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The overlooked middle sister in Jane Austen’s Prideand Prejudice casts off her prim exterior and takes center stage in this fresh retelling of the classic novel.
I will tell you the story of how I knew myself to be plain and therefore devoid of the one virtue which it behooves every woman to have.
What is to be done with Mary Bennet? She possesses neither the beauty of her eldest sister, Jane, nor the high-spirited wit of second-born Lizzy. Even compared to her frivolous younger siblings, Kitty and Lydia, Mary knows she is lacking in the ways that matter for single, not-so-well-to-do women in nineteenth-century England who must secure their futures through the finding of a husband. As her sisters wed, one by one, Mary pictures herself growing old, a spinster with no estate to run or children to mind, dependent on the charity of others. At least she has the silent rebellion and secret pleasures of reading and writing to keep her company.
But even her fictional creations are no match for the scandal, tragedy, and romance that eventually visit Mary’s own life. In Mary B, readers are transported beyond the center of the ballroom to discover that wallflowers are sometimes the most intriguing guests at the party. Beneath Mary’s plain appearance and bookish demeanor simmers an inner life brimming with passion, humor, and imagination—and a voice that demands to be heard.
Set before, during, and after the events of Pride and Prejudice, Katherine J. Chen’s vividly original debut novel pays homage to a beloved classic while envisioning a life that is difficult to achieve in any era: that of a truly independent woman.
Advance praise for Mary B
“The best part about Mary’s star turn is that it bears little relation to the fates of her sisters. She’s a simmering, churning, smart woman determined to concoct an independent life.”—The Washington Post
“Pride and Prejudice’s beloved story is re-spun through the eyes of mousy, overlooked—and now feminist—middle child, Mary.”—Family Circle
“Perhaps not even a newly discovered Austen manuscript could exceed the delicious pleasure of Mary B. From an unswept corner of literature, Katherine J. Chen has conjured a heroine whose story is heartbreaking, hilarious, and, finally, thrilling.”—Susan Choi, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of American Woman and My Education
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Mary B: A Novel
Because I am plain, others have always assumed in me a disinterest to the opposite sex, to romance, and, accordingly, to marriage. But I will write here, as if with my own life’s blood, that I have indeed loved. I have loved not once or twice but three times, which is three times more than anyone would believe of me.
In none of these episodes did I believe my love to be any the less true or good because my energies failed to attain that happy conclusion which has often blessed others. I loved in earnest all three men. I loved also with the kind of desperation that afflicts only the very plain and the very poor, who, in knowing they have nothing to give beyond the shirt off their backs and their own bodies, will do everything to compensate for the absence of wealth and beauty.
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 as her two esteemed sisters, I say you do not know her or her heart. Though she looks upon the lines of skipping couples with indifference, I can tell you she does not feel it. She, too, wonders what it would be like to stand up for every dance with a partner, to run wantonly through a red sea of regimentals shouting “Denny!” or “Andrew!” at the top of her lungs while laughing and spilling punch onto the front of her dress. She has often imagined this scene in the tired but happy hours after a ball has ended and the entire family has gathered in the drawing room to discuss the dances, the fashions, and how well or ill such and such of their acquaintance looked. While these conversations took place, it became common for her to lose herself in her imaginings and to rewrite, in her mind, the events of that evening, had she been singled out by the richest man in the room or had two officers come to blows for the privilege of dancing a cotillion with her.
I am no longer this lonely girl-child. But if I shut my eyes and concentrate, I can see her as vividly as though I am next to her. It is the ballroom at Netherfield Park when the owner of that estate, Mr. Bingley, threw a party to announce his settlement there. I see her hard eyes, her tight mouth. I hear the voice inside her head repeating, like a mantra, how lucky she is that she won’t have to risk spraining an ankle by dancing like other young ladies. Among the bobbing and weaving faces, she spots Kitty dancing the Boulangère with a breathless, corpulent officer who has two boils on his chin. Both talk excitedly, and she wonders what they could possibly have in common to discuss with so much animation. At the opposite end of the room, she perceives Lydia pressed up against the wall with a cup of wine in one hand and a fan in the other, encircled by half a dozen young officers. Their epaulettes shimmer from so much laughing and bowing. They are all too well trained to touch her, but they enclose her nonetheless like hungry wolves around a single, bleating lamb. Lydia throws her head back, and the feathers in her hair tremble. She is wearing white, and my former self sneers and rolls her eyes. Her hands shuffle the pages of Handel’s Water Music she has brought, busying herself with nothing. In another world, another life, a lieutenant might have enfolded her in his black cloak and whispered saucy inanities into her ear. Above the violins, she listens attentively to his voice. Look at how others stare, Mary. They are staring at you because you are the most beautiful woman in the room. A man could go mad just from gazing at you. At this point, her father arrives, handing her a plate of fruit and encouraging her to enjoy herself a little more and not to look so miserable all the time. She accepts the plate in silence, her ears burning.
