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Best Book Club Meeting Ideas and Discussion Questions for “The Other Bennet Sister” by Janice Hadlow

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Everything You Need to Lead the Best Book Club discussion ever of The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow


Could Mary Bennet have looked like this while she was reading? Beauty IS in the eye of the beholder. “Lady Reading in an Interior”, around 1800. Marguerite Gérard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Background Information for The Other Bennet Sister

The Other Bennet Sister is a sort of adaptation of/sequel to Pride and Prejudice. The main action of the novel is intended to be set at about the same time as the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, and follows P&P roughly, but with the middle sister of the 5, Mary Bennet as the protagonist rather than Elizabeth Bennet, who is the protagonist of P&P.

In P&P, Mary is depicted as a pompous, unattractive, and rather pedantic person who spends “too much” time on academic pursuits, including piano and reading, and is apt to bore people with her discussions of thought and her reading, not to mention her drawn out piano recitals. Upper class women of the time were supposed to have “accomplishments”, but they weren’t supposed to take them seriously.

In P&P, Austen shows us how other people see Mary, in The Other Bennet Sister Hadlow shows us what it’s like to be Mary, stuck in the middle of 5 sisters, with a silly mother, and a distant father. Everyone has a favorite in that family, and for no one is that favorite Mary.

The story is engaging and fulfilled my expectations while staying true to the source material.

You can read and enjoy The Other Bennet Sister without knowing Pride and Prejudice, but you find out the ending of P&P. Readers will definitely be fine if they have seen one of the filmed versions rather than knowing the original novel. The reader is supposed to see a different point of view from the one depicted in Pride and Prejudice, but Hadlow’s writing and structure is effective, and the novel stands on its own.

Historical Basis for The Other Bennet Sister

  1. Sense and Sensibility

    The concept of “sense and sensibility”, which is also the title of Jane Austen’s first novel, figures heavily in The Other Bennet Sister. “Sense” is about having common sense and being practical. One with “sensibility” is more focused on emotions and feelings.

    In Sense and Sensibility, the event that is most feared in Pride and Prejudice happens at the beginning: a family with daughters is disinherited in favor a male heir, and they are left with few resources. As the protagonists, Marianne and Elinor, navigate the marriage market, they must learn to balance those two ideas.

    It makes sense that Radlow brings this concept into Mary Bennet’s story since it is clear that Austen continues this theme into P&P by creating Mary Bennet, a character with an overabundance of sense, with no sensibility. The early chapters of the novel show how being raised as the lost-in-the-middle child of a woman like Mrs Bennet could easily lead one down that path, especially as Mr Bennet deals with his own somewhat empty life by burying himself in his library.

    Mary can’t make “sense” of what is best for her own life (if you’ll pardon the pun), until she learns more about sensibility.

    Mary’s struggle taps into larger issues that were a part of the Georgian Period, in which this novel is set. Because there were a lot of social changes during this time, people had to struggle to make sense of their world, and there were many new ideas, such as those that had caused the revolutions in France and the new United States, that forced people to question the old ways of doing things.

    If you think about it, any real change must be based in a combination of emotion and common sense. A person with only “common sense” probably won’t attempt change, or have the passion to help other see the vision. A person with only emotional zeal, or sensibility, won’t have the practical skills needed to make lasting change happen.

    William Wordsworth and “Tintern Abbey”

William Wordsworth was the Poet Laureate of England, and through him Mary begins to develop her “sensitivity”. In chapter 56, Mary reads Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (click for a FREE download). She is taken by the poem “We Are Seven” and by “Tintern Abbey”(officially “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798”), which is a very famous poem you probably read in school. You probably also figured out exactly what poem Mary was going to hear when she goes to Westminster Bridge: “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”. Happily, Mary finally gets to take the trip to visit the sight of “Tintern Abbey” as well; in case you missed the reference, the Gardiners’ original trip there was the one in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth is with them.

FREE download of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads Volume 1 and Volume 2 (click on poem names for their full texts, above)

2. Literature in the book

Romanticism

During the early 19th Century, Romanticism was the dominant movement in the arts, but it’s important not to confuse Romanticism with “love”. Romanticism is more about an appreciation of nature. Poetry was a dominant art form during this period, and many of the most famous poets in English were active during this time, including Percy Shelley, Coleridge, Keats, Lord Byron, and of course, William Wordsworth, who Mary reads extensively during the novel.

