Hello, and welcome to My Jane Austen Book Club, Katherine! Let’s start our chat remembering your first encounter with Miss Austen and her work. When was it? And what was it like?
I stumbled across Pride and Prejudice when I was around nine or ten years old. Since I was a relatively young reader for such a book, I don’t think I was able to fully enjoy the rhythm and nuances of Austen’s language and wit as much as I would have done, had I read the book for the first time later on as a teenager. The novel stayed with me because of its dynamic main characters: Lizzy and Darcy. Even as a kid, I knew, in my gut, that they would get together in the end, and I was never able to forget either of them. I wouldn’t liken my first encounter with Austen’s work as a kind of explosive, chemical moment. If anything, I really grew to love Austen and to genuinely appreciate the range of her works, only as I matured.
What about your favorite Austen hero and heroine? What do you particularly like about them?
My favorite Austen hero would have to be Mr. Darcy. It’s a generic answer, but I think also an inescapable one. When it comes down to it, he has most of the best lines in Pride and Prejudice, and the force of his dialogue always creates such a reaction that it is an almost physical experience. He’s such an imposing and regal character, even when he’s at his most unlikeable. He also undergoes the most remarkable transformation out of anyone in the book, and, as the novel progresses, the reader witnesses the spiritual betterment of a previously proud and awkward personality. Martin Amis puts it best in an essay he wrote: “The final paragraph gives us the extraordinary spectacle of Darcy opening his house, and his arms, to Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, who make what money they have through trade. Darcy, Jane Austen writes, ‘really loved them.’ This is the wildest romantic extravagance in the entire corpus: a man like Mr. Darcy, chastened, deepened, and finally democratized by the force of love.”
As for my favorite Austen heroine, I’d have to say that this would be a tie between Emma Woodhouse and Fanny Price. They’re so different, I know, but Emma, like Mr. Darcy, also changes considerably, from a rather foolish and spoiled young woman to someone who knows herself much better by the end of the novel. Fanny, I’ve always seen as an enigma. She doesn’t fit within the traditional role of an Austen heroine and in many ways is the opposite of someone like Emma Woodhouse. I think it’s hard not to pity someone like Fanny, who is cast off as the “poor relation” at Mansfield Park. She’s shy but also incredibly intelligent and unwavering in her principles.
And now to MARY B! What made her the ideal heroine for your debut novel?
Many other writers have explored the character of Mary Bennet before. She’s an attractive heroine for a novel for the very reason that she has so much working against her. She’s physically plain. She’s the middle child. And she is set up by Austen as an object for humor and humiliation. The world is laughing at her, and she’s the only one who doesn’t realize the joke is on her. I think there’s just a lot you can do with a character as strange as Mary Bennet. Either you can take her at face-value, as someone who is, in her own way, as intellectually silly as Lydia or Kitty Bennet, or you can dig deeper and try to uncover the motivation for such behavior. The “black sheep” of the family or the “outsider” usually proves to be the most interesting.
What are her three best qualities?
I’ve always seen Mary as a kind of exhibitionist. None of the Bennet sisters enjoyed any formal training or instruction in the arts, yet Mary is always so keen, at social events, to display her so-called prowess at the piano and to sing. It’s really mortifying, but I think her behavior upends the usual assumption that Mary is simply an introverted and voiceless bookworm.
Mary is self-aware. She knows she is the “only plain one in the family.” So, as Austen herself writes, she exerts herself in other ways by “work[ing] hard for knowledge and accomplishments.” There is a feminine modernity to this mentality, which I think resonates with contemporary audiences.
Finally, I think, despite most of the attention being heaped on her sisters, she hasn’t given up on the possibility of love. Not that Mr. Collins would have been ideally suited to her, but I like that Austen drops us the hint that Mary “might have been prevailed on to accept him.” I think she yearns for validation from her family, but it comes out always in the wrong way.
Were her 12 lines in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE enough to give her a voice and a story in your novel?