I’d realized early on in life that most people did not look at me for any longer than they needed to. This was especially true of the apprentice milliner in Meryton who, every time we engaged in conversation, would pay most deliberate and unwavering attention to my left ear, addressing his professional opinions regarding the latest fabrics and hosiery to that tender and useful organ, while I respectfully watched his averted gaze. I could not blame him or any of the countless others who preferred the view of a doornail to a face that held all the attraction of a dandelion in a garden of roses. It is human nature to recoil from or, at the very least, to ignore what is unpleasant and inconvenient in the world.
Over time, my plainness had become a second, unshakable religion. I have seen its effect on my family and acquaintances far too long for it to be disputed. To those who’d argue that I am no mind reader, I’d answer that as happy as I might have been to remain perfectly ignorant of my deficiencies, these patterns of behavior were simply too frequent and too familiar an occurrence for even the most willingly oblivious of persons to overlook.
Perhaps this is why I prefer reading to any other activity. When one reads, one is forced to look down at the words, and the imperfections of the face become less noticeable due to the angle of one’s head. More so, the act of reading is a silent rebellion. To read in the presence of company is a most convenient excuse for not partaking in conversation. The book is a better tool than the piano in this regard. If you play and sing, then visitors are expected to listen, to applaud, and to compliment you on your so-called accomplishments. But if you are sitting behind your sisters and occupied with a book, it is as if to say to the guest, “I would rather spend time with the litigious husbands, gamblers, and spendthrifts of this novel than with you, dear sir, even if you had no interest in wooing me in the first place.”
I remember these things and share them so others will know there lived a passionate spirit behind my oftentimes taciturn exterior. I, too, hoped quietly for romance and also for marriage as much as any of my sisters did. However, the discrepancies of nature, which would give blessings to some and none to others, had reduced me to the pitiable role of a living corpse. For my whole life, I had been adequately clothed and fed. I enjoyed my family’s protection. But I remained largely ignored, even to the point of being forgotten.
Mr. William Collins arrived at Longbourn precisely a week after my nineteenth birthday. It was a fine afternoon in the middle of November, and his modest curricle was fortunately spotted from a distance by one of the household, providing us with ample time to prepare ourselves for the occasion of receiving him. By the time the horses reached Longbourn, we had been arranged for some minutes in a neat and elegant formation on the drive. The effect of this sight was not lost on our esteemed guest and, mindful of the honor paid to him, he returned our efforts with many delighted flourishes of his wide-brimmed hat as he traveled up the path to the house. With a boyish jump that belied his twenty-five years of age, he alighted from his seat and paid us the final obeisance of a very low bow, the formality of which would have been acceptable for the veneration of kings and princes but seemed wholly out of place to a country family of respectable, albeit modest, means. Papa’s gracious welcome gave my cousin sufficient courage to greet the female members of the household with a bashful smile. And to Mama he expressed particular deference by showering her with so many compliments and inquiries after her health that she seemed to forget, however temporarily, that our visitor would inherit her husband’s estate after his death, thus rendering us women homeless. As my father had no sons and as Longbourn could be passed only along the male line, Mr. Collins was, by law, heir presumptive of our childhood home.
Mr. Collins walked with a light step and, upon being escorted by my parents into the hall, praised the upkeep of the furnishings and the fine, though appropriately humble, taste we exhibited in the decoration of our rooms. As he proved profuse in his admiration and would brook no interruption to his stopping and making an observation of every small feature that seemed to evidence Mama’s superior running of the household, nearly half an hour had passed before we finally gathered in the drawing room to take tea, which by then had to be brewed again for turning cold. On crossing the threshold of that room, he found his attention instantly arrested by a porcelain shepherdess on the mantelpiece. The sight of it appeared to move him deeply, and cradling the piece in his hands, he exclaimed what a happy coincidence it was that his own benefactress, the great lady responsible for his recent installment as the clergyman of Hunsford parsonage, possessed one very similar to it, though hers, if he remembered correctly, was larger and had been purchased at auction for nearly fifty pounds, numbering only one of many items of value that constituted her impressive estate. We listened with appropriate deference, and our guest, pleased at finding a willing audience, was quick to follow up this account with the number of times he’d already been invited to take refreshment in the company of Lady Catherine and her daughter at Rosings Park. Having by this time fully recovered from my cousin’s initial charms, Mama replied that it was very well for some people to enjoy all the luck while others could be destitute of good fortune their whole lives, as she knew firsthand.
