It is hard to believe this is only my fourth book review. Goodness, I own over five-hundred books and read over a hundred a year. So, why do I not write about them more?
I tend to lean away from writing about books because of multiple negative experiences I had in college. To put it simply, English majors and I do not mix well in our ideas and interpretation of literature. (This does not apply to you Jessica, I promise).
One book I have learned to NEVER bring up among English majors is the famous love story Pride and Prejudice (1813). All of them have their own theories on its characters and setting and will argue on which film adaption is the best until they are blue in the face. Usually, it becomes a competition between the 1995 BBC TV film series and the 2005 film starring Keira Knightly.
Of course, there are also books based on the original novel which either expand on the original story or change it up to give it a little spice. Have I read any of them? Nope. Being the purest that I am I noticed that these “adaptations” usually fall into several categories.
1. The modern retelling (Example: Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding)
2. The quirky/adult retelling (Example: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith)
3. The story told from Mr. Darcy’s perspective retelling (Example: Mr. Darcy’s Diary by Amanda Grange)
4. The what happens after they are married retelling (Example: Mr. & Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy: Two Shall Become One by Sharon Lathan)
I really have never had any desire to explore Pride and Prejudice‘s world beyond the original book. This is partly because I do not find the book all that romantic. Rather, I view it and all of Jane Austen’s books as a sort of portal into English society in the early 1800’s. Major themes include self knowledge, marriage, class, and wealth. I think what it really boils down to is propriety and social interaction among the proper and the wealthy.
So, I think the obvious question is, why did I even read The Unexpected Miss Bennet? As Wilbur Robinson penned in Meet the Robinsons (2006), “That. . . is an excellent question.” It deserves a proper explanation. I found the book in my mother’s bathroom and discovered that she had bought it at Dollar Tree on a whim. Consequently, I ignored it. By chance, however, I found myself bored in my mother’s room and picked it up to read the back.
The premise of the story is as follows,
Pride and Prejudice‘s Mary Bennet gets her own story… The third of five daughters, Miss Mary Bennet is a rather unremarkable girl. With her countenance being somewhere between plain and pretty and in possession of no great accomplishments, few expect the third Bennet daughter to attract a respectable man. But although she is shy and would much prefer to keep her nose stuck in a book, Mary is uncertain she wants to meekly follow the path to spinsterhood set before her.
Determined that Mary should have a chance at happiness, the elder Bennet sisters concoct a plan. Lizzy invites Mary to visit at Pemberley, hoping to give her sister a place to grow and make new acquaintances. But it is only when Mary strikes out independently that she can attempt to become accomplished in her own right. And in a family renowned for its remarkable Misses, Mary Bennet may turn out to be the most wholly unexpected of them all…
“Determined”to not be interested in the novel, I put it down again certain that it would only disappoint me. However, my never-ending curiosity was piqued and I found myself drawn to it again in a fit of boredom and stubbornness. That time I brought myself to read the inside cover. It reads as follows,
A Surprising Encounter, . . . ‘Do you not get tired playing?’ came a voice at her side. Mary started and looked up at the young man smiling pleasantly at her. She remembered that they had been introduced but she had already forgotten his name. His dress was unkempt and his hair overlong, but he had a good-natured smile and she smiled back at him.
‘Music is the balm that comforts our souls,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t tired me to play.’
‘Even music for dancing? I find it exhilarating, rather than peaceful. But I cannot sit and do one thing over and again. I must always be moving.’
Mary opened her mouth but had nothing to say. Young men didn’t often talk to her. She felt heat rise in her cheeks and tried desperately to think of some aphorism or other. He didn’t seem to notice her reticence. Instead, he suddenly smacked the top of the pianoforte, making her jump.
‘I know. You should dance the next dance with me, and then we can compare whether dancing or music is the more tiring.’
He spoke as if it were the simplest thing in the world, that she should just rise and dance. With him.
Before she could say a word, Maria Lucas jumped in.
‘On no!’ she said. ‘Mary doesn’t dance – if she did we would have no one to play, for none of us has the patience. Go on, Mary – we’re all ready. Play more for us. Mr Aikens, you are ready, I know, and you promised to dance another with me.’
The young man looked between them and his smile faltered. Mary felt her mouth move in a smile of her own, and she began another air. She kept her head down, concentrating on her fingers, until she sensed that the man had gone. When she looked up he was dancing with Maria Lucas.
After I read this excerpt, I was hooked. I had no choice but to read the book and hope it did not fail.
The author Patrice Sarath is from Austin, Texas. (Seriously?) and has not written very many novels. Most of her books are Fantasy, horse books from what I can gather. Her Gordath trilogy and this book seem to be her only original works, because she usually collaborates with other authors. In regards to her Jane Austin adaptation, she stated,
It takes up where Pride & Prejudice leaves off, specifically regarding Mary Bennet, the most misunderstood of the Bennet sisters. Mary is bookish, a bit priggish, determined to stand out for her accomplishments, and is a typical middle child. So naturally I had to write about her! I’ve always wondered why she was never selected by the inimitable Mr. Collins to be his bride. The Unexpected Miss Bennet is my answer to that question.
This is a pretty sound reason to write a novel. In my mind, she had no plans to change the intent of Austen’s original nor create a weird spin off. Eventually, to my great delight, I came to love this book for its pure love story and faithful outlook on Austen’s culture and vision for Pride and Prejudice.
I have also wondered what happened to Mary. In the 2005 film, I watched her carefully at times and empathized with her desire to be accomplished. She always stayed in the background, wore blander cloths and was overlooked as the middle child. In the 1940 retelling, which starred Katharine Hepburn, Mary does find a man in the end but they played it off as a pairing of nerdy outcasts.
Mary deserved a mature and loyal adaptation of her own and, luckily, she finds it in this obscure little novel. As a character, Sarath paints Mary as introspective but unsure of herself. It did not help that her own mother constantly remarked that Mary, because of her plainer features and alarming habit of making intelligent remarks, would inevitably grow to be the spinster of the family.
In the beginning of the story she is not much changed from how she was in Pride and Prejudice. However, after her encounter with Mr Aikens she begins to question her reasoning and interests. She stops playing the piano after concluding, upon reading a passage in Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women, that no matter how much she practices and loves the piano if she is untalented it will be viewed as a burden to others. Everything about herself that she had held onto began to dissipate as she realized that her future was not secure.
She also realized Fordyce, whom she had clung to for the better part of her life, did not have all the answers. A little tid bit for the misinformed romantic. Life for women until perhaps fifty or so years ago was not as “romantic” as it is painted in novels. If Mary did not marry she would most likely be taken care of by one of her sisters the rest of her life, being unable to buy or own any property of her own. Thus, “Mary knew not where she would go. Neither . . . did Fordyce. . . Happiness in the next world was indeed dependent upon forsaking the transient pleasures of this one; but still one had to eat and live.” (Pg. 30) To put it bluntly, she was the property of her father until she married and once he died her situation would indeed be less than amiable.
The rest of the novel shows how Mary gains confidence in herself and eventually realizes that she need not settle or put herself down for other’s sake. At one point she considers remaining Anne de Burgh’s companion, shutting herself off from any prospect of marriage or personal happiness for the sake of a comfortable future. What she did not realize, was her true worth. When living at Rosings, men actually paid attention to her and multiple times requested a chance to court her. But of course this was deemed unacceptable since she was of “inferior” birth and standing.
The most interesting aspect of this novel is the romance between Mary and the aforementioned Mr Aikens. Like all Austen novels, the romance is watered down and does not go out of its way to shove its way down your throat. This is because, above everything, the novel’s purpose is not to tell a stunning romantic tale but to establish the culture and social tensions of the time. When Mr Aikens did appear though, I felt a small smile creep onto my face. Their romance is sweet and believable and I loved every second of it.
His personality directly opposes Mary’s quieter, contemplative demeanor. He is loud, energetic and can hardly sit still for more than five minutes. Yet, he is sincere and loyal to a fault. I believe he and Mary fell for one another because they saw in each other what they wished for themselves. Both are insecure but find a companion in the other that had been lost to them for most of their lives.
In one particular scene, Mr Aikens returns to Pemberly after learning Elizabeth and Darcy had returned from Rosings. Immediately he became concerned because Mary was not with them. When Lizzy told him that Mary had stayed at Rosings as Anne’s companion he became extremely agitated. Here is how it played out.
