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