If you've longed to take just one more turn in the grounds of Pemberley, or just another peek at Rosings, then Patrice Sarath's The Unexpected Miss Bennet will be a sweet return to familiar Jane Austen territory. It's a competent and engaging work of fan fiction, following the coming-of-age of Miss Mary Bennet and set straight after the events of Pride and Prejudice.
The author cleverly focuses on a character that wasn't central to Austen's original work. Miss Mary Bennet's religious, dutiful nature, and plain looks have led everyone around her to assume that she should remain a spinster. Nagging self-doubt and the meddling of her sisters spur her on to a journey of self-discovery.
Despite Mary's outward exasperation with frivolity, courting and marriage, she secretly longs for more than her role as the girl whose duty it is to provide the musical entertainment for everyone else's parties. To accentuate the insult, despite her tireless practice at the craft she doesn't quite measure up to the apparently effortless talents of her peers. The story unfolds as Jane invites Mary to Pemberley. Her quiet rebellion blooms with a sudden self-imposed break with music and the unexpected change of scenery.
From an enigmatic romantic tension not unlike the dark and brooding Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice to the pious snivelling of Mr Collins and the icy disdain emanating from Lady Catherine de Bourgh, almost all the hallmarks of a good Austen story are present and accounted for. There are misunderstandings and complications; Jane's role in Mary's life has echoes of Emma and the discovery of The Mysteries of Udolpho by Mary hints at Northanger Abbey.
Yet I did find that despite wearing the best of Jane Austen costumes (complete with the most adorable bonnet) the author's fancy-dress performance of Austen's greatest hits still produces the odd off-note. This is Jane Austen, as lovingly retold by an American devotee. It's a little too "straight", frequently lacking the depth of sub-text, and so there are moments when one is briefly reminded that this is not the real deal. But to be only briefly reminded of the fact is quite the achievement.
Reading The Unexpected Miss Bennet is an indulgent treat which I suspect most Jane Austen fans will thoroughly enjoy. I was left hoping for more.