Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: Mary B, Katherine J. Chen (2018)

There are some novels where the world is so fully imagined and the characters so perfectly realised that they take on lives of their own, even decades or centuries after their author’s death. One of these novels is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813).

There are so many novels with Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy as their protagonists and Longbourn or Pemberley as their settings that bookstores might do well to create a separate section for Austen mania, separate from the historical fiction shelves. And the latest of these is Katherine J. Chen’s lively debut, which retells the familiar story from an unfamiliar perspective.


The eponymous heroine of Mary B is Mary Bennet—the oft-forgotten middle sister, who possesses neither wit nor beauty, and is distinguished by her bookish nature and bad piano playing rather than by marrying into a great estate or eloping with an army officer.

It’s a great concept—one sure to appeal to the legion of Austen fans who have wondered if, or feared, they might be more of a Mary than a Lizzie. And it’s a concept that also feels peculiarly of the moment in 2018. Will Mary get her happy ending in a world that values women more for their looks than their brains? And what will this ending look like—a wedding? 10,000 a year?

Chen gives us an ideal combination of the old and new. The first half of the novel revisits well-trodden territory—Mr Collins’s visit to his cousins and rejected proposal—but with Mary relating incidents we weren’t privy to before, along with her internal reactions. In Part 2 we pick up once the credits on multiple costume drama adaptations have rolled. How are Lizzie and Jane’s marriages faring? What will become of Lydia Wickham now?

Katherine J. Chen
The novel kept me reading and wondering what the conclusion for Mary would be, especially in the latter half—at the opening it was a little difficult to embrace the first person voice when Mary’s misreadings of social situations are so obvious to readers who know their canon well. The dialogue is clunky and sometimes anachronistic, but Austen is a high bar and a natural point of comparison. At moments I felt like I was reading the kind of wish fulfilment provided by fan fiction, but that didn’t stop me racing through. Some reviewers have bemoaned Chen’s new, and not always flattering, take on the characters they love, but, since I don’t think Austen’s legacy is in doubt here, I was more than happy to come along for the ride. Likewise the sexual content, while not Austenian, didn’t make me swoon, for good or ill.

I wish Mary had changed more in the course of the novel. She teetered on the edge of self-discovery and had moments of near-connection with her sister, Lizzie, but ultimately the story vindicates her, while ending most other characters (including our former heroine) unhappily. Maybe this is part of the reason why the writing reads like YA—immediate and addictive, but without the profundity and deeper message Mary B could have delivered.

Have you read Mary B? What did you think? Let me know–here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.