The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
Mary Bennet is the middle sister. In Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” she is the sister who is socially awkward, with her book of ‘extracts’ and her insistence on playing the piano at the Netherfield ball. In this book, Hadlow takes a character who is not much mentioned in the famous novel and creates a world and an explanation of each of her actions as recorded. It makes careful use of the well known characters from the novel, each appearing in the way they appeared. Thus there is the beautiful Jane, the clever and pretty Elizabeth, and most significantly the talkative, nervy and tactless Mrs Bennet. The setting of the shabby house, Longbourn, and the later houses where Mary will find herself are consistent with the original novel, and this book is rich in details of the background, furnishings and much else which will be familiar to Austen readers. This is a big book which proceeds at a slow pace, demonstrating Mary’s careful considering personality brilliantly. I found this an excellent long read.
The very first line of the book rather sums up Mary’s situation. “It is a sad fact of life that if a young woman is unlucky enough to come into the world without expectations, she had better do all she can to ensure she is born beautiful.” Mary realises as quite a small girl that she is not beautiful or witty, even pretty or confident when compared with her four sisters. This idea is reinforced by Mrs Bennet who does not spare Mary as a child, continually comparing her unfavourably to her sisters, and she carries on as Mary becomes an adult. In common with everyone else Mary knows about the entail that means when her father dies she and her sister will lose Longbourn to Mr Collins who Elizabeth will reject. When faced with the example of Charlotte Lucas who in her mid twenties is already considered to have missed her chance to marry and have a family, Mary moves on from the urge to please her father to the knowledge that if she does not marry, she will be left to manage on little money and probably in her mother’s company. She also wants to love and be loved for herself, but as her story runs alongside the story of her sisters’ success in romance she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her chances of finding her own happy ever after.
Mary’s attempts to examine her potential happiness in the absence of true love leads her to studying books of sermons and philosophy, and dressing in a quiet and sober way. As she comes into contact with people after the time of the original novel, her progress does not improve as others despair of her bookish ways, her spectacles, and her general quiet demeanour. She is vulnerable and uncertain, a legacy of her childhood, and several people reinforce her lack of self esteem.
This is a big book, which takes its time to work through the life of a young woman faced with the chances and choices of the time. The message of the book is concerned with the lack of opportunity for women in the period. The only option is marriage to a suitable man, but that is not always easy as Mary proves. This is a thoughtful and careful study of a woman with few options, and a brilliant well paced read those who enjoy historical fiction, especially that linked to Austen’s novels.
As readers of this site will know, I am very fond of Austen sequels and novels about the books, though the quality varies. This is an excellent one which carefully creates a lot of sympathy for Mary, while producing a good and thought provoking novel in its own right. It is a long book, but provides a lot of good reading. It has been providing a lot of reading at the moment, and I am so glad I had bought a copy from Cognito Books in Hexham. They are still posting out books at the moment, so why not find out how you can order from them (or any other independent book shop).