Why Another Bennet Sister?
Take an extremely popular book, especially one that a lot of people are required to read in school, put it in the public domain, and you will get a lot of spin-offs, prequels, and sequels. You have to be discerning to choose books that have something new to say and that also say it well.
The Other Bennet Sister is an excellent choice, whether your a Jane Austen fan or not. Janice Hadlow delves into the story of Mary Bennet, the “lost” middle sister from Pride and Prejudice.
She’s the plain one who bores everyone with her excessively long piano recitals and her pedantic quoting of books.
As you recall (spoiler alert), Elizabeth Bennet is the protagonist of the original novel, and her older sister Jane, is the focus of a significant secondary plot. Jane is the pretty one, Elizabeth is supposed to be not quite as pretty but with a spirited personality to make up for it. There are two silly younger daughters, Kitty and Lydia, who serve as a foil for their older sisters with the youngest, Lydia, nearly causing the downfall of the entire family.
So that leaves Mary, the odd sister left out in the middle, with the role of the family spinster to be. In Pride and Prejudice, it is clear that the only role she can find to eke out for herself is as the family scholar, which to the rest of the Bennets, makes her the family bore.
In dramatizations of the novel, Mary is also portrayed as sour faced and pedantic: someone to be avoided.
As readers, it may seem like Austen is telling us to avoid Mary’s fate. Reading and “accomplishments” are fine, but we shouldn’t bury ourselves in them too much. Of course, since Austen never married, we do have to wonder if Austen was judging others or herself.
But maybe there is more to Mary. When you read a novel, what you read is the point of view of the narrator, which in Pride and Prejudice, is interested in Elizabeth’s problems. But what is it like to be Mary?
I think we all can agree that Mrs. Bennet is not the best mother to ever be portrayed in literature, and in fact, even Jane and Elizabeth make their successful matches in spite of their mother, certainly not because of her, and Mrs. Bennet could also be at least partly the cause of Lydia’s spectacularly unsuccessful marriage.
And then there is the subplot in the middle of the novel involving Mr. Collins. Everyone can see, that despite his shortcomings, that Mary is his obvious match. But instead of conniving to find a result that is best for all, Mrs. Bennet attempts to push Elizabeth into a marriage with him, which results in the entire family’s losing Longbourn.
Check out our FREE Lois Level Best Book Club Guide for The Other Bennet Sister here!
What is There to Say About This Book?
The Other Bennet Sister is kind of a spin off but mostly a sequel. The first part of the novel retells the events of Pride and Prejudice up to Mr. Collins’ marriage, skips the rest of P&P, and drops us in the aftermath with all four sisters married, Mr. Bennet dead and buried, and Mary and Mrs. Bennet left to the goodwill of relatives. Mrs. Bennet finds a permanent home with one of her daughters quite easily, but Mary is left searching for a place she belongs, which involves her spending time with the possibilities: the Bingleys, the Darcys, the Collinses…and just when all the alternatives seem exhausted…the Gardiners. Remember them?
As readers, we get to see into Mary’s mind and experience what it’s like to be the outsider in one’s own family and the one with a different way of looking at things. Mary can’t find a template in her family that explains the world to her satisfaction, so she tries to figure it out from the books she has available.
And it’s true that what also aids her, as she stumbles around, trying to figure things out, is finally finding friends and relatives who accept her and appreciate her for who she is.
Because you know that when you are constantly told something about yourself, it’s hard not to believe it. And being in a toxic environment, which is what the Bennet home is for Mary, naturally is going to affect both her looks and her personality. Any of us who have ever experienced this situation know it’s true, and if you haven’t, consider yourself lucky. Having your own sense of self worth attacked, especially when you are young, can leave an imprint on your personality that is hard to shake.
In order to help Mary figure out who she is, Hadlow aptly takes Mary, and us as readers, into some of the ideas of the early 19th century, most compellingly, Wordsworth’s poetry, and also draws on the ideas of Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility.
I can be persnickety about historical fiction; it’s hard to immerse yourself, as a writer, in the past and both put enough and leave enough out to make the plot realistic and compelling. Writing historical fiction based on a novel that was written as contemporary fiction 200 years ago, is a double challenge that Hadlow pulls off with aplomb. Her background as a historian is evident, but she can tell a story as well and maintains a balance between Mary’s search for self and, of course, the question of her romance.
I’ve been gradually reading different versions of Pride and Prejudice, and this is my favorite so far. If you like the original, it’s a must read. This book is also self contained enough to make it an enjoyable read for someone who has not read Pride and Prejudice, as long as you are ok with the spoiler.
What do you think are the best books for an Austen lover to read? Comment below.