Juska: Mrs. Bennet Has Her Say (book review)

A novel by Jane Juska. Berkley Books/Penguin Group, 2015.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that every man in possession of a wife must be in want of a son." --Mr. Edward Bennet

"If only poor Mother had lived to tell me of the infamy that would be my wedding night." --Mrs. Marianne Bennet

Having read some time ago Jane Juska's hugely successful autobiographical memoir A Round-Heeled Woman (2003) and recognized what a splendid writer she is, I should never have had any doubts about her latest book, Mrs. Bennet Has Her Say. However, this time was different. She was writing a novel, a fiction, and a historical-literary one at that. Happily, my concerns were quickly dispelled. Before I was little more than a few pages in, I realized that Ms. Juska could write a zombie apocalypse chronicle and it would be head and shoulders above anything else written in the field. Although Mrs. Bennet features no zombies, it is delightfully charming, witty, and outright funny.

Juska chose as the starting point of her novel a work she had known for many years, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. But, I hear you say, haven't other authors done this sort of thing before? Haven't we had, for example, any number of prefaces to or continuations of Elizabeth Bennet's misadventures, some of them even set in modern times? Of course we have, so Ms. Juska takes a different approach while examining much the same social and cultural landscape as the original. Juska writes her novel from the points of view of the Bennet family parents, Edward and Marianne, when they were young and in the first years of their marriage, some twenty-odd years before the circumstances of Pride and Prejudice. So, no, this is neither a pastiche (Ms. Juska is very much her own person with her own style, and while her writing may remind one of Ms. Austen's, it is still Juska all the way) nor a sequel (a prequel is more like it, yet even then the change in emphasis to the parents dispels any notion of imitation).

Here, in order not to give away too much of the book's plot, I quote from the publisher's notes: "1785 was to be the most marvelous year of Marianne's life, until an unfortunate turn of events left her in a compromised state and desperate for a husband to care--or rather cover--for her. Now, she is stuck in an undesirable marriage to Mr. Edward Bennet, a man desperate in his own way for a male heir. But as she is still carrying a smoldering desire for the handsome Colonel Miller, Mrs. Bennet must constantly find new, clever ways to avoid her husband's lascivious advances until she is once again reunited with her dashing Colonel. Except that the best-laid plans of a woman in good standing can so often go awry, especially when her contrary husband has plans and desires of his own. . . ."

Jane Juska
In other words, both the husband and wife have married for reasons other than love: The husband to provide a male heir for his estate (women had no rights of inheritance in those days or many rights of any kind) and to provide himself a measure of relief from his own lust; the wife because she needs a husband to maintain her respectability. They are not happy with their lots in life when the husband discovers that his wife does not share his more-carnal desires, and the wife recognizes that she cannot have the man she really wants and, worse, that the husband she does have is, as he himself admits, "a boorish, awkward, country lout." Life can be so cruel. "O la!"

OK, now I must admit to another misgiving I had before starting the book, a misgiving related to my own recent literary proclivities. I had been reading almost exclusively crime, mystery, and detective novels for the previous half dozen years (Henning Mankell, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, John Grisham, Paula Hawkins, David Baldacci, that kind of thing), laced with the occasional popular-science book. Would suddenly turning my attentions to an eighteenth-century comedy of manners really be my cup of English tea? Again, I should have had no such worries so long as Jane Juska was in charge. And imagine my surprise when as things turned out the Bennets were not as genteel as I had expected them to be. The book is a frisky, satiric romp, never explicit in the nature of so many modern titles but playfully sexual enough to hold one's interest.

Anyway, Ms. Juska tells the story through a series of writings by her two main characters (Mr. Bennet in a diary and Mrs. Bennet in letters to her sister). In establishing this alternating framework, Juska is able to explore two very differing points of view on essentially the same topics. Marianne will describe an event, and in the next chapter Edward will usually describe the same event from his own perspective. Often the views are hilariously at odds, as the wife is something of an airhead (or, to be fair, naive, as she is still in her teens) and the husband a confirmed loggerhead (no other way to sugarcoat that one). The husband's diary, he says, is a private affair detailing his lascivious desires for his wife, his tenant farmer's daughter, and any other girl he sees, insisting he wants the whole thing burned to ashes when he dies. The wife's letters describe her continued longings for her dear colonel, and she doesn't want her sister sharing them with anybody. "Be still, my heart."

That Ms. Juska should look more favorably on the nincompoopery of the wife over the blunders of the husband is the author's understandable prerogative. (Mrs. Bennet is the titular heroine of the novel, after all.) As Juska writes in an Afterword, "You know, I think Mrs. Bennet got a bad deal. Five children in eight years is enough to unsettle anybody. On the other hand, maybe she was always dotty, or do you think she got that way after she married Mr. Bennet or only as all those daughters were being born?"

Incidentally, there are more Janes involved with this book than you can shake a stick at (if that's your idea of a good time). There's Jane Juska, there's Jane Austen, and there's the main character's sister Jane to whom she writes her letters. My Random House Unabridged says that "Jane is a female given name derived from French Jeanne, Old French Jehane, from Medieval Latin Johanna (John). As a generic name for 'girl, girlfriend' it is attested from 1906 in U.S. slang. It may owe its 'everywoman' reputation rather to its association with John." I dunno; maybe Ms. Juska liked having Mrs. Bennet write to Jane in order to personalize the messages, as though the main character were speaking directly to the book's author. Or not.

Ms. Juska's strong suit has always been her ability to shape and tone her writing. She is a true wordsmith, whether she's describing Mrs. Bennet's visits to the neighbors, a trip to Bath, or a grand ball. The old dictum of "show not tell" is in evidence in everything Jane Juska writes, and we get a genuine feel for being there with the characters and a sincere understanding of their situations. More important, Juska does it all with grace, elegance, wit, and good humor. There isn't a page goes by that won't have you at the very least smiling and at the very best laughing out loud.

Flaws? Yes. For me, the story's 300-or-so page length seemed too short. No sooner do you get engrossed in it than it's over. Well, I suppose that is also a tribute to Juska's writing style. She pulls you in, and you want more. Although the book may fly by, its large number of very short chapters maintains a healthy, lively rhythm and forward-moving pace.

Jane Juska's Mrs. Bennet Has Her Say is an entertaining read, more amusing and more engaging as it goes along. You can't ask much more of an author than that.

JJP

To listen to actress Lindy Nettleton read a brief excerpt from the book, click here:


No comments:

Post a Comment

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa