Austen in August – Review: The Forgotten Sister, Jennifer Paynter

I first spotted this book while I was still in Australia and having heard that it offered an antipodean slant on the story, I decided to give it a shot.  Mary Bennet has been having quite the renaissance lately – I half read The Independence of Mary Bennet a few years ago before giving up in boredom but more recently it seems like whoever Miss Mary’s agent may be, they are really earning their money.  Terri Fleming has released Perception which promises to tell the story of how she finds a husband, then Janice Hadlow is also planning The Other Bennet Girl and this is just the big ticket numbers – there’s also been Becoming Mary, Mary Bennet’s Chance, The Pursuit of Mary BennetWhen Mary Met The ColonelMary and the Captain, Mary Mary Quite Extraordinary and at this point I grow tired of typing.  It does rather give the lie to the title of this book though – Mary Bennet seems in small danger of being forgotten.

From early on it is clear that Jennifer Paynter has a fierce sense of sympathy for Mary, imagining her the unjustly neglected outsider.  The novel opens with the words, ‘For the best part of nine years–from the age of four until just before I turned thirteen–I prayed for a brother every night.’  When Mrs Bennet produced her first baby girl, everyone was delighted with Jane’s beauty, even the second Lizzie was saved by her wit and early intelligence and fast became their father’s favourite.  For Mary though, third girl in a family that desperately needed a male heir – well.  There was just disappointment.  Farmed out to the peasant Bushell family for nursing (just as Jane Austen was herself), Mary endures neglect and mistreatment.  Even when she finally returns to her family, she never quite fits in.  Paynter depicts Mary as the frequent butt of her father’s spiteful humour and ignored by her sisters.

With Jane and Elizabeth the ‘older pair’, then Kitty and Lydia the obvious ‘younger pair’, Mary is the classic middle child. Paynter further isolates her within her narrative by having her education supervised by the local parson which supposedly narrows her views further and then following a bout of ‘melancholy’, sends her off to stay with said parson’s mother for a couple of years,  only returning shortly before the events of Pride and Prejudice.  Apparently encouraged by the parson’s mother to copy down passages or quotations that she found inspiring into her ‘Commonplace Book’, we have the supposed source of Austen’s Mary’s pompous outbursts – she’s socially anxious and relies on her commonplace book for things to say.

From early on I felt that Paynter’s Mary was a creature apart from that of Austen.  Paynter has indisputably done her research and mapped her story closely and accurately to the original novel (which is more than one can say for an awful lot of spin-off writers and yes PD James I’m looking at you), but she is hampered by the canonical Mary’s speeches and almost every time one of them arises in The Forgotten Sister, it is prefaced by the Paynter Mary confessing that she was a little bit squiffy having been at the punch.  I was genuinely expecting some kind of confession of alcoholism but it never came – certainly Mary does seem here to be something of a closeted toper.  We are repeatedly told that Mary and Elizabeth have same eyes, from the Gardiner side of the family, with Paynter clearly wanting us to understand that there is a greater kinship between the two than people have noticed heretofore.  Austen’s Mary was aggressively uninterested in the opposite sex, while Paynter’s receives two marriage proposals.  Yet, Paynter’s Mary has the status of the outsider and so sees more clearly than her sisters – she is even allowed to see through Wickham.  Austen’s Mary seemed utterly oblivious to the world around her.

Mary – 1995 BBC adaptation

What is it about Mary Bennet which makes so many people so keen to lend her a voice?  She says and does very little in the original story and even less which is genuinely interesting.  Like so many of Jane Austen’s characters, Mary’s purpose is to be dull – she exists to be the object of mockery.  In the case of Emma’s Miss Bates, both the novel’s heroine and through her the reader are scolded for sniggering at a woman who has few advantages but with Mary we have a free rein.  She wishes to say ‘something very sensible but knew not how’.  While Elizabeth rolls her eyes at Caroline Bingley’s insistence that an accomplished woman must have something in her ‘air’ to truly merit the adjective, Austen does seem to be implying the same thing with Mary.  Mary can practice the piano as much as she likes, read as many ‘great books’ as she wants but nobody is ever going to be truly impressed because nobody really likes her.  She is a bore and has no wit .

Flash forward two centuries and with geek culture now far more mainstream, people are more willing to sympathise.  Mary was probably only nineteen and had led a very sheltered life.  So many of us who were nerdy were not particularly easy to get on with during adolescence.  I can’t help but think of Paynter as a motherly type saying gently to Mary, come on now, smile a bit more, try talking to be people – you might be pleasantly surprised.  Where the original Mary seemed not to wish to mix with others, who wished that talking about deep subjects was the order of the day rather than dancing, who essentially tried having fun once and it was awful – this new version of Mary just wants to be included.

