Mary felt a chill for her sister. ‘How easily a woman falls,’ she whispered. ‘How narrow a path she must tread.’
Mrs Gardiner instantly felt a pang for talking so forthrightly to a young woman. ‘Well,’ she said awkwardly. ‘Yes, to be sure, but Mary, remember, that goodness is in part chosen. Lydia was given all the advantages of respectable breeding and upbringing, and she chose to throw all that away for an irredeemable wastrel. You have nothing to fear. You have too much sense to lose your self-respect in a bad alliance.’
I don’t know what I fear more, Mary thought, but could not say as much to her aunt. Losing my respectability…
Or never having the opportunity to prove myself.
(from The Unexpected Miss Bennet, page 42)
Oh, how I loved The Unexpected Miss Bennet, so much so that (for the moment, at least), it’s at the top of my list of favorite Austen-inspired novels. Patrice Sarath’s novel is a sequel of sorts to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and this time, the focus is on the middle Bennet daughter, Mary. Mary is not the most exciting character in Pride in Prejudice. In fact, the poor girl is laughed at and dismissed by everyone and is known for reading and quoting Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women and for her love of singing and playing the pianoforte, though she’s not very good at it.
In The Unexpected Miss Bennet, Mrs. Bennet has resigned herself to the fact that Mary is just Mary, will never be married, and will keep her company in her old age. Mary is understandably worried about her future, as when her father dies, the family home will belong to their ridiculous and patronizing cousin, Mr. Collins. With her two older sisters married off, her youngest sister disowned by the family, and her other sister, Kitty, just as obnoxiously flighty as their mother, Mary does a lot of soul searching and realizes that Fordyce might not have all the answers.
Her sisters Jane and Lizzy decide they need to take action to ensure that Mary doesn’t just waste away in the corner where she has long been relegated. Lizzy invites her to stay at Pemberley, where she begins to blossom. She meets Mr. Aikens, a man who doesn’t read, is passionate about horses, and has such an exuberant personality that a few minutes in his presence is exhausting. For the first time, Mary is dancing, not playing the pianoforte, and she even beings spending time outdoors. When a trip to Rosings with the Darcys to visit Lady Catherine de Bourgh turns into an extended stay for Mary and gives her a taste of independence, she learns to stand up for herself. She might not be as beautiful as Jane or as accomplished as Mr. Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, but Mary proves that she can be more than what the world expected.
I enjoy when Austen-inspired novels take on characters placed in the background by Austen. Sarath does not depend on the Darcys to carry this story; aside from Wickham rearing his ugly head, Mr. Darcy is hardly seen at all — and Sarath’s Mary is complex and intriguing enough to carry the story on her own. Mary’s coming of age is exciting and wholly believable, and Sarath creates plenty of tension by placing Mary in the line of fire of both Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins. Those scenes of heated dialogue are fantastic, and I couldn’t help but cheer Mary all the way.
The Unexpected Miss Bennet is a breath of fresh air in the Austensque genre and exemplifies why I can’t get enough of these books. It is both unique yet true to the original, and I couldn’t put it down. Sarath does a wonderful job creating a Mary who has newfound spunk and a sense of humor. I never expected that Mary Bennet could be charming, but I think even Austen would approve.
Disclosure: I received The Unexpected Miss Bennet from Berkley for review.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.