AWW Feature: Jennifer Paynter and the remaking of Mary Bennet

Welcome Jennifer Paynter!

 

Jennifer 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, Jennifer’s first novel, is more than an elegant retelling of Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice.  This story parallels the events of the original tale but creates it’s own path from Longbourn Estate to colonial Australia, from the perspective of the largely overlooked character of Mary.  In my review of Mary Bennet, posted earlier this month, I admired Paynter’s imitation of Austen’s tone and style and after a brief correspondence with Jennifer invited her to participate in the Australian Women Writer feature here at Book’d Out.

Today I am happy to have Jennifer share with you her reasons for writing Mary Bennet

Remaking Mary Bennet

 Whenever I’ve been asked what inspired me to write Mary Bennet—to retell Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of ‘the only plain one’ of the Bennet sisters—I’ve quoted a remark by John Bayley, a one-time Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, that ‘the unfortunate Mary is the only one among Jane Austen’s characters who never gets a fair deal from the author at all, any more than she does from her father’.

Bayley isn’t the only scholar who thinks Jane Austen wasn’t fair to Mary Bennet. Richard Jenkyns in his book, A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen, also criticizes Austen for caricaturing Mary, opining that Austen only permitted Mary’s survival ‘because it allowed Mr Bennet to play off her with such brilliant unkindness’.

I’ve always maintained that my motive for writing the book was to give Mary ‘a fair deal’, but just before I began writing this post I turned up an early draft of the first chapter of Mary Bennet—written over ten years ago and published in an on-line magazine, Bikwil—and was shocked to read the opening paragraphs: ‘I confess I found my sister’s story somewhat superficial. And if that makes me sound like a prig then I would remind you that Pride and Prejudice was thought to be rather too “light and bright and sparkling” by no less a person than its creator who—in a letter to her own sister—felt that the work was perhaps in need of “shade”, in need of stretching out here and there with a long chapter of “solemn specious nonsense”.  And who better qualified (you may well think) to supply such shade and solemn specious nonsense than myself? In any case it’s high time Mary Bennet’s side of things was universally acknowledged. And it’s not such an unsisterly side either. I dare say I shall be a great deal kinder to Miss Lizzy than ever she was to me. Where to begin? Well I’m sure you all have a very unflattering picture of me—plain, ponderous, bookish, dull-witted, with a flat chest and a flat singing voice I never tire of showing off—the voice that is…”

I realize now that I was still trying to find Mary’s voice—flat or otherwise—and so it’s all a bit unsubtle and self-reflexive, but it also sounds as if I were intent, through Mary, on cutting down to size Elizabeth Bennet as well as (perish the thought!) Jane Austen. Re-reading it, I wondered whether Bayley’s comment was merely my ‘official’ inspiration for writing Mary Bennet—whether my subconscious motive was much more aggressive.

I’ve always mistrusted the Cinderella ‘marrying-up’ myth which Pride and Prejudice to some extent exemplifies and which in the 21st century was made flesh by Mary Donaldson and Kate Middleton. At the same time, I understand the appeal of it—the hold it has on our collective imagination. But I didn’t consciously set out to stick pins in it: it’s been pricked so many times before. In books written over a hundred years ago—Little Women and My Brilliant Career—Jo March and Sybylla Melvyn reject wealthy attractive suitors. When writers are making something up though, their right hand doesn’t necessarily know what their left hand is doing, and in choosing Mary for my heroine I was perhaps seeking not so much to give her a fair deal as to gratify my own sneaking desire to lop a couple of tall poppies.

One thing I’m proud of though is that I resisted the temptation to give Mary a makeover. I stay fairly faithful to what she says and does in Pride and Prejudice: it’s only her thinking that I play around with. And I didn’t bestow upon her the fairytale gift of beauty (though I do make her a little prettier towards the end of the book). There are lots of old-fashioned fictional heroines who aren’t beautiful after all—Jane Eyre, and the aforesaid Jo March and Sybylla Melvyn. Even Elizabeth Bennet is at first only adjudged ‘tolerable’ by Mr Darcy.

But Austen also makes it clear that Mary isn’t clever, and here I do fudge things by attributing her habit of quoting other people’s words to social nervousness– a fear of saying the wrong thing, especially to her father or Elizabeth—rather than to unoriginal thinking. My Mary constantly resorts to her Commonplace Book, and it’s hard not to become impatient with her endless spouting. (A couple of on-line reviewers of Mary Bennet have confessed to wanting to shake her or slap her!) Jane Austen liked women to wear their learning lightly, and I discuss Mary’s annoying habit of ‘obtruding her knowledge’ at JASACT  – Jane Austen and all that – in Canberra

Finally, in giving Mary a ‘happy ending’ in Macquarie’s New South Wales, I follow the fairytale formula—except that it takes place in the new world rather than the old, and in a class sense, it’s her husband who marries up. At one stage, I did envisage a song-writing career for Mary in Sydney, but I soon saw that that would be another sort of wish-fulfilment—and an unlikely one at that!  Far better to leave the ‘brilliant career’ to Sybylla Melvyn.

Jennifer Paynter can be found at

Website I Facebook

Mary Bennet is available to purchase

@BoomerangBooks I @Booktopia I @Dymocks

@Amazon (Kindle)

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