Mary B.: A Novel: An Untold Story of Pride and Prejudice, by Katherine J. Chen – A Review

Mary B Katherine Chen 2018 x 197 x 300Of the five Bennet sisters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mary is the most unlikely of heroines. Priggish, sanctimonious, and unattractive, her prospects for a happy life were bleak. In Mary B., debut novelist Katherine Chen chooses to give Mary her own story – delving into her young, awkward life with her family at Longbourn, her early attempts at romantic attachments, and ultimately her escape to her sister’s home at Pemberley where she discovers an unknown talent, and that men can be interested in women for more than their reputed beauty and handsome dowry.

In Part I of the novel, Chen has paralleled Jane Austen’s narrative in Pride and Prejudice with a glimpse of a prequel to the Bennet sisters’ childhood. We see young Mary, awkward and introverted in comparison to her older sisters Jane and Elizabeth, and the brunt of abuse by her two younger siblings Kitty and Lydia. As the reader we are as hurt and confused as our heroine and it is not an enjoyable experience. As the story continues, those who have read Pride and Prejudice will recognize the plot as it picks up at the beginning of Austen’s famous tale. Through Mary’s eyes we experience the arrival of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy in the Meryton neighborhood, the ball at Netherfield Park and the visit to the family home by the Bennet’s odious cousin Mr. Collins. Infatuated with the silly man, Mary throws herself at him and then watches as he chooses her sister Lizzy as the “companion of his future life.” Adding insult to injury, after her sister rejects his proposal of marriage Mr. Collins does not even think of her as an alternative, marrying their neighbor Charlotte Lucas instead.

As Austen’s narrative of Pride and Prejudice concludes with the marriage of the Bennet sisters Elizabeth and Jane to Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley respectively, author Katherine Chen begins Part II and her own story placing Mary at Pemberley, the palatial estate of Mr. Darcy and his new bride in Derbyshire. There she is given more than a modicum of male attention, something that she has never experienced before. With the encouragement of her host Mr. Darcy, Mary begins to discover a new talent as a writer, penning a Gothic fiction novel that her bother-in-law edits for her. And, with the arrival of his churlish cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam she is introduced to the delights of the physical realm when he teaches her to ride a horse – and the arts of a more private nature.

At this point in the novel, I am reminded of two quotes by Mary from Austen’s original novel:

“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

AND…

“every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason.” Chapter 7

Reason is something that was of importance to Mary as Austen presented her to us. Chen has decided to take her characterization in an entirely different direction. It is shocking and painful.

Writing Jane Austen-inspired fiction is a tricky business. Those who have read and admired the novel expect a certain standard of prose, character development, and reverence to the original. Chen’s writing is impressive, and I can see why a major publisher such as Penguin Random House snapped up this novel and released it in hardback. She does not try to emulate Austen’s style, but understands it enough to structure her sentences and vocabulary in a similarly pleasing manner. That is where their affinity ends.

After she breaks away from the conclusion of Austen’s story and creates her own narrative, the reader is drawn along by pure curiosity, and then by bus-accident-like compulsion to gawk in amazement at what can be done to beloved characters for pure shock value. It is understandable that people’s personalities change as they age and mature, or from circumstances, however, readers will be hard pressed to accept Elizabeth as a neurotic, cold fish to her loving husband, propelling him into the arms of another, and that his cousin, the amiable Colonel Fitzwilliam, is even more of a womanizing cad than George Wickham could ever aspire to be. And…what about Mary – tossed and jerked about by Chen like a puppet in a twisted marionette melodrama? She seeks and finds her own happiness in the end with a touch of the #MeToo bravado that we have always wished for her, but at such a cost that Austen fans will be retrieving their blown-off bonnets from the murky depths of Pemberley’s pond.

If you are up for a wild ride through Austen’s Regency-era tale – and beyond, I can recommend Mary B. for the pure thrill of the adrenaline rush. It is now the new guilty pleasure in the Austenesque genre, out pacing Colleen McCullough’s irreverent The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by ten lengths.

3 out of 5 Regency Stars

Mary B: A Novel: An Untold Story of Pride and Prejudice
By Katherine J. Chen
Penguin Random House
Hardcover (336) pages
ISBN: 9780399592218

PURCHASE LINKS:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Indiebound | Goodreads

Giveaway Winners Announced for Love & Friendship: The Janeite Blog Tour

Love Friendship Blog Tour graphic sidebar x 200It’s time to announce the winners of the giveaway contest for the Love & Friendship Janeite Blog Tour. The three lucky winners of hardcover copies of the book drawn at random are:

Congratulations ladies! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by July 7, 2016, or you will forfeit your prize! Shipment is to US addresses only.

Thanks to all who left comments and to Little, Brown and Company for the giveaway prizes.

