Review: Mary Bennet by Jennifer Paynter

Title: Mary Bennet

Author: Jennifer Paynter

Published: Viking May 2012


‘I prayed for a brother every night. My two older sisters also prayed. They felt the want of a brother equally keenly, for our father’s estate was entailed upon a male heir, and without a brother to provide for us or a rich husband to rescue us, we would all be destitute.’ Mary Bennet has been long overshadowed by the beauty and charm of her older sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, and by the forwardness and cheek of her younger sisters, Kitty and Lydia. From her post in the wings of the Bennet family, Mary now watches as Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy – and Mr Wickham – glide into her sisters’ lives. While she can view these three gentlemen quite dispassionately (and, as it turns out, accurately), can she be equally clear-sighted when she finally falls in love herself? In this elegant retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Mary at last learns – with a little help from the man she loves – to question her family’s values and overcome her own brand of ‘pride and prejudice’. Read an Extract.

Status: Read from May 03 to 05, 2012 — I own a copy {Courtesy Penguin Australia)

My Thoughts:

Mary Bennet is a novel with an interesting perspective on a popular classic. The story of Pride and Prejudice has been subject to many sequels, adaptions and reworkings, and in this novel, Jennifer Paynter casts Mary, the middle Bennet sister, as the narrator. Though Pride and Prejudice has never been my favourite of Austen’s works (Emma, is) I quite enjoyed this story that parallels the events of the original tale but creates it’s own path from Longbourn Estate to colonial Australia.

Mary Bennet is an unremarkable character in Pride and Prejudice, overshadowed by the beauty of Lizzie and Jane and the liveliness of Lydia and Kitty. Paynter has built upon the glimpses of her personality to develop a character with her own story to tell. It’s unfortunate though that Mary is not a particularly likeable protagonist – she is pious, patronising and awkward. How much of her personality is informed by circumstance, and her own nature, is cause for debate however. As the middle girl, Mary is isolated from the close pairings of her older and younger sisters and the complexities of sibling relationships is a major theme of the novel. Mary also inexplicably bears the brunt of her father’s disappointment in having no sons and without beauty to recommend her, she is beneath the notice of her mother whose sole concern is making advantageous matches for her daughters. So Mary retreats into herself, observing her family and their dramatics coolly, removing herself all together when she has the opportunity.
Mary relates her own perspective of the relationships that form and dissolve around her between her sisters and their suitors including Mr Darcy, Mr Bingham and Mr Wickham. However she is much more concerned with her own interests, so while the events within Pride and Prejudice are regularly referenced, this story is more than a simple retelling. Mary’s story extends beyond the scope of Austen’s novel as Mary leaves Longbourne for some time to become a companion to her tutor’s mother, and on her return Mary’s friendship with Cassandra Long and her unusual relationship with Peter Bushell are her main preoccupations. We also follow Mary to Australia where her life patiently awaits her.

Jennifer Paynter imitates the tone of Austen remarkably well, the language is true to the period and Mary’s voice feels familiar. I have to admit I found the novel slow going at times, much in the same way as I did Pride & Prejudice, but I did find it a pleasant story and I think Austen fans will find Mary Bennet a satisfying read.

Available to Purchase

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About the Author

ennifer Paynter was born and educated in Sydney. She has previously written two stage plays: When Are We Going to Manly? (produced by the Griffin Theatre Company in 1984 and nominated for the 1984 Sydney Theatre Critics’ Circle award and the 1985 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards), and Balancing Act, produced by the Canberra Theatre Company in 1990 and adapted for radio by the ABC. The author of several anthologised short stories, she lives in Sydney. Mary Bennet is her first novel.

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15 thoughts on “Review: Mary Bennet by Jennifer Paynter

  1. Sounds like a fun read – the idea of a well-known story seen through the eyes of a by-stander. I don’t know P&P well enough to appreciate this book, I think, so I would have to re-read that one first (it’s been too long). Maybe I will!


    1. Actually I don’t think you need to reread Judith – its been more than 20 years since I last read P&P yet the story came back to me as I read, and its not strictly necessary to this story to have read P&P at all


  2. In the Jane Austen classic, Mary Bennet’s character is relatively insignificant and not very appealing, yet I can well imagine her role as an observer. This book sounds as though it carries the flavour of the original work, and in that case could hold some interesting perspectives.


  3. P&P is my all time favorite–I’ve read it many times. I always imagined that Mary would end up an old, know-it-all type of spinster, far more irritating than Miss Bates in Emma. It might be fun to read an alternate version. The only tweaks on Austen that I’ve read so far are Stephanie Barron’s (aka.Francine Matthews) Jane Austen murder mystery series. Since I love Austen and I love a good murder (mystery!) it’s a natural for me to read. I’ll check this out too. Nice to know even Mary could have a happy ending!


    1. Going back to Jane Austen’s version, Mary is ‘the only daughter who remained at home; and she was necessarily drawn from the pursuit of accomplishments’ by the inability of her mother to tolerate solitude. ‘Morning visits’ are mentioned, but my feeling is that, through Jane Austen’s eyes, her destiny is spinsterhood!


      1. Actually, Jane Austen told family and friends details of what happened to some of her characters after the books, and Mary ended up marrying her uncle’s clerk and remained in Meryton.


  4. Thanks for the thoughtful critique, Shelleyrae. I’ve not so far responded to reviews of ‘Mary Bennet’ as I think once a book’s out there, it’s the readers’ turn to have a say and the writer should really shut up (unless severely provoked!) Back when I was writing stage plays & sitting in on the odd rehearsal or workshop, I found that actors could tease meanings out of a text that, as a writer, I would never have thought of. Partly this was because they were focusing on their own characters, but it did teach me not to be too quick to ‘explain’ or to counter criticism, because often the most useful comments came when the discussion stayed open.

    Having said that, I’ve been a little surprised that the response to ‘Mary Bennet’ has so far been so serious! When I was writing the book—on a good day—I had a lot of fun seeing the usual suspects through Mary’s myopic eyes, but perhaps I didn’t emphasize that enough on my website or in some of the early interviews and blogs. Obviously I want the reader to empathize with my Mary—but not always with a straight face!


    1. Thanks for stopping by Jennifer, I have found your remarks really interesting, and they have encouraged me to reconsider the novel.


  5. haha, you are right, Shelleyrae! Now I’m curious to read this and see what sort of fellow she finds love with. Jennifer, perhaps Austen fans just take their lady seriously-but if I can believe she’d go around solving murders, I’m sure I can enjoy the lighter side of Mary Bennet! 😉


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