*I requested the opportunity to read The Other Bennet Sister via Netgalley. The decision to read was my own, and this review forms my honest opinion.
For fans of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister tells Mary’s story…
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. To be handsome and poor is misfortune enough; but to be both plain and penniless is a hard fate indeed.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mary is the middle of the five Bennet girls and the plainest of them all, so what hope does she have? Prim and pious, with no redeeming features, she is unloved and seemingly unlovable.
The Other Bennet Sister, though, shows another side to Mary. An introvert in a family of extroverts; a constant disappointment to her mother who values beauty above all else; fearful of her father’s sharp tongue; with little in common with her siblings – is it any wonder she turns to books for both company and guidance? And, if she finds her life lonely or lacking, that she determines to try harder at the one thing she can be: right.
One by one, her sisters marry – Jane and Lizzy for love; Lydia for some semblance of respectability – but Mary, it seems, is destined to remain single and live out her life at Longbourn, at least until her father dies and the house is bequeathed to the reviled Mr Collins.
But when that fateful day finally comes, she slowly discovers that perhaps there is hope for her, after all.
Simultaneously a wonderfully warm homage to Jane Austen and a delightful new story in its own right, Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister is, at its heart, a life-affirming tale of a young woman finding her place in the world. Witty and uplifting, it will make you feel – and cheer – for Mary as you never have before.
If I’m being brutally honest, I had this book pegged for my DNF pile. At six-hundred and seventy odd pages, it’s a chunky read, and with the lethargy of the Christmas break still looming large, I just didn’t think I would have the willpower to fight my way through something heavy.
But, I gave it a go and I could not have been more wrong. The Other Bennet Sister completely and utterly enchanted me from the very beginning.
The novel focuses on Mary Bennet, the ‘forgotten’ sister who sits quietly in the background as her sisters dazzle society and procure themselves husbands. The first part of the novel takes place during the Pride and Prejudice era, a smart move on the part of the author for as a fan of the original novel, I was able to almost switch off in terms of story and instead become familiar with Mary herself. Those well known events and characters are seen entirely from her perspective, and it is refreshing to have a different set of eyes tell the tale. I most particularly felt the difference with Mrs Bennet. Within P&P she is somewhat ridiculous, here however, her words and actions deeply impact Mary.
This is not just a retelling, however, and for me, the switch to the continuation story began at exactly the right time, my attention had just begun to wane and no sooner had I wondered if this was solely a retelling, and we leapt forward in time and I found myself with Mary post P&P. It was at this moment that this novel really came into its own.
It is such a delight, beautifully Austen-esque in its style and language; both a fitting tribute and also a wonder in its own right. We find out a little more about characters we have known and loved, many of whom come to the fore and enjoy character development of their own. The friendship between Mary and the Collins family is a particular highlight and an early catalyst of sorts for much of the evolution Mary undergoes throughout the book.
One of the things I loved about the character of Mary is the way in which the author remains true to who she is throughout. There is change, but it is organic, grown of a natural maturity and a greater understanding of the world which she inhabits. Despite living in a world where women are required to be little more than ornaments to furnish the arm of a gentleman, she remains studious and staunch in her desire to learn. It feels to be such a faithful interpretation of the character Austen intended, and I loved every moment of her journey.
This continuation successfully straddles the ages with a relevant message for anyone who doesn’t quite fit the mould. Powerful in its subtly, Mary had a profound and – I hope – lasting effect on me. Beautifully written, with charming characters both new and old. Its a timeless tale, and one which requires no gimmicks, relying on a strong character driven narrative to make its mark. I quite simply adored it and I cannot more highly recommend.