‘A companion. . . So she will fetch shawls and fans and read out loud and sit quietly by. Mrs Darcy, had she given up?’. . .
‘Mr Aikens, you – and Hyperion – seem to have taken wuth great fondness to Mary and I know she is grateful for your friendship. She has not given up. She took it as a challenge. I think she liked the idea of winning over Lady Catherine and she has grown fond of Miss de Bourgh.’
Mr Aikens snorted. Lizzy grew angry herself. ‘Excuse me, sir, bit I believe I know my sister better than you do.’
‘No you don’t,’ he said flatly, and Lizzy’s eyes widened. ‘You don’t because you think of her only in one way, as the quiet bookish one. I see now what it is. She hadn’t given up. You had. Good day, Mrs Darcy. . .’ (pg. 169-170)
I think this scene, and their entire courtship, appeals to me because in a way I suppose I am like Mary. I love to read, have very sound opinions and have little experience when it comes to men. Through Mr Aikens, Mary finds a friend and companion who loves her for who she is and does not have high expectations of her. She would never be expected to become extraordinarily beautiful, fashionable or accomplished. For, he actually thought he was not good enough for her.
He told her, being quite beside himself,
‘You didn’t think we are friends. Why? Because I don’t dance with as fine manners as a gentleman should, or sit indoors but always must be outside in the weather? I daresay you think me too wild and windblown with my hair in knots and up to my top nots in mud to be a friend. I’m not a fellow who sits in a salon and reads fine books, so we can’t be friends?’ (Pg. 230)
All in all, their love for one another seemed very genuine to me and based on more than just a fleeting fancy or a preconceived notion on what they wanted in a partner. After his proposal, he stated goodnaturedly, “Listen to the pair of us. We’re both trying to find reasons why we shouldn’t love one another. I think that’s better than trying to find reasons why we should.” (Pg. 276)
Do I recommend this book? That depends. If you are a huge fan of Jane Austen’s novels, yes, I recommend it wholeheartedly. However, its writing is a lot like Austen’s and can seem a bit dry sometimes. I do not mind old writing styles but I need to be in the right mood for it in order to enjoy it.
I think this book works so well because it really feels like it continues the original story. Oftentimes, I forgot that this was not Austen’s book. This is because the pacing, background and romance fit nicely into 19th century English culture and writing style.
Overall, I love this story for its message. It teaches that we must learn to love ourselves and not settle for anything or anyone who is less than the best. Too often, I think women marry and date abusive, unfaithful and horrible men because they do not think they are worthy of anything better. That is a horrible assumption to make. The trick is learning to recognize and wait for the right person to come.
Also, Mary learned to be happy with herself without relying on others acceptance to make her feel wanted. It is because of this that she and Mr Aikens match each other so well. My mother always made it clear to my sisters and I that if we could not be happy single we could not possibly be happy in marriage.
I did not rate this book because, though it was not a masterpiece, it was a fulfilling read and I could not find anything I did not like about it. Thus, it gets a nice stamp for being a well written novel. If you love old style romances, I would give this book a try. Perhaps it will surprise you as much as it did me with its gentleness and insightful outlook on the forgotten Miss Mary Bennet.
Mr Aikens: “Listen to the pair of us. We’re both trying to find reasons why we shouldn’t love one another. I think that’s better than trying to find reasons why we should.” (Pg. 276)
“‘Oh that is quite enough,’ said Mr Aikens. ‘Ma’am, how dare you! How dare you insult Miss Bennet, who is nothing but good and kind and even can bear one such as me? You are very wrong, Lady Catherine. You are very wrong about Miss Bennet. I though that someone who had such stables could be a kindred spirit, but it’s clear to me that you care nothing for your fellow creatures, only for yourself. To treat Miss Bennet thus – if you were a man I would call you out.'” (Pg. 233)
“The only sour note was that Mr Collins had assumed that he would officiate, and he sent a long letter to Mr Aikens . . . and to Mr Bennet, explaining that he would be happy to join the couple in blessed matrimony and in some small way make amends for their sins against Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mr Aikens read the first sentence, and unable to make any sense of it, tossed the letter aside, thinking no more of it and having forgotten who Mr Collins was. Mr Bennet, on the other hand, said to himself in his study, ‘Good God. We can’t allow this.’ ”