Jennifer Paynter

Background to The Forgotten Sister / Mary Bennet

"Mary Bennet" - Penguin coverI began writing Mary Bennet in 2001, before the Pride and Prejudice spin-offs proliferated  in the wake of the 1995 BBC television production starring Colin Firth as Mr Darcy.

A throw-away line in John Bayley’s memoir of his wife Iris Murdoch got me started.  Bayley, a one time Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, wrote that ‘the unfortunate Mary is the only one among Jane Austen’s characters who never gets a fair deal from the author at all, any more than she does from her father’. (p.69 Iris) At the time, I was also reading a biography of Princess Diana—as a staunch republican, I enjoy reading biographies of British royalty—and it struck me that Diana Spencer, like Mary Bennet, was the third successive daughter of parents desperate for a male heir. (Just as the Bennets needed a son to keep the Longbourn estate in the family, so the Spencers needed one to inherit the earldom.)

I reasoned that Diana’s childhood experience could help me better imagine Mary’s. Diana’s biographer, Sarah Bradford, describes how Diana ‘convinced herself that she should have been a boy and that, being a girl, she was a disappointment and regarded as a lesser being.’ The parallel ends there however, for the longed-for Spencer son was born a couple of years after Diana’s birth, whereas Mary is followed into the fictional world by two more sisters. And while Lady Diana grew up to be a beauty and was reportedly her father’s favourite, Mary is ‘the only plain one’ of the Bennet girls, and Mr Bennet always gives his second daughter, Elizabeth, the preference.

"The Forgotten Sister" - Amazon cover
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After Mary Bennet

Many writers confess to only seeing a pattern in their work retrospectively. And it was only after I finished Mary Bennet and turned my attention to Mansfield Park—my favourite Austen novel and my next project—that I recognized my own pattern. I was planning to inhabit (rehabilitate?) the character of Maria Bertram, and while on the surface Mary Bennet and Maria Bertram have little in common beyond their initials—Maria is an older sister, handsome and clever, confident of her powers—thinking about it, both characters suffer from having ‘absent’ fathers.

Unlike Mr Bennet, Sir Thomas Bertram is not neglectful; he is merely distant and reserved and for a crucial period in his daughter’s life, absent from home—overseeing his property in Antigua. (Just what this says about my relationship with my own father I'm not prepared to speculate on, at least not publicly!) Of course Mansfield Park is a much darker novel than the ‘light and bright and sparkling’ Pride and Prejudice, and Maria Bertram, unlike Mary Bennet, becomes a tragic figure. But she is undoubtedly another Austen character who is not given a ‘fair deal’ by either her fictional father or her creator—and so for me, another possible heroine.