author of Mary Bennet
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Sydney and raised by my aunt, grandmother, de facto grandfather and live-in gardener. People always wanted to know who was related to whom. When I was six I was sent to boarding school.
When I was 12 I wanted to be an actress; when I was 18 I wanted to live in a conventional household (see above) and when I was 30 I wanted to write.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
When I was 18 I still, more or less, believed in God.
At my Methodist boarding school, there were prayer assemblies in the morning and evening, and long Bible passages (King James Authorised Version) lodged in my brain. Similarly, Shakespeare; we had to listen to recordings of Olivier ranting as Richard III and Henry V. After a while, I started to enjoy the language, the rhythms and cadences, even if I didn’t understand it. As a punishment, we also had to learn great chunks of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, and a lot of that has stayed with me too.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I originally planned to write Mary Bennet as a novella, but it sort of grew.
I’ve ‘borrowed’ another Jane Austen character—Maria Bertram from Mansfield Park—a very different young woman from Mary Bennet.
(BBGuru: Publisher’s blurb for Jennifer’s current novel, Mary Bennet –
Mary Bennet has been long overshadowed by the beauty and charm of her older sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, and by the forwardness and cheek of her younger sisters, Kitty and Lydia. From her post in the wings of the Bennet family, Mary now watches as Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy – and Mr Wickham – glide into her sisters’ lives. While she can view these three gentlemen quite dispassionately (and, as it turns out, accurately), can she be equally clear-sighted when she finally falls in love herself?
In this elegant retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Mary at last learns – with a little help from the man she loves – to question her family’s values and overcome her own brand of ‘pride and prejudice’. )
A different view of a familiar story and set of characters. (In a letter to her sister, Cassandra, Jane Austen famously wrote of the character of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice ‘”I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.” My Mary Bennet might have a different view of Elizabeth.)
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Shakespeare and Jane Austen for their characters—for their monsters too; energetic monsters like Iago in Othello and Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park fascinate me. For the same reason I love Charles Dickens’ grotesques, Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby and Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To finish my next novel, Maria Bertram, within a year.
The same old thing: read and re-read; write and rewrite; and persevere beyond the first round of rejections which nearly all writers meet with. You need to persist to properly test yourself.
Jennifer, thank you for playing.
For the best part of nine years—from the age of four until just before I turned thirteen—I prayed for a brother every night. My two elder sisters also prayed. They felt the want of a brother equally keenly, for our father’s estate was entailed upon a male heir and (as our mother never ceased to remind us) without a brother to provide for us or a rich husband to rescue us, we would all be destitute.
But if my Aunt Philips is to be believed, our parents in the early years of their marriage scarcely gave the entail a thought. When my eldest sister was born, my father was philosophical. As Aunt Philips tells it, Jane was the most beautiful baby, with an angelic disposition, and Papa was prodigiously proud of her.
He was disappointed when my second sister was born, however. But then, according to our neighbour Lady Lucas (or Mrs Lucas as she then was), Elizabeth was such a charming child that Papa was very soon reconciled to her existence—more than reconciled, he rapidly came to dote on her. Her favourite trick was to creep into his library with her linen blanket and make a nest for herself beneath his kneehole desk. Whilst ever he was reading she would be quiet as a mouse, but as soon as he closed his book, she would call to him in shrill imitation of our mother. Apparently this so amused my father that he began to close his book more often. He would go down upon his hands and knees to play with her and the two of them would then romp for half the morning.
Later, he taught her to read, and so delighted was he at her progress that if there were company present, he would call on her to display her precocious talent. Mama’s old friend, Mrs Long, remembers Elizabeth chalking words on a slate and lisping ‘Sally in Our Alley’ when she was but two years old. She also recalls the infant prodigy performing a sailor’s hornpipe while my father beat time on the arm of his chair and cheered her on. (I believe at one stage he even considered teaching Elizabeth Latin, but nothing ever came of it.)
My mother, not unreasonably, took exception to all this. ‘You will turn the child’s head, Mr Bennet. She will be so puffed up that soon there’ll be no teaching her anything.’ My father would laugh and return to his book. In those days he did not expose his wife to ridicule. That came a little later, after I was born.
Mama’s joy at the prospect of a third child was known to most of the good people of Meryton, and so certain was she this time that the Bennets were to be blessed with a son that she arranged for his initials to be embroidered on a fresh supply of baby linen, and for rosettes of satin ribbon to be affixed to the left-hand side of all his caps. Papa, too, looked forward to the birth, anticipating the cutting off of the entail and the disappointment of his cousins, the Collinses.
‘And how will you like having a little brother, Lizzy?’ he would say, whereupon Elizabeth would clap her hands. ‘But it may be you’ll have to make do with another sister.’ At which Elizabeth would frown and shake her head. I am told this caused my father much amusement.