Paynter is warm in her defence of Mary but she also has some sharp observations about the other characters too.  Mr Bennet comes in for the sternest criticism, but although most modern readings of him do tend to highlight his unpleasantness, Paynter’s criticism is far sharper.  She sees him as emotionally abusive towards Mary, drawing from the episode at the Netherfield ball where he humiliates her by stopping her from playing the piano.  While the 1995 television series emphasises that he is saving Mary from her self and the 2005 film has the character giving her a consoling hug afterwards, here the gesture is only part of a lifetime of slights and petty cruelties.  Her father’s treatment of her is at the core of Mary’s melancholy, and indeed it is only through the worry that the melancholy causes the rest of her family that Mary is able to get any attention.

2009 – Lost in Austen adaptation, ITV

The only person in the Bennet family who Mary actually likes is Jane, but then Jane is too absorbed by Elizabeth to show her any special favour.  Indeed, Elizabeth as viewed by Paynter is not a nice girl.  Inserting an early episode which has a teenage Elizabeth cavorting in as inappropriate a manner as Lydia ever did, Paynter portrays the adult Lizzie is a proto Regina George.  Here though I felt that Paynter might be on to something.  Elizabeth sighs dramatically over her poor piano playing and tells Mary that ‘from now on I mean to practice at least an hour a day – Mary, you are my witness – an hour a day at the very least‘.  Mary is nonplussed, since she knows that her sister does practice that much and more – but Elizabeth does not like to appear to try hard.  Clearly Paynter was not convinced by the original Elizabeth’s protestations – she spied false modesty and self-deprecation.  More than that though, in times of stress, Mary finds Elizabeth ‘liveliness had become oppressive’.  When irritated by her sister, Elizabeth speaks in ‘the cool, arch tone she adopted whenever anything threatened to unsettle her‘.  I thought here that Paynter remained close to the original while still showing a fresh perspective.  I can easily imagine Elizabeth Bennet seeming difficult to deal with to those she saw as beneath her.  I would not have wanted her as my sister.

As an independent story, there was much to like about The Forgotten Sister although the early episode about Mr Coates and Mr Rovere seemed to take up a lot of space without adding a great deal to the overall story.  Still, Mary’s hapless attempts to make friends and form an attachment were genuinely quite endearing.  Having read so much about the early history of Australia lately it was interesting to realise where those events fell in the Austen timeline – naturally Mr Darcy would have connections with Governor and Mrs Macquarie which could open doors.  Imagining an Austen heroine – even someone as decidedly unheroic as Mary – setting foot in Australia was an intriguing idea.  I got to wondering about travel possibilities for other characters – surely  Captain and Mrs Wentworth might have made their way there?

In terms of where it sits in Austen canon, The Forgotten Sister entertained rather than convinced me.  When Mary made reference to ‘our new housekeeper Hill’, I felt irritated since I have now internalised Hill’s back story as it was in Jo Baker’s Longbourn.  As far as spin-offs go, I think that only that and Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea have ever left a similar impression.  Still enough, this was a likable enough story written with great emotional warmth and kindness.  Young Miss Mary was sniggered over by her creator and made a figure of fun, there can be no harm in seeing her treated with greater care.  Still, I can’t help but be confused – why can we not accept that maybe Mary really was happy with her books and piano?  Maybe she wasn’t as bright as she thought she was, but maybe she didn’t notice and just got on with life.  In the epilogue, her father privately mused that being no longer held up as less pretty than her sisters, Mary gained some confidence.  Why are we so compelled to graft on a love story – is that the only way we could believe her contented?

The strangest onscreen depiction of Mary by far was that within the 2005 film where she was baffling played by the beautiful Talullah Riley who for some reason was dressed in far uglier clothes than the rest of her sisters as though she was the poor relation.  To go with the film, Riley posed in costume for an equally strange set of photos where she rolled around in a haystack with come-hither eyes.  Why can Mary only be a compelling character while she is somehow seen as sexually available?  In some ways, The Forgotten Sister feels akin to that (although far more nuanced and better written).  I can see how the original Mary is so sparsely written – and where she is written, she is dull – that she needs a radical makeover to be a compelling protagonist.  It just seems a shame that in a novel written by a woman who lived her life unwed, we feel so compelled to force every single one of her characters down the marriage plot route.

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The Forgotten Sister by Jennifer Paynter
Published by Amazon Publishing on 2014
Genres: Fiction, Romance, Historical, Regency, Coming of Age
Pages: 430
ISBN: 9781477848883

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