There have been many attempts to re-write or expand on Jane Austen’s works – some better, some not. “The Other Bennet Sister” by Janice Hadlow is definitely in the former category.
Hadlow takes the reader behind the scenes as it were, all the way back to the very beginnings of “Pride and Prejudice” and puts Mary Bennet front and center, instead of being lost in a sea of Bennet sisters.
Mary is the middle child of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s five daughters. As a youngster, she was happy growing up on the family estate Longbourn and played with her older sisters, Jane and Elizabeth.
However, Mary learned very early that her mother did not think her looks measured up to any of her sisters’ and, therefore, she lacked the means to catch a husband.
Her mother’s constant haranguing erodes Mary’s self-esteem and influences her sisters’ opinions of her.
Jane and Elizabeth close ranks, leaving Mary in the cold. The younger girls, Kitty and Lydia, are too frivolous to keep company with her. Mary retreats into her piano playing and her books. Either constantly criticized or neglected, she shuts down emotionally and turns to her intellect to cope with everything and everyone.
During England’s Regency period, an estate must be passed to a man in the family. Since Mr. Bennet has no sons, Longbourn will pass to a cousin, Mr. Collins, leaving the Bennets without a home. When Mr. Collins visits Longbourn, Mary believes she is very well suited to being a clergyman’s wife and sets out to secure a proposal from Mr. Collins. Alas, Mr. Collins does not see the situation as Mary does – in fact, does not see Mary at all – and her last, best chance at marriage is lost.
Within a few years, all of the Bennet sisters are married except for Mary. She struggles to find her place in the world. Women of that time had few options to earn a living and remain respectable. Other than living off the charity of her sisters, in whose homes Mary is uncomfortable, what else can she do?
When the opportunity to travel presents itself, Mary has the chance to shed the confining relationships that have held her back and meet new people. In different surroundings and in the company of people who are not prejudiced against her, can Mary learn to open her heart?
Hadlow has a subtle hand at deft story-telling. She may have re-told “Pride and Prejudice,” but “Persuasion” and “Sense and Sensibility” are given a nod, too.
Hadlow shows a keen understanding of psychology as she shines a light on the inner workings of the Bennet family and how that shaped Mary’s personality. She is a more sympathetic narrator than Austen, who tended to satirize her characters as parodies. While Austen focused on social commentary about the times in which her characters lived and how that confined women, Hadlow displays how those times and circumstances shaped the characters themselves. She also makes some very astute observations about marriage: what initially attracts someone may not be what one needs for a fulfilling marriage.
Hadlow shows how easy it is to destroy a child’s self-confidence with thoughtless remarks and neglect by parents and illustrates how that lack of self-esteem can completely alter a child’s demeanor and path in life. Mary keenly feels the sting of her mother’s harsh and repeated criticism. She wants to be closer to her father but fears his sardonic dismissal. As a result, Hadlow has Mary live inside her own head during the early, familiar part of the story. I felt she portrayed Mary as the most sympathetic and sensible of all the Bennets. Hadlow is at her best in the later part of the story, as she extends the storyline and re-defines Mary by putting her in different circumstances where her eyes can be opened and she can feel the sunshine on her face instead of living in shadows.
Fans of Austen will recognize many characters, but Hadlow leaves some of the more familiar in the background and goes more in depth on others to fill out Mary’s story. Charlotte Lucas and Caroline Bingley feature more prominently in “The Other Bennet Sister” and they are more catalytic to the storyline.
I really liked Hadlow’s concept for “The Other Bennet Sister.” It’s just a good read and I look forward to reading other works by Hadlow. This book works well for Jane Austen fans and non-fans alike. I think she stayed true to Mary Bennet, the time period, and Jane Austen’s vision while making her re-telling speak to a modern audience.
Hadlow has worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and has published a biography of Great Britain’s King George III. “The Other Bennet Sister” is her first fiction novel.