Review: The Other Bennet Sister
By Janice Hadlow, Henry Holt and Company (2020) 463 Pages
Reviewed by Charles Pierce, Eastern WA/Northern ID Region member
The Other Bennet Sister is more of a companion read to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (P&P) rather than a retelling. Hadlow’s four-part novel chronicles the story of little-known Mary Bennet, one of five Bennet sisters in Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. Part one of The Other Bennet Sister does retell, in part, Austen’s P&P but from the perspective of enigmatical Mary Bennet, beginning as a young girl to her eighteenth year when the arrival of Charles Bingley and his sisters to Netherfield disrupt small-town life in Hertfordshire County. Mary learns at a young age of her insignificance as plain looking, unlike her four sisters who are considered beauties. She is neither her father or mother’s favorite as she lacks beauty, charm, and wit. Mrs. Bennet does not fail to constantly remind Mary of her disagreeable appearance growing up in a household of four beauties. Early on Mary begins to realize that she must compensate for her deficiency in appearance, charm, and wit by distinguishing herself through some other means. Study and music, she determines is her avenue to gain attention and her mother’s affection. Parts two, three, and four depicts Mary Bennet’s own story after the death of her father.
Mr. Bennet dies not long after Elizabeth Bennet marries Mr. Darcy and Jane Bennet marries Charles Bingley; thus, forcing the remaining women of Longbourn out of their life-long home as Mr. and Mrs. Collin’s take advantage of the entail and move in. Mary begins her struggle to find comfort in a new home. Her first option is to move in with the Bingleys along with her mother. Here she encounters continued disparagement from her mother, and subsequently is in frequent company of Miss Caroline Bingley whose verbal abuse of Mary inflicts grief. Mary’s threshold of disparagement and verbal abuse is exhausted. She now accepts her sister Mrs. Darcy’s, invitation to make Pemberly her home. Arriving at Pemberly Mary finds Mr. Darcy and his sister are not at home, allowing for Mary and Lizzy time spent together reinvigorating their sisterly bond. This connection and bond quickly changes upon the return of the Darcys as Lizzy gives her full attention to Mr. Darcy and his sister, leaving Mary to believe herself an outsider.
Mary accepts an invitation from Charlotte Collins to visit Longbourn. All is initially well at the Collins’s until Mrs. Collins begins to notice that Mary and Mr. Collins have developed a close friendship. Jealousy ensues. Charlotte begins to appear affable toward Mary. Mary understands this is likely from Charlotte’s misinterpretation of her and Mr. Collins’ time spent together. Mary abruptly severs her frequent interaction with Mr. Collins in an effort to placate Charlotte. Charlotte’s demeanor towards Mary softens, but she implies that Mary’s time to depart is nearing.
Mary contemplates her limited options. How about her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner in London, she asks? Lizzy and Jane were frequently invited to visit the Gardiners at their home in London, so why not her? The Gardiners response to Mary’s request for a visit was enthusiastic. Mary, once again, is on her way to another prospective home. Mary blooms under the loving care of her Aunt Gardiner who manifests the affection towards Mary that she never received from her own mother. Mrs. Gardiner delicately schools Mary on dress, appearance, and proper conversation. This affectionate guidance galvanizes a transformation of Mary into an attractive young woman, bringing potential suitors Mary’s way.
Vacation to the lakes with the Gardiners provides Mary with the pleasure to see new country. A potential suiter for Mary, a distant relation of Mrs. Gardiner’s, is to follow them to the Lakes. Mary is most ecstatic to continue this association. A few days after their arrival to the lakes and enjoyment in each other’s company, another young potential suiter, who is connected with Miss Bingley, and Miss Bingley also, arrives to enjoy the lakes and Mary’s company. Once again, the verbal abuse begins. How does Mary cope? Read the book.
As one who is considerably biased in favor of P&P and Lizzy Bennet (now Mrs. Darcy), I found the portrayal of Pemberley in The Other Bennet Sister a bit unsettling, if not disagreeable. Lizzy and Mr. Darcy’s transformation in P&P significantly enhanced their ability to comprehend the sensitivity of others. Of all Jane Austen’s characters, Mr. Darcy underwent the most significant and radical transformation. The narrative that the Darcys would dismiss Mary’s presence and not ensure she was welcomed in their activities fail to recognize this transformation experienced by Lizzy and Mr. Darcy. The Darcys would have easily recognized Mary’s unhappy state, and engender comfort and welcome to Mary, involving her in the family’s pursuits. And, Caroline Bingley’s ending was impractical. Miss Bingley would never give Lizzy Darcy the satisfaction that she has sunk in her esteem, and thus would not abscond no matter how desperate she is for marriage.
The development of Mary’s character, her struggles in finding a home, and interacting with old and new acquaintances is well formulated. Hadlow illustrates Mary’s early persona as that of one whose air is pedantic and somewhat vain in her attempt to overcome plainness of appearance to convey that of one who is accomplished, then superbly develops Mary’s evolving transformation into an attractive young woman whose confidence and comfort in who she has become brings happiness and romance.
At 463 pages The Other Bennet Sister does drag a bit at times; however, the narrative still flows skillfully and provides for an interesting and worthwhile read. While no book, in this reviewer’s mind, is a peer to Jane Austen’s written works—dialogue, wit, narrative, etc.—this book is in keeping of Jane Austen’s style of writing. I consider a novel’s worth based on whether it compels one to re-read. The Other Bennet Sister is well worthy of re-reading. Lastly, a question the reader must ask at conclusion of this read is: Has Mary’s story actually concluded, or is a continuation forthcoming?