“But that cannot be so, madam,” Mr. Collins said with feeling, pressing a hand to his heart. “You have not only this lovely and most comfortable house but also boast among your children the most graceful women as man has ever laid eyes on. I’ve heard much of their beauty, and I can tell you, as an impartial witness, that none of the rumors have been exaggerated.” Whereupon he bowed in her direction with his hand still pressed to his chest.
“I would,” Mama replied, fingering the lace on her collar, “open my arms to anyone who might show kindness to myself or my daughters. They are all sensible girls with talent and beauty enough between them to deserve good marriages, and let us hope this is the case. I would like nothing better than to see my daughters settled and happy with homes of their own, though if this should fail to occur before a certain event takes place . . .” Here, she turned and looked to Mr. Bennet, who had just finished pouring himself another cup of tea and was pointedly gazing out the window. Seeing there was no comfort to be had from those quarters, she blinked with watery eyes at our guest. “I don’t know whose charity we could then rely upon, Mr. Collins. You witness my predicament and how it affects me. My daughters—bless them—find me in this state every day, but there is little they can do to help, being so miserably situated themselves and with no estimable wealth of their own.”
Mr. Collins colored. His ears turned as pink as Mama’s eyes, and it was fully a minute before he could bring himself to speak. Replacing his hand upon his heart, he cleared his throat and endeavored his most sympathetic expression. “My dear Mrs. Bennet,” he began, “being a clergyman and having been blessed with the occupation of a post that requires me to set an example for the members of a small but prosperous community, I am by nature and by habit more sympathetic to the troubles of my fellow men than most.” Taking a moment to sip his tea, he then continued: “Therefore, in seeing you grieved, I cannot help but be stirred to pity in light of your and your daughters’ situation, of which I am bound by law to play a most awkward part. And while, madam, I have no doubt that all of your daughters will make suitable marriages and that, in their leaving this home to run their own, you will thereby have not one or two but five different homes in which to settle and live at your choosing in your old age, you may be assured that I will do everything in my power to safeguard the welfare of both you and my fair cousins upon the passing of your husband, the event of which I do not think will occur for many more years, as happily for all of us, Mr. Bennet looks to be the very picture of good health.” And smiling pleasantly, he asked if Mrs. Bennet wouldn’t be the first to agree with this, while bowing with practiced grace.
My mother, however, wasn’t in the custom of listening to, much less answering, any parts of a conversation that did not interest her and replied accordingly to only the sections of Mr. Collins’s speech that gave her the most reason for joy. “Sir, you are most kind,” she answered gratefully and folded her handkerchief for the next time it should be used.
Mr. Collins resumed his seat, which, being opposite my own, permitted me to observe his appearance from a close distance. He was not handsome, but in his face there was something more interesting than mere attractiveness. As he gave lively attention to Mama’s description of the neighborhood and the succession of dinner parties, balls, and other engagements that monthly filled our calendars, every aspect of his countenance played a distinct role in the expression of delight and amazement. His eyes sparkled obligingly. His cheeks, full and round when he smiled, gleamed like two wax apples. And upon hearing that we dined with no less than four and twenty families a year, he lifted his brow to such heights it seemed to contort the entire shape of his face. He conveyed wonder that we could spare the time and the energy to fulfill all the invitations we received, and Mama assured him that our lives, though by no means capable of matching the level of idleness which was the privilege of the truly wealthy, were certainly ones of active leisure. As the hour grew late, we were soon called to dinner, and over cups of wine and crowded platters of venison, pork, and pheasant, Mr. Collins shared select accounts of his interactions with Lady Catherine de Bourgh as evidenced the latter’s beneficence. I noticed, in recounting these impressive stories, that he seemed particularly keen on attracting the attention of the eldest Miss Bennet.