By Rhonna Hargett, Learning and Information Services Associate Director
Jane Austen probably would have been very surprised to find that her novels are still being read, analyzed, and reinterpreted over 200 years after their original publication. I sometimes hear them described as romance novels, but that’s not really what they are about. Austen was the master of observing her society and encouraging the reader to see things in a different light. On the surface her most famous novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” is the story of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet falling in love. When we focus in, though, we see a young woman that is learning the difference between manners and goodness, the limited options for women in 19th Century England, and a society that can be scathing in its punishment for any missteps.
This story contains so many facets that authors have analyzed it from all different angles of it throughout the years. The most recent attempt that I have encountered is “Mary B” by Katherine J. Chen. Chen shares the story from the perspective of Mary, the serious sister with a penchant for regularly displaying her limited musical talent. We get to read her thoughts about their awkward cousin Mr. Collins, her shame at the behavior of her sisters, and her true feelings about being the “plain” sister. The story really picks up where “Pride and Prejudice” ends, when Mary is invited for an extended visit with Elizabeth. At Pemberley she finds an unlikely path to a hopeful future and an unexpected ally.
I’m enjoying getting a glimpse into the context for some of Mary’s more obnoxious moments and her reflections on what is going on around her. Chen’s Mary is reminiscent of what we know of Jane Austen herself – always watching, able to observe unnoticed, able to analyze the workings of society, but powerless to change her place in it. She even has a wicked sense of humor like Austen – Mary just keeps it to herself. Her journey of finding her place in the world and gaining understanding makes for a rewarding read.
“Longbourn” by Jo Baker has been around a few years but is a stand-out in the world of “Pride and Prejudice” spin-offs. Baker focuses on the Bennets’ pleasant maid, Sarah. Through her eyes we get the scoop on the lives below-stairs in the Bennet home. This novel illuminates the lives of the characters that make possible the ease that the family experiences. We get to experience their hopes and dreams, as well as the realities of their working existence. For instance, Elizabeth’s muddy petticoat is less charming to those that have to make it sparkling white again. The perspective of the servants is reminiscent of the appeal of “Downton Abbey,” making it clear that there is just as much intrigue, drama, and passion for those that are often forgotten.
I haven’t gotten ahold of it yet, but I’m looking forward to reading “Unmarriageable” by Soniah Kamal, a retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” set in modern-day Pakistan. As Library Journal describes it “Pride and Prejudice” in Pakistan may seem like an unusual pairing to some, but the rich cultural backdrop only enhances and breathes new life into Jane Austen’s classic.”
“Pride Prejudice and Other Flavors” by Sonali Dev coming out in May.
Jane Austen once famously said, “If a book is well written, I always find it too short.” Her many fans have also felt that her books were too few, but they have solved this dilemma by looking at her novels from different angles, setting them in different places and time periods, and using different media. Her timeless themes of dysfunctional families, self-discovery, humanity’s foibles, and of course love, will continue to intrigue readers for centuries to come.
Whether you like Austen in print, digital, or movies – the original works or a reinterpretation, the staff at Manhattan Public Library will be sure to have something to satisfy.