Yes, I think Austen paints a sufficiently full picture of Mary Bennet that she has a voice, even in the original text. And as for a story, there is enough to build on.
Without giving away too much, does she manage to find a husband like her three sisters: Lydia, Elizabeth, and Jane?
I don’t think a husband is really ever Mary’s ultimate goal, even when she convinces herself otherwise. A husband would almost be too “easy” an objective for Mary. That’s what marriage plots are for, after all. It’s a simple and comfortable ending for everyone involved, including the reader. Instead, I wanted Mary to go on the much harder path of doing a bit of soul-searching and self-exploration.
Are all the characters from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE present in your novel? Does the storyline follow PRIDE AND PREJUDICE’s main events, or does MARY B start where PRIDE AND PREJUDICE ends?
Yes, all of the main characters from Pride and Prejudice are present. The storyline follows Pride and Prejudice’s main events up to a certain point and then veers off, beyond where Austen’s novel ends. The novel doesn’t re-hash Darcy and Lizzy’s courtship in any way. It focuses, for the first part, on gaps of time in Austen’s original novel and/or moves to another part of the room, giving us Mary’s perspective of events.
Can you tell us something about Mr. Darcy in MARY B?
I don’t want to give too much away, but Darcy, in Mary B, is in a different place from when readers left him in Pride and Prejudice. He’s going through a much tougher time.
If you found yourself lost in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE like the protagonist of LOST IN AUSTEN, what moments would you like to live and which characters would you like to meet?
Even if I thoroughly disliked the experience, I think I’d want to meet Mr. Collins. I’d love to watch how he behaves at a ball. It would be a riot. And it’d be a singular experience, too, to listen to Mary sing and play. So, I guess my answer would be: the ball at Netherfield Park, where all the main characters are gathered and at their very best (or worst).
And my last question is: would Mary be your best friend?
The Mary of Mary B would be a strong contender as a best friend. The Mary of Pride and Prejudice, as Austen portrays her, not so much. But I think Mary is the kind of character who would be worth the investment of time and energy to get to know. I think I’d grow bored with someone like Jane, and I certainly wouldn’t have the energy to keep up with a character like Lydia. But I’m confident Mary has unplumbed depths.
Thanks for answering my questions, Katherine. Good luck to you and MARY B!
Thank you for these thoughtful questions about Mary B and for this interview.
About the Book
As the awkward middle child of five, Mary Bennet possesses neither the beauty of her elder sister, Jane, nor the high-spirited charm of 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 marry in order to secure their futures. But 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.
PRAISE FOR MARY B
“Perhaps not even a newly-discovered Austen manuscript could exceed the delicious pleasure of Mary B. From an overlooked corner of literature, Katherine J. Chen has conjured a heroine whose story is heartbreaking, hilarious, and, finally, thrilling.”
—Susan Choi, author of An Education
“Katherine J. Chen has dipped into Pride and Prejudice to pluck out and celebrate the seemingly most unpromising of the Bennet sisters. In giving Mary Bennet a resonant voice of her own, Chen has fashioned a luminous and enlightening novel that will entrance even, or especially, those who have not read Jane Austen’s masterpiece.”
—John Banville, Man Booker Prize winning-author of The Sea and Mrs. Osmond
“Mary B is a retelling for our time—bold, provocative and thrilling. Bravo!”
—Gish Jen, author of The Girl at the Baggage Claim
“Elegant, imaginative, and empathetic. Katherine J. Chen re-imagines Austen’s universe with humor and heart.”
—Jennifer duBois, author of Cartwheel and A Partial History of Lost Causes
“Katherine J. Chen has made alive Jane Austen’s irresistible Bennet family by her interest in all that we do not know, rather than what we do. If each novel is an answer to preceding ones, Chen has brought us up to date in a spirited and inventive way, reminding us with wit and charm that things are never as simple as we think.”
—Susanna Moore, author of In the Cut and Paradise of the Pacific
MARY B. IS OUT TODAY!
CHECK IT OUT HERE
CHECK IT OUT HERE