Cover image courtesy of Little, Brown and Company © 2016, text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2016, Austenprose.com

Love & Friendship, by Whit Stillman – A Review

Love and Friendship Wit Stillman 2016 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman: 

Lady Susan is my favorite of Jane Austen’s minor works. A scheming widow who also happens to be “the most accomplished coquette in England,” Lady Susan Vernon is intelligent, attractive, and unscrupulous, agreeing with her immoral friend Alicia Johnson that “Facts are such horrid things!” (256) Her letters to Alicia detail her plans to snare wealthy husbands for both herself and her daughter Frederica, while causing pain and suffering to those she deems detestable. As she includes her own daughter in this camp, calling her a “stupid girl,” she has no qualms in forcing Frederica to marry a decidedly silly man with a large fortune. Lady Susan is a terrible person, but a wonderful character. While the novella lacks the depth of later works, it is a wickedly funny short story in epistolary form; its tone is reminiscent of the snarky comments found in many of Austen’s letters.

Who better to capture Austen’s witty social commentary than filmmaker and writer Whit Stillman?  His first film, Metropolitan, was one of my favorites from the 1990s, but I confess that I didn’t catch its similarities to Mansfield Park until many years later. Now Stillman has written a companion piece to his latest film Love & Friendship in straight narrative form. He introduces a new character to the story: Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, Lady Susan’s nephew. Rufus has penned his “true narrative of false-witness” to expose Austen’s supposed hatchet job on his aunt. His loyalties are made clear with the novel’s subtitle, “In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated (Concerning the Beautiful Lady Susan Vernon, Her Cunning Daughter & the Strange Antagonism of the DeCourcy Family).”

Readers familiar with Austen’s Lady Susan will notice an inversion of good and evil from the outset. Rufus has dedicated his novel to none other than the Prince of Wales, mimicking Austen’s dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent, but in a much more effusively toad-eating style. After two knowing winks from Stillman in two pages: consider yourself warned. Rufus is the quintessential unreliable narrator, writing his rebuttal of Austen’s version of events from debtors prison in Clerkenwell in 1858. The vindication of his maligned aunt, riddled with inconsistencies and bizarre logic, is peppered with tirades on a range of subjects: history, theology, and grammar. These make for some of the funniest passages in the novel. Continue reading

Q&A with Love & Friendship Writer/Director/Author Whit Stillman

Love and Friendship Wit Stillman 2016 x 200Austen scholar Devoney Looser joins us today during the Love & Friendship Janeite Blog Tour to interview ‘Friend of Jane,’ writer/director/author Whit Stillman, whose new hit movie Love & Friendship, and its companion novel, are on the radar of every Janeite.

Welcome Ms. Looser and Mr. Stillman to Austenprose.com.

Devoney Looser: We Janeites know that you go way back as a Janeite yourself. (Would you label yourself that? I see you’ve copped elsewhere to “Jane Austen nut.”) You’ve admitted you were once dismissive of Austen’s novels as a young man—telling everyone you hated them—but that after college you did a 180, thanks to your sister. Anything more you’d like to tell us about that?

Whit Stillman: I prefer Austenite and I consider myself among the most fervent. Yes, there was a contretemps with Northanger Abbey when I was a depressed college sophomore entirely unfamiliar with the gothic novels she was mocking — but I was set straight not many years later.

DL: What made you decide that “Lady Susan” wasn’t the right title to present this film to an audience? (Most of Austenprose’s readers will be wise to the fact that Austen herself didn’t choose that title for her novella, first published in 1871.) I like your new title Love & Friendship very much, but clever Janeites will know you lifted it from a raucous Austen short story, from her juvenilia, Love & Freindship. What led you to make this switch in titles? (I do want to register one official complaint. You’ve now doomed those of us who teach Austen’s Love & Freindship to receiving crazy-wrong exam answers on that text from our worst students for years to come.)

WS: Perhaps it is irrational but I always hated the title “Lady Susan” and, as you mention, so far as we know it was not Jane Austen’s;  the surviving manuscript carries no title (the original binding was chopped off) and she had used “Susan” as the working title for “Northanger Abbey.”  The whole trajectory of Austen’s improved versions of her works was from weak titles, often character names (which I know many film distributors hate as film titles*) toward strong, resonant nouns — either qualities or place names.  “Elinor and Marianne” became Sense and Sensibility, “First Impressions” became Pride and Prejudice, “Susan” became Northanger Abbey. Persuasion and Mansfield Park are similarly sonorous. Continue reading

The Janeite Blog Tour of Love & Friendship Begins June 13

Love & Friendship (2016) poster 2016 x 200A new Jane Austen-inspired movie released on May 13th. Love & Friendship has received rave reviews from critics and Jane Austen fans alike.