He was not amused however to hear of my own arrival—telling my aunt when she tried to sympathise: ‘Mrs Bennet will bear me a son eventually, depend upon it. And if she does not, I can always divorce her, like King Henry the Eighth.’
I am told Papa made these sorts of remarks more often after I was born. He had always enjoyed teasing Mama, but hitherto his jokes had been good-humoured. Mama, of course, was incapable of laughing at herself even at the best of times (a failing my father believes I have inherited), and soon tears and hysterics became the rule at Longbourn, my father spent more time than ever in his library and the Bennets could no longer pass for a happy couple.
When I was about a month old, my father’s old friends, Mama’s nerves, took a hand in my fate. Out of consideration for them, I was farmed out to a wet-nurse, one Mrs Bushell, whose husband was gamekeeper at the Great House of Stoke. After I was weaned, I still remained with Mrs Bushell, and when at last I returned home to live, Mama was once more in an interesting condition.
I have no memory of Kitty’s birth, but Lady Lucas recalls that both Mama and Papa greeted the arrival of a fourth daughter with amazing fortitude. In the months before the birth, Papa forbade any embroidering of new baby linen, but at the same time he was more patient with Mama, taking care not to provoke her. He even made her the present of a brooch of two gold doves set in a circlet of seed-pearls.
Kitty was a sickly, fretful baby, however, and soon Mama’s nerves were being chafed by her constant crying. Once again Mrs Bushell’s services were called on, only this time Mama decided that her infant daughter should not be living quite apart from the rest of the family. Arrangements were made for Mrs Bushell and her two children to be installed in Collins Cottage, a little house on the Longbourn estate which had once been the home of Papa’s poor relations.
And now I come to something I remember clearly, though I was not three years old. I remember accompanying Kitty to Collins Cottage with the nurserymaid, and young Peter Bushell opening the door to us without any shoes on. I remember Mrs Bushell’s husband shouting at us to shut the door—he was cutting up wadding for his gun—and I remember, at sight of him, finding it impossible to draw breath.
Afterwards, the nurserymaid told me that I had held my breath till I was blue in the face, and that God would surely punish me if I ever did it again.
Eventually, of course, it all came out—how Mrs Bushell’s husband had been dismissed from the employ of Sir John Stoke and was now living permanently at Collins Cottage, doing nothing all day but drink and (as I would later discover) turning his hand to poaching by night. Mrs Bushell was quite unable to check her husband’s drunken outbreaks—on one occasion when Kitty would not stop crying, he had actually picked her up and shaken her, and it had been six-year-old Peter who had persuaded him to stop. Shortly afterwards, Mrs Bushell had confessed the whole to my father, and what he felt and how he acted may well be imagined. All I knew was that I saw no more of the Bushell family, although Mrs Bushell’s husband visited me frequently in dreams.
Everyone then had been amazingly kind to me, especially Papa. He would take down a picture book and sit me on his knee and I would perch there, stiff and shy, until the ordeal was over. He saw that I was afraid of him, I suppose, but then, at that time, I was afraid of all men.
I was also frightened of raised voices and sudden movements, and it was my eldest sister Jane (dear Jane!) who saw that music calmed me. She herself was only seven years old, but already acutely aware of the feelings of others. She would have me sit on a little stool beside the pianoforte while she practised, and wonderfully soothing I found it to watch her sweet face frowning over the keys and to listen to music, however imperfectly executed. (Elizabeth would also let me sit by her, but would hush me if I hummed a bar in accompaniment.)
It was at this time, too, that I learned to read, although my progress was disappointingly slow because of my poor eyesight. Mama spoke the literal truth when she said of me that I always had my nose in a book. (I did not begin wearing spectacles until I was eight.)
But I have not yet mentioned Lydia. She was born just two years after Kitty, on the first day of June—the fourth anniversary of the Glorious First of June, the day of Admiral Lord Howe’s victory over the French, as my father jokingly reminded the London accoucheur in the hours before her birth. (This time, for a wonder, it was Papa who was confident of having a son.) It was my Uncle Philips who announced her safe arrival. Jane, Elizabeth and I were summoned to the dining-room, where Uncle was finishing his dinner, and I remember him luridly lit by the setting sun (the windows of the Longbourn dining-room face full west), pulling sugar-plums from his pockets and pretending to be cheerful.
None of us was taken in, and my uncle did not try to maintain the charade. He left, muttering something about having to wet the baby’s head, and shortly afterwards I descried Papa through the window, walking across the lawn towards the little wilderness.
As he passed, I had a clear view of his face—lines running deeply from nose to mouth, set and despondent. The shock of seeing this made me cry out, and Elizabeth ran to the window, saying: ‘Oh! I must go to him.’ And although Jane tried to prevent her, she unfastened the window and sped out onto the terrace.
I saw her chase after him and catch at his coat. I saw him turn his head, and for a moment I was terrified—I thought that he might strike her—but then his face softened and I saw him take her hand.