Like many Jane Austen fans, I’ve read Pride & Prejudice many times and each time I’ve gained a deeper appreciation of the story, the characters, the setting, and the social commentary that Austen excels at. I became very sympathetic to Mary, the not-pretty, socially awkward, priggish middle sister. Austen is kind of unforgiving toward Mary. Mary makes dull observations, she has no sense of humor, she can’t play the piano or sing very well, and she sermonizes unendingly. She was probably really annoying to live with. I thought, wow, Mary really has middle child syndrome.
And I thought, hmmm – why doesn’t Mr. Collins want to marry Mary Bennet? She’d be perfect for him, right? They’re both insufferable and stupid – it would be a match made in heaven. Thankfully, Jane Austen reserved Mr. Collins for Charlotte Lucas, thereby clearing the field for me.
In writing about Mary I had to take a character who is one-dimensional and round her out a bit. But first I had to understand her better and to do that, I turned to that expert on all things female in the 18th and 19th centuries – Fordyce, as in Fordyce’s Sermons for Young Women. Yes, I read Fordyce’s Sermons as a way into Mary Bennet’s psyche. This was actually really fun. Even in Jane Austen’s day Fordyce was considered old and stuffy, but he provided some good advice. Some of this I use in The Unexpected Miss Bennet, as in the scene when the older ladies are hoping to get Mary to gossip, and she knows to beware of their wiles because Fordyce warned her about these types of women, who seek to lead young women astray. (Yeah, he had issues). Mary also comes to see that Fordyce is not the be-all and end-all of knowledge, and maybe it’s time to find a new guide for her new life.
I wanted to make sure that ‘my’ Mary was identifiable as the Mary Bennet created by Jane Austen, and I think I succeeded. Mary is still devout, and she still sermonizes – a little. But she sees there is a wider world out there, and she gains some self-knowledge and makes new friends because she has become open to what life offers. Regency-era women lived very constrained lives so I didn’t have her go through any crazy adventures, but only what makes sense for the character.
I’m a romantic at heart. Romance is such a hopeful genre, and I thought it was a perfect way to explore a character who is mostly overlooked. When writing The Unexpected Miss Bennet, I found that I felt very protective of Mary. After all that she had been through in Pride & Prejudice, she deserved to fall in love with a good guy. When I created a love interest for her, I wanted Mr. Aikens to be a breath of fresh air. That was fun too, to create my very own new character for Pride & Prejudice.
No one can out-Austen Austen, but I hope I successfully kept to the spirit of the original while writing my sequel. It was a fun, fascinating experience, and I hope that readers end up with the same sympathy for Mary Bennet that I have.
– Patrice Sarath