Poor Mary Bennet. The misfit middle daughter in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” was only noticed — if she was noticed — for her plainness, her sermonizing and her excruciating performances on the pianoforte.

Until now.

In Katherine J. Chen’s “Mary B.,” Mary gets her due, and some payback.

This time, Mary tells the story, and her version will challenge readers’ views of the least lovable sister in Austen’s original — and her siblings.

Chen’s debut novel joins “Pride and Prejudice” in progress and takes readers beyond its happy ending at the double wedding of older sisters Jane and Lizzie. Mary’s place, again, is on the periphery.

“It is very hard to live one’s life perpetually in waiting, and I cannot tell you how many men have passed through Longbourn to court one or other of my sisters, and how all of them never concerned themselves with me, though I sat in the same room and was as equally capable of speech or motion,” Mary observes.

Things start to change when Mary comes to visit Lizzie, now Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy, at her sprawling Pemberley estate. She finds a sadder-but-wiser sister beset by worries over childbirth and her duties as mistress of the manor, but no less sharp-tongued.

Left alone in the library, Mary shifts from reading novels to writing one. She spins a lively Gothic tale of an intrepid queen swept into a series of death-defying adventures. She gets a surprising assist from Mr. Darcy, who helps her talk through plot points. Should Leonora’s loyal handmaiden rescue her from the dungeon? Or perhaps Leonora should agree to marry the evil grand duke, “then strangle him or bash his head in with a rock. The rest is easy enough,” she says.

Into this odd setting rides Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy’s cousin. Beneath the colonel’s affable nature lies a wild side he readily shows to Mary, who turns out not to be the prude one might assume. Their dalliance sets up a finale that finds Mary trying to chart an independent life, no easy thing in the early 1800s.

“Mary B.” deserves a place among the many additions to the Austen franchise. Random House assures that one doesn’t have to read “Pride and Prejudice” to enjoy this sequel, but knowledge of the first will enhance enjoyment of the second. “P&P” fans’ satisfaction likely will depend on how well they receive Mary’s critiques of key characters.

Mary’s tale also invites a guilty rethinking of those witty put-downs that seemed to go over her head in the original novel. Rest assured, they did not.

“So to anyone who has ever doubted that the sour little creature sitting on the sidelines of the ball isn’t capable of the same purity of love … I say that you do not know her or her heart,” she says.

 

Maureen McCarthy is a team leader for the Star Tribune. maureen.mccarthy@startribune.com

Mary B.
By: Katherine J. Chen.
Publisher: Random House, 322 pages, $27.