Though a child, I already saw, unfolding before me, a life lived ingratiatingly in the shadows, of sitting like an old gargoyle at dinner tables while, some few feet away, the living laughed and exchanged stories. I would have no stories to tell. No estates to run. No children to speak of. I would not be blessed with the holy rites of matrimony and would this be compelled to live my years beholden to the loveliness of one of two older sisters, who would, by their charity, ensure that I always had food to eat and a roof over my head.
–Mary B by Katherine J. Chen
Mary B by Katherine J. Chen
Mary B is a historical fiction novel set in the world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, told from the perspective of Elizabeth Bennett’s younger sister Mary. Readers of Pride and Prejudice may remember Mary as the timid, somber one who preferred reading and playing the piano to socializing with Elizabeth and Jane. In Mary B, however, Mary is fleshed out as an introverted but thoughtful young woman who still longs for love and friendship – she just doesn’t relish the drama of Elizabeth’s life.
I do happen to love Jane Austen, and I think that her main characters were complex and interesting – but her secondary characters often left much to be desired. That was the best thing about Mary B – it took a familiar world and fleshed out the characters that were overlooked in Pride and Prejudice. Mary herself, of course, was developed, but there also was a good deal more made of Mr. Collins, Charlotte Lucas, and Colonel Fitzwilliam, and even Lydia. Unlike most fan-fiction, Mary B also did not take unlikable characters and make them likable – instead, they were just given depth and history. Mr. Collins, for example, is finally given a genuine voice and allowed to explain why he is such a flatterer. I still did not much like Mr. Collins, but he still was given a real motive and a sympathetic story.
In retrospect, it does not seem like there was all that much activity in Mary B, but still somehow it went quickly – I devoured this book, probably a good deal of that owing to the excellent character development – and it felt entirely too short at the end. There was just one large leap in the middle (a skip over some of the biggest action of Pride and Prejudice), and while that did feel a little artificial, I still had a lot of respect for the author’s disinterest in retelling the major plot points of Elizabeth’s romance.
Pride and Prejudice itself, as was the majority of Jane Austen’s literature, was a little light on world development – which made sense as it was set in the time during which the author lived. Mary B, however, gave the author the opportunity to go back and fill in all the blanks that were left behind in Pride and Prejudice, and I really enjoyed some of the small details of the characters’ daily life, and a look into the actual behaviors of young ladies from that time period (Jane Austen certainly never portrayed her main characters as engaging in pre-marital sex). Without feeling that way, Mary B was packed full of information about life in the early 19th century, and that really brought the story to life as well.
In all, I will give Mary B an 8 out of 10. Readers who want a good deal of action and satisfying resolutions will not care for it, but readers of drama, historical fiction, and certainly feminist literature will appreciate what Mary B has to offer: a complex heroine with an unusual insight into the sexist and classist society within which she lives.