Let us stipulate that Mrs. Bennet draws the short straw. Her clever, ironic husband treats her with thinly disguised disrespect. Her wittiest, most interesting daughter recoils from her vulgarities. And Jane Austen’s readers -- identifying, consciously or unconsciously, with the point of view of the clever and the witty – laugh at her, quite a lot.
They don’t, however, long to spend much time in her company. And so my curiosity was piqued when I first heard of Mrs. Bennet Has Her Say, Jane Juska’s 2015 Pride and Prejudice spinoff.
By now, more than two centuries after P&P's publication, it’s hardly an act of revolutionary feminism to suggest that Mrs. Bennet, worried sick over the insecurity of her daughters’ future, is a more responsible parent than her resolutely detached husband.
But let’s face it: She’s also stupid and annoying. We have Jane Austen’s word for it: “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”
Centering a fan fiction on this unpleasant character? A challenging task, to say the least. And so I chose Juska’s novel as my latest assignment in the Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I spend 2016 plugging a few of the holes in my Janeite education.
Juska, a former English teacher, comes with an unusual backstory of her own. In her late sixties, she placed a personal ad in the New York Review of Books seeking sexual companionship. Then she wrote a memoir about the results and saucily titled it A Round-Heeled Woman. She was over eighty when Mrs. Bennet, her first novel, was published. Clearly, she knows a thing or two about underestimated older women.
Juska’s novel is not, as its title might suggest, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from Mrs. Bennet’s point of view. Instead, it’s a prequel recounting the early years of the Bennet marriage -- in Juska’s telling, a misbegotten affair from the first.
Newly of age, Edward Bennet needs a wife, any wife, to produce a male heir. Fifteen-year-old Marianne Gardiner, seduced and impregnated by a handsome militia colonel, needs a husband, any husband, pronto. (Yes, the future Jane Bingley is a cuckoo in the Bennet nest.) Edward is sexually inept; Marianne pines for her colonel; neither can express to the other what they feel or need; and the babies keep turning out to be girls.
Inevitably, the suspense is minimal: We P&P readers know that this marriage can’t, or at least won’t, be saved. Clearly, Juska hopes to hold our interest by showing us how the Bennet relationship curdled, turning Mr. Bennet into the jaundiced cynic and Mrs. Bennet into the frustrated complainer that we know and love.
In more competent authorial hands, the novel might have worked as a comic romp; in truly accomplished ones, it might have achieved real pathos. Alas, however, Juska isn’t up to either task. Her Edward is a doleful, clueless fellow with little sense of humor, rather like his namesake in Sense and Sensibility. Her whiny, tiresome Marianne is far less compelling than her S&S counterpart. And for those of us who care about such things, the stray verbal anachronisms are jarring: a handsome young man is “a looker,” a lady of easy virtue is “a stupid little tramp,” a woman recalls “giv[ing] my all, and then some,” a storyteller launches a tale with “First off.”
But Juska’s biggest mistake is her decision to tell the story in first-person narration, alternating between Mrs. Bennet’s letters to a sympathetic older sister and Mr. Bennet’s diary entries.
The Bennet parents are among Austen’s greatest comic creations, but like so many of her brilliant caricatures, they are one-dimensional: They lack the capacity for growth or change, and that makes them inadequate vehicles for what’s meant to be a story about a growing and changing relationship. By depriving herself of the perspective that an omniscient narrative voice would have brought to the proceedings, Juska is forced to fall back on the introspective insight and emotional sensitivity of two people who conspicuously lack either quality.
Preoccupied with unrealistic romantic imaginings, Juska’s Marianne recalls a far greater literary creation, Emma Bovary. But there’s a reason Flaubert doesn’t let Madame Bovary tell her own story: Her tragedy is that she’s not capable of fully understanding her tragedy. Unfortunately, Juska doesn’t seem to realize that her Mrs. Bennet actually has very little to say.