” observed Mary, “but every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason; and, in my opinion, exertion should always be in proportion to what is required.” Chapter 7
“Loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin; that her 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.” Chapter 47
Priggish, sanctimonious and asexual, there is nothing like a big challenge to inspire modern writers into a major makeover for her character and create a happy ending. Over the past few years we have received a wide variety of Mary Bennet sequels, both good and bad. Pamela Mingle’s The Pursuit of Mary Bennet and Jennifer Paynter’s The Forgotten Sister land in the praise camp, while Colleen McCullough’s The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet lies somewhere between awful and atrocious. (I apologize in advance to my Victorian grandmother for speaking ill of the dead if she happens to run into the author in the afterlife.)
There are many more Mary Bennet novels that I could expound upon (Return to Longbourn, Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven, The Unexpected Miss Bennet, A Match for Mary Bennet…) and may very well in another blog, but I must work my way back to the point of today’s post—a spotlight on the latest Mary Bennet novel worthy to enter the hallowed halls of the “what about Mary collection”, Becoming Mary. This debut novel by Amy Street was a delightful surprise and made me laugh out loud several times while reading it.
PREVIEW (from the publisher’s description)
Mary Bennet, plain and vain, has grown up in the shadow of her livelier, prettier sisters. Pompous and prickly, she is her own worst enemy as she tries and fails to win admiration and respect.
Invited to Pemberley one summer, she begins to blossom under the influence of new friends and family, and for the first time in her life experiences attention, kindness, and even the possibility of love.
Can she accept these bewildering new emotions, or will her stubbornness and pride lead to her downfall?
The novel takes the reader on a journey with Mary – it will make you laugh, wince in sympathy and ultimately hope. And for lovers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, you will find yourself in the company of old friends.
EXCERPT (from chapter 10)
How could anyone be expected to play such music?
I was so engrossed in puzzling my way through the piece that I did not notice Signor Moretti come in for some time. I did not know how long he had been standing there. I stopped playing immediately.
“Pray continue,” he said, “I see you are trying out the Pathétique.”
I looked at the music and noticed the title for the first time. “Pathétique? That is like the English, ‘pathetic’, I assume, full of feeling, of pathos?”
“Yes I think it must be,” he said, coming to stand at my shoulder.
“It certainly describes the opening passage,” I said. “I do not know anything else that is so startling and dramatic.”
He nodded, staring intently at the music. “Sometimes I think it is Beethoven’s wish to shock us all out of our complacency.”
“I did not know we were so complacent,” I said, rather nettled.
“One does not, I believe,” he murmured.
I was thoughtful for a moment. “I do not imagine that there are many young ladies who could master this style of music.”
“No, Beethoven does not really write for amateurs. He writes what he wishes to write.”
I said, “Miss Darcy could manage to play Beethoven, I suppose.”
“Yes, perhaps, but she has never learned this particular one. She was learning Beethoven’s first piano sonata: this, you see, is his eighth.”
At this moment a plan formed in my mind: I would learn the Pathétique sonata! I would learn it by the time of the Pemberley ball, and would astonish the company with my superior performance. Georgiana herself might be surprised to hear me. I became lost in thought as I imagined my triumph, the attention and the applause I should garner. Then I glanced up and saw that Signor Moretti was looking at me with a curious expression on his face that I did not know how to understand. His eyebrows were frowning but his face did not look severe, rather it was softened, and I suddenly felt that his eyes saw into my mind and he could read my thoughts. I turned away quickly. I realised that I had been talking to him about music for some minutes without even noticing it, when in fact my intention was to tell him that I did not require a teacher. Now he would think that we were to proceed as the Darcys had planned. I decided to speak immediately before this went any further.
“Signor Moretti, I have enjoyed our conversation but I should inform you that I do not need a teacher. I have always taught myself to play and a teacher might interfere with my methods.”
He looked thoughtful. “I understand you perfectly. It can be extremely confusing to have a new person come in and unsettle a method which is working well.” He paused, then continued. “But if, while you are studying this sonata you come across any problems to which you do not have the answer, you may come to me for help at any time.”
I doubted whether I would need to do that, but I thanked him all the same. But then it occurred to me that I did not know how to play the left hand in the allegro. It was a strange way of writing that I had never seen before.
“Perhaps, before you go,” I said, “you could tell me what this means.” I pointed at the relevant bar.
“Ah yes, that is a reduction – it is a quick way of telling you to repeat the octaves from the bar before so that the copyist or the printer does not have to write out the same notes again and again.”
“Oh, I see.” I tried the first few bars of the left hand. “Yes, that makes sense.”
I saw him looking frowningly at my hand as I played, as though he were about to say something, and unexpectedly I felt extremely upset.
“Signor Moretti, I do not wish – ” and I ran out of the room, nearly colliding with Georgiana’s harp as I went.
I went to my bedchamber and threw myself down on the enormous canopy bed, tears starting from my eyes. I did not know why I should be so upset. I was accustomed to slights and insults and I never cried then, so why should an insignificant conversation with an insignificant teacher of music bring me to this condition?
I wished I had never come to Pemberley! I had been much more content at home with Mama, with nobody to bother me or have schemes about me which were supposedly for my benefit but in fact made me exceedingly uncomfortable and put out. I did not like to have anyone observing me or trying to tell me things.
It was all Lizzy’s doing! Why must she be so interfering? What gave her the right to tell me that I needed piano lessons, when out of all the Bennet girls I was well known for my proficiency on the instrument and my wide-ranging repertoire? She had become so puffed up with her own importance she thought she could order the lives of others as she pleased. I was sure that Mr Darcy would never have come up with such a scheme. He was a truly gentleman-like man, with dignity and consideration for the feelings of others.
I started to recover myself. I would not let Elizabeth upset me with her high-handed ways. And I would show her. I would show them all. The Beethoven sonata was very difficult, but I knew I could manage it if I practised hard and that I would do. There would be no need for teachers: I would learn it myself and perform at the ball.
END OF EXCERPT
I must share that I love a big character arc in a novel. Mary Bennet, as Austen wrote her 200 years ago, is perfect material for a makeover. Street has honoured Austen’s character traits, foibles and follies giving Mary emotional struggles and a personal transformation that was thoughtfully revealed and a few surprises too.
Amy Street has loved the works of Jane Austen ever since her life was ruined at the age of 13 by reading Pride and Prejudice. Being a middle child and a struggling pianist herself, she has always had a sneaking sympathy for Mary Bennet, so it was just a matter of time before she wrote her first novel, Becoming Mary.
Amy has two grown-up children and lives with Motorbike Man in Bristol, UK. Her hobbies include Drop 7, Beethoven, nail-biting, guilt and doodling. Amy is also working on a crime series set in an northern British town in the 1980s. The Advice Lady will be coming to a Kindle near you very soon.
Becoming Mary: A Pride and Prejudice Sequel, by Amy Street
Amy Street (2014)
Digital eBook (355) pages
Cover image and excerpt courtesy of Amy Street © 2014; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2015, Austenprose.com