Today I have with me debut author Suzan Lauder. In her novel, Alias Thomas Bennet, she answers many of the questions readers may have about who Mr. Bennet really was.
And in spite of leaving behind only six novels, there is also a wealth of inspiration in Austen’s books. There are places where we think to ourselves, “I wonder why she chose that direction?” and further thinking leads to how that affected the direction of the novel. Just like many others, multiple readings have made me know the books better, but ask more questions.
An aspect of Pride and Prejudice that I was interested in was how much Mr. Bennet’s character was linked to critical events of the story. How key were his actions and inaction? Did he have a little or a lot of influence on Darcy’s impressions of the Bennet family? The relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth? Wickham’s victimization of Lydia?
I had an interesting discussion once with several other JAFF readers and writers regarding Pride and Prejudice: we spent hours discussing what really happened in Ramsgate with Georgiana and Wickham. Did Georgiana really love Wickham? Was she happy or resentful of her brother’s interference? The thing is, we don’t know. We only have a sentence or two on that incident, told from Darcy’s point of view, and the rest is pure speculation by the reader.
Similarly, my upcoming novel Alias Thomas Bennet explores what Austen says about Mr. Bennet and then goes on to explore speculation about the details of his canon personality, while it attempts to answer the question, “What if the personality of Mr. Bennet were entirely different?”
Like many readers, I have a well-formed opinion on Elizabeth Bennet’s father. Austen makes it known that he’s a clever smart-aleck, a bit of a recluse, a people-watcher, and is quick to judge others. She says that he and his wife have clearly displayed a poor marriage to their children, particularly mentioning his disrespect for Mrs. Bennet, and that they haven’t applied themselves well as parents. But we get subtle hints that say he’s clearly a member of his community, but chooses to watch and make fun of others rather than to lead; he’s a bit lackadaisical when it comes to taking on any certain types of responsibility in his life; and he seems fairly selfish in many aspects where he could be of better influence.
Of course, added to this summary is an opinion heavily flavoured by the fact that I’ve read hundreds of Austen-based stories and watched movies and miniseries written with a bit of artistic license. I’ve also seen some of the things Austen implied exaggerated in fan fiction, to the point where the Bennet parents are caricatures of Austen’s originals. So all this is a starting point for my character of Mr. Bennet in my book.
Consider a man like that being behind a high-strung Mrs. Bennet, a Jane who accepts what comes to her without complaint, an Elizabeth who shares many of the same personality traits that could be considered flaws in her father, and three foolish younger sisters. I for one think he has some responsibility for the weaknesses and actions of the other characters in the book just by his ability to make a difference and his disinterest in doing so.
So what if the key character traits of the other Bennets were coaxed into positives rather than flaws, by none other than Mr. Bennet himself? A new-and-improved Bennet family! Now this was a fun path for my mind to travel down.
In developing the Thomas Bennet of my book, I decided to keep some aspects of his character, for example, his being clever, bookish, with a decent sense of humour. But the new-and-improved Thomas Bennet is also loving and caring to his wife, rather than being dismissive. He knows what’s going on with his children, and has guided them as they have grown up, also. He even manages Longbourn to be more prosperous than his namesake. As an author, I could stretch this person in almost any way I wanted.
One of the ways that I thought was appropriate to stretch was for him to become friends with Mr. Darcy. It would be inevitable. A responsible, community-minded Mr. Bennet would attend the Meryton assembly and take interest in his new neighbours, and the relationship between these two gentlemen is bound to affect Elizabeth’s first impressions of Darcy, too.
The reader will quickly see how this has potential to change other situations as the story progresses. Alias Thomas Bennet follows canon through these changes and inevitably events are slightly twisted on their ear while Darcy and Elizabeth’s circumstances are adjusted, even if their core personalities remain the same.
But Bennet needed a backstory, and maybe a couple of new flaws. How did he get this way? Why is he so different than in canon? I think this, as much as how much the improved Bennets change the course of Pride and Prejudice and the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy, is the fun of reading Alias Thomas Bennet.
…of most interest to Bennet was Mr. Darcy of Pemberley.
When Fitzwilliam Darcy attends the Meryton assembly, he befriends a quiet, intelligent gentleman. In frequent visits to his friend’s home, he becomes acquainted with the Bennet family of Longbourn. Yet Mr. Darcy is distracted by a strange feeling of having met some of them before.
This is a different Bennet family from the cleverly crafted one in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. This Mr. Bennet is a responsible gentleman who takes an active role in the education and upbringing of all five of his daughters, manages Longbourn to be prosperous, and displays loving guidance toward Mrs. Bennet—a gentle, caring mother and wife.
There is a mystery lurking at Longbourn—a secret unknown even to Elizabeth Bennet—and Mr. Darcy is entangled in its extraordinary revelations.
Who is Thomas Bennet?
*This book contains one brief scene of non-explicit sexual violence that may be concerning to sensitive readers. The sexual violence does not include Elizabeth Bennet.
In 2009, during an extended illness, Suzan Lauder discovered a dog-eared paperback version of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, and having vaguely recalled hearing Austen was a good writer, decided to try it. That led to a desperate obsession. After being horribly disappointed to find there were only 6 books, she went on to read the juvenilia, the letters, autobiographies, movies, fanfiction, and everything possible Austen. She continues to read, write, and love anything inspired by Austen.
Her first book, Alias Thomas Bennet—A Pride and Prejudice Variation, will be published by Meryton Press in mid- November 2013.
Connect with Suzan Lauder on her blog!