William Wordsworth and “Tintern Abbey”

William Wordsworth was the Poet Laureate of England, and through him Mary begins to develop her “sensitivity”. In chapter 56, Mary reads Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (click for a FREE download). She is taken by the poem “We Are Seven” and by “Tintern Abbey”(officially “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798”), which is a very famous poem you probably read in school. You probably also figured out exactly what poem Mary was going to hear when she goes to Westminster Bridge: “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”. Happily, Mary finally gets to take the trip to visit the sight of “Tintern Abbey” as well; in case you missed the reference, the Gardiners’ original trip there was the one in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth is with them.

FREE download of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads Volume 1 and Volume 2 (click on poem names for their full texts, above)

Mrs Macaulay’s History of England

It’s significant that Mary is so taken with “Mrs Macaulay’s History of England”. Like Austen, Hadlow must have included this particular book on purpose. Catharine Macaulay was the first and only female historian of her time. Finding a significant work of history in her father’s library would have been a stunning find for her. She probably wouldn’t have known the rest of the backstory, but Catharine Macaulay married a 21 year old man when she was 47, and she was active in women’s rights and other political movements of her time.

Who was Jane Austen?

There have been so many books written about Jane Austen and so little actually known about her life, that it’s difficult to know what to say.

She was the daughter of a clergyman, and she and her sisters faced the same issues as many of her female characters: it was difficult for them to find husbands with little money to their name. Jane Austen is known to have refused at least one offer, however. Like her characters, she prioritized compatibility over financial security.

During her lifetime, Austen’s books were published anonymously. She died relatively young. Her early biographies were written by relatives, who naturally had a vested interest in portraying them all in a flattering light, so their validity is uncertain. The only known image of Austen was an unfinished work done by her sister, Cassandra, who also destroyed or excised many of Austen’s letters.

Although on the surface, her novels might seem like early “chick lit”, with their emphasis on romance, marriage, and domestic life, but Austen’s original readers would have been able to decipher the social commentary beneath her plots, as explained in the recent book, Jane Austen: Secret Radical.

Discussion Questions for The Other Bennet Sister

Note: If the discussion falters, ask the group what they didn’t understand or what they “wondered” about. You will find out what the group is interested in. 

Don’t rush the group through the questions or try to hit every single question, but don’t allow members to “take over” the discussion either. If time starts to run short, give the group a choice.

Finish on the agreed upon time so there is time for socialization after.

  1. Opening questions for discussion of The Other Bennet Sister

(elicit as many responses as possible):

  1. What are your general thoughts about Pride and Prejudice overall?

    Note: The trick for leading a discussion of this book may hinge on different member’s familiarity with Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, so it’s important to give people a chance to share their backgrounds because their reaction to this novel will probably be heavily affected by the nature and extent of their previous exposure to Austen.

  2. What were your  thoughts about Mary Bennet before you read this book?

  3. What did you think Jane Austen is saying about women like Mary?

2. Discussion Questions for The Other Bennet Sister

  1. In what ways do Radlow’s explanation for Mary’s behavior during scenes invented in Pride and Prejudice affect your reaction to Mary as a character?

  2. What is your reaction to the directions Radlow takes the characters of Jane and Elizabeth?

  3. Did you find the final sections in which Mary heads to London and finally finds a direction for her life? Do you think Radlow is true to her character?

 

3. Closing Questions for The Other Bennet Sister

 1. After reading this book, what does author Janice Radlow want you to remember?

2. What will you remember?

3. Are women’s lives in the 21st century really as different from Austen’s women as they seem?

Further Reading for Topics Related to The Other Bennet Sister

  1. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical

    Helena Kelly explores the subtexts of Jane Austen’s novels and reveals their social and political commentary to modern readers.

2. Longbourn by Jo Baker

There are many, many retellings and spin offs of Pride and Prejudice. Like The Other Bennet Sister, Longbourn is particularly well done. It is a “below stairs” novel about one of the servants in the Bennet household.

3. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

I haven’t read a lot of Jane Austen retellings, but I read and enjoyed Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld. This book is one of a series called The Austen Project; so far, four of Austen’s novels have been modernized by well known contemporary authors.

Sittenfeld followed up Eligible with Rodham, an imagining the direction of Hilary Rodham Clinton’s life if she had declined to marry Bill Clinton.

All of Jane Austen’s original novels are in the public domain. The Lois Level recommends Project Gutenberg for public domain digital downloads to Kindle and other devices. Find the Jane Austen page here.

Find recommendations for selecting print copies of public domain books from Amazon here. Buying from a dedicated bookstore or checking out from the library is recommended to ensure you get a quality edition.

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