The book: The socially complex world of Pride and Prejudice has inspired many re-imaginings — the latest of which comes from Katherine J. Chen ’12 in the form of Mary B. (Random House). In Pride and Prejudice, middle Bennet sister Mary is alternately described as “plain,” “pedantic,” and “conceited,” and almost thoroughly ignored by every character and the novel’s plot.
From this sparse description, Chen has fleshed out the character, presenting Mary’s inner monologue during the timeframe of Pride and Prejudice as well as beyond the original story, as all of her sisters marry off and she remains single. Mary B. assigns Mary agency, telling a story that assesses opportunities for individuality in a society that dictates that a woman’s primary purpose is to wed.
The author: Katherine Chen ’12 graduated from Princeton with a degree in English. This is her first novel.Opening lines: A child does not grow up with the knowledge that she is plain or dull or a complete simpleton until the accident of some event should reveal these unfortunate truths. My eldest sister, Jane, did not know that she was Hertfordshire’s answer to Helen of Troy until well into her adolescence. Walking out with the rest of her siblings in a new pink frock, she attracted the attention of two young men who had been wrestling and who suddenly stopped to gawp at her, like animals that have for the first time looked skyward and spotted the sun.
From a young age, Jane had been elevated by our mother to as high a rank of divinity among the common folk of Hertfordshire as false modesty would permit, while Papa never scrupled to show his preference for Lizzy, his second-born. In appearance, it is true Lizzy never possessed the natural elegance and mildness which blessed her sister. She preferred skipping to walking, dirt paths to paved roads, and the scent of wet earth to any fragrance that could be bottled. But what she lacked in conventional beauty was amply compensated for by an open and spirited temperament which rendered any conversation with her highly energetic and amusing.
It was therefore acknowledged, long before my younger sisters and I had any say in the matter, that beauty, goodness, and intelligence had disproportionately concentrated themselves in the two eldest and gone woefully amiss in the three following; namely, that I had been touched with a plainness in appearance unrivaled throughout the whole country and Kitty and Lydia with a willful propensity to ignorance that exposed them continuously to ridicule without their ever becoming aware of the fact.
I will tell you the story of how I knew myself to be plain and therefore devoid of the one virtue which it behooves every woman to have above all else, if she possibly can. A plain woman, unless she is titled and independently wealthy, will always find herself in a position of extreme disadvantage to her more attractive peers, and the deficiency will haunt her until she reaches an age by which the condition of being withered and crippled will excuse her from her plainness. I can attest to the numerous petty prejudices she will suffer at the hands of individuals she has never wronged or even met before, like the butcher who, for the same money, would choose to save a better cut of meat for a more attractive patron or the surly housemaid who’d accept abuse from a beautiful mistress while resenting the same treatment from a plain one.
Reviews: “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
“Perhaps not even a newly discovered Austen manuscript could exceed the delicious pleasure of Mary B. From an unswept corner of literature, Katherine J. Chen has conjured a heroine whose story is heartbreaking, hilarious, and, finally, thrilling. Mary B is a delight.”—Susan Choi, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of American Woman and My Education