  • “FLAT-OUT-HILARIOUS. Jane Austen has never been funnier.” – The Telegraph
  • “Whit Stillman and English novelist Jane Austen make for a delightful pairing in this comedy of manners.” – The Star.com
  • “Kate Beckinsale magnetizes the screen.” – Variety

Written and directed by renowned independent filmmaker Whit Stillman, (a big friend of Jane Austen with his previous movies Metropolitan and Last Day of Disco), the movie has been adapted from Austen’s comic gem, Lady Susan, and features an all-star cast reuniting Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny and featuring a string of British period drama acting royalty: Steven Fry, James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave. I saw it on Sunday. I was astounded to discover there were actually people in the theater laughing louder than me, inspired by Tim Bennet’s performance as the rattle, Sir James Martin, and the all-around witty banter and comedic timing!

Love and Friendship Wit Stillman 2016 x 200In addition, Stillman has written a companion novel to the film also entitled Love & Friendship with the added subtitle: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated. For those who have read Austen’s original novella, you will remember that Lady Susan Vernon is described by Reginald De Courcy as “the most accomplished coquette in England.” and by others as devious, wicked and “with a happy command of language, which is too often used, I believe, to make black appear white.” To vindicate her scurrilous behavior is an intriguing premise indeed!

Love & Friendship, the novel, is told from the perspective of a new character, Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, Lady Susan’s  nephew. His voice throughout the book is very Austenesque, with tongue-in-cheek humor and inside Austen jokes that will delight Janeites. Continue reading

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice, by Curtis Sittenfeld – A Review

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfield 2016 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Jane Austen is a tough act to follow and that is exactly what the Austen Project asks contemporary authors to do: reimagine one of Austen’s novels in the here and now. Curtis Sittenfeld, author of four novels including Prep and American Wife, was chosen to take on Austen’s best-known work, Pride and Prejudice. While P&P-inspired books and films such as Bridget Jones’ Diary and Bride and Prejudice demonstrate that the story and its themes have broad appeal, I wondered how Sittenfeld’s Eligible would handle the main plot points in a modern setting. Many of the issues that Austen’s characters grappled with are barely recognizable if they exist at all in modern daily life.

In Eligible, the tension between the original story and Sittenfeld’s inventions kept me turning pages. Brief, episodic chapters mirror the short attention span of a digital era audience. In contemporary Cincinnati, Mr. Bennet spends as much time as possible alone at his computer, while Mrs. Bennet’s life revolves around country club gossip and planning luncheons for the Women’s League. Jane and Liz have carved out careers in Manhattan: the eldest Miss Bennet teaches yoga while her sister writes features for a magazine. They return to Cincinnati when Mr. Bennet has a heart attack. Their practical assistance and support are needed because their younger sisters, while living at home, are little help to their parents. Socially awkward Mary is pursuing her third online master’s degree while Kitty and Lydia, as crass and self-absorbed as ever, are obsessed with working out at the gym and following trendy diets. Sittenfeld’s group portrait of the Bennet clan was one of my favorite parts of Eligible. It’s easy to picture Jane Austen smiling at this: Continue reading

Jane and the Waterloo Map: Being a Jane Austen Mystery (Book 13), by Stephanie Barron – A Review

Waterloo cover x 200From the desk of Christina Boyd:

As a fan of the Being Jane Austen Mystery series, I have been all anticipation for the latest edition, Jane and the Waterloo Map. Author Stephanie Barron knows her Austen lore, as well as a being a masterful storyteller and researcher; writing in a most Austen-like style. She is also The Incomparable when it comes to Regency mysteries. Given that disclaimer, and holding the series in much esteem, I feel quite at liberty to share my impressions herein.

The novel opens with our dear Miss Austen attending her sick brother Henry at his London residence while editing the proofs of her latest novel, Emma, for her publisher John Murray. Summoned to Carlton House, the opulent London mansion of His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, Jane meets his toady Historiographer, Mr. James Stanier Clarke, who not only arrogantly invites her to use the Royal Library to write her next novel, but welcomes her to dedicate her work-in-progress to the Prince Regent himself. As she holds the prince and his profligate ways in contempt, Jane cautiously makes no commitment and politely continues on with the tour. Upon reaching the library, they come upon a Colonel MacFarland, hero of Waterloo, collapsed upon the floor in an apoplectic fit. As Mr. Clarke finds help, the colonel utters his last words to Jane, “Waterloo map.” After a curious inspection of the colonel’s vomit, Jane speculates that the colonel may have been poisoned. The next day, word reaches her that the colonel did succumb, and it is not long before the royal physician confirms that the hero of Waterloo was murdered. Thus begins the intrigue—and danger—for our clever authoress as she exposes whodunit in this thirteenth of Stephanie Barron’s mystery series. Continue reading