I normally steer clear of the vast numbers of books “inspired by” Pride and Prejudice which have appeared over the past 25 years. The quantity of them out there is truly astounding: there must be thousands! However, I decided to try this one because I felt that Mary Bennet deserved a break.
Much as I love Jane Austen’s books, it has to be said that some of her characters are more pantomimish than nuanced, and also that some of her characters seem to deserve a lot more sympathy than she gives them. Mrs Bennet is mercilessly mocked, even though she’s the only one who seems to appreciate the precarious position that her daughters are in. And Mary never does anyone any harm – she’s hardly Caroline Bingley or Isabella Thorpe – but neither the author nor any of the other characters have a kind word to say to her or about her. She’s the only plain one in a family of five girls, the odd one out in between two pairs of sisters who are also close friends, and, sadly but not unrealistically (in her time and maybe even in ours), no-one puts much value on her intelligence – good looks, charm and money are what matter. Poor Mary.
In this book, Mary blossoms, due largely to the support of her Uncle and Aunt Gardiner. It’s lovely to see the Gardiners – and remember that the last two sentences of Pride and Prejudice are actually about them – given a prominent role. And she finds herself being pursued round the Lake District by two handsome men! Furthermore, I’m convinced that the unnamed inn in Grasmere where they’re all staying is the place where I stay when I go to the Lakes, and, being very Lake-sick at the moment, I’m inordinately jealous of them. Yes, I do know that that’s beside the point. But I am.
Some parts of this don’t ring particularly true, and none of the Jane Austen fanfic novels are ever going to live up to the original books, but this isn’t bad.
How do you judge books like this? On their own merits, or by comparison with the originals. Well, if you’re going to use someone else’s characters and someone else’s world, then you have to expect to be judged on whether or not you show the characters behaving in a way which fits in with how they do in the “canon” book(s). For the most part, in this book, they do here. The only one who doesn’t is Charlotte, who’s become rather unkind. That’s explained, not unrealistically, as the result of being married to someone she neither likes nor respects; but it’s a shame, because she’s such a lovely character. She’s desperate for Elizabeth to find happiness, and she’s not the slightest bit jealous when Elizabeth bags Mr Darcy. I wish Janice Hadlow hadn’t chosen to change her so much. But everyone else is much as they were.
As for the general atmosphere of the book … most of it’s OK, but Jane Austen would never have shown Elizabeth thinking about how much she’d like to hold Mr Darcy’s hand or stroke his hair, and certainly not about “what they would be to each other” once they were married. OK, I’m sure she did, but we don’t see it. And things go rather bonkers towards the end, when one of Mary’s suitors proposes that they forget about the ties of polite society and go off and live in unmarried bliss in a villa in Italy! All right, the Georgians weren’t the Victorians, and some quite scandalous stuff goes on in Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice, but that was a bit much.
So what actually happens? Well, the first part of the book is about the events of Pride and Prejudice. Some passages are copied out word for word. Rather strangely, one of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s speeches is copied out word for word in a later part of the book, set two years after Lady Catherine actually said it. There’s a nice friendship between Mary and Mrs Hill, and seeing things from Mary’s viewpoint is interesting. Imagine her humiliation at the Netherfield ball, when Mr Bennet tells her to stop singing and give someone else a go. And there are strong hints that she thought she and Mr Collins might be a good match – only for Charlotte Lucas to get in there first. We hear a lot more about that here.
Then the author kills Mr Bennet off – which is rather sad, but necessary for the rest of the plot. The Collinses move into Longbourn, and Mrs Bennet and Mary are out on their ear. However, Mary is not Miss Bates: she’s never going to end up “sinking lower” and struggling for money, because Jane and Elizabeth are both now married to wealthy men and will never see her stuck. Incidentally, Kitty is, in accordance with Jane Austen’s own letters, now married to a clergyman near Pemberley, but she doesn’t appear in this book, and nor do the Wickhams.
Mrs Bennet and Mary move in with the Bingleys, but Caroline Bingley’s also there, and makes Mary’s life a misery. So Mary goes to stay with the Darcys, but feels distinctly surplus to requirements there. She then, being fond of Charlotte and missing Longbourn, asks if she can stay with the Collinses. And here we see Mr Collins being treated more sympathetically – he thought Charlotte really liked him, and has now had to accept that it was a marriage of convenience for her. He and Mary, both being keen on reading and studying, become quite close … and Charlotte gets jealous and tries to get rid of her by hinting that Lady Catherine find her a job as a governess. The portrayal of Charlotte really didn’t work for me, I have to say, but I liked the portrayal of Mr Collins. He seems a lot more real and a lot less caricatured here.
So Mary then goes off to visit the Gardiners, and this works out brilliantly. She likes living in London, and grows in self-confidence in a happy home. She’s also persuaded by Mrs Gardiner that she deserves some nice clothes, which suit her better. We learn that she never used to bother much about her clothes, because she thought she didn’t deserve nice clothes. That used to be me in the late 1980s! I used to insist that I didn’t “like” trendy clothes, but the truth was that I thought a fat girl didn’t deserve to have anything nice to wear, and that people’d just laugh at me if I looked like I was trying to make an effort. So I did find it very touching and realistic that we were told Mary never made much effort with her appearance because she felt that, as a plain girl, it wasn’t appropriate.
Along comes an attractive, personable and eligible relative of Mrs Gardiner’s, a young lawyer, Tom Hayward. Jane Austen said that Mary married one of Mr Phillips’s clerks, so maybe that was where the idea of the lawyer came from? But, in keeping with Austen-esque tradition, the course of true love doesn’t runs smooth. Along next comes his friend, Mr Ryder – who turns out to be a connection of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s, living on an allowance provided by her. It seems rather unlikely that Mr Darcy has never mentioned this man. And, if Lady Catherine is supporting her young male relatives, what about Colonel Fitzwilliam, who’s never mentioned? It’s also a rather unlikely coincidence. But then Jane Austen’s books are full of unlikely coincidences. Any of her heroines can usually guarantee that any new person they meet will have a complicated history with someone they already know!
Mr Ryder is being pursued by Caroline Bingley, but takes a shine to Mary. The Gardiners then decide to take the trip to the Lake District which had to be postponed in Pride and Prejudice, and ask Tom to go with them. This seems a bit implausible, and indeed improper, as does the amount of time which Mary spends alone both with Tom and with Mr Ryder. However, off they go. They duly arrive, via Windermere, in Grasmere … only for Mr Ryder, Caroline Bingley, and Mr and Mrs Hurst all to turn up at the same hotel. There’s an outing which ends in drama, and a misunderstanding which results in Tom Hayward making his excuses and going home.
Once everyone’s back in London, some interesting points are made about how Mary, as a woman, is unable to contact Tom to try to clear things up between them. And, if Mr Ryder proposes, should she accept him, on the grounds that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, rather than turn him down in the hope that Tom will come back to her? Of course, everything turns out OK in the end, and Mary and Tom get married and live happily every after, but her dilemma’s certainly interesting. Elizabeth didn’t like Mr Collins, Catherine Morland didn’t like John Thorpe and Fanny Price didn’t like Henry Crawford, but what if their unwanted suitors had been all right, and possibly worth settling for? It gets stupid when what Mr Ryder offers isn’t marriage, but, until then, Mary faced a thought-provoking choice. We get the feeling that she’d say no anyway, because she really loves Tom, but she only really has that choice because she’s got the options of a home with the Gardiners, the Bingleys or the Darcys. So there’s quite a bit to think about there.
And, hooray, we see Mary getting the better of Caroline Bingley! How many of us have longed to stand up to a bitchy bully, but not had the confidence to do so? Very satisfying.
I don’t know that the book was entirely satisfying, but I certainly never got upset and frustrated, as I’ve sometimes done before with reading fanfic/spin-off/rip-off novels. Don’t get me started on the dreadful Scarlett, the so-called sequel to Gone With The Wind. In fact, as I got towards the end, I couldn’t put it down until Tom came back. I won’t be reading any more of the Jane Austen fanfic novels, because I’m not really that keen on the idea of them, but I’m not sorry that I read this. Mary deserved a break!