May 1, 2020
Thanks to Minette Bryant, a 2020 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
If it took me all of twelve days to complete Janice Hadlow’s new novel, it is only because my family and work obligations wouldn’t allow me to simply stay in bed until I’d read it all. I preordered this book as soon as I became aware of it, and the minute it was released on March 30, I began devouring it as hungrily as anyone who has waited their whole life for a new Jane Austen novel.
Not exactly a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister revisits the story we already love, but through the eyes of Mary Bennett, the “lost sister” in the Bennet family. In Austen’s original novel, the reader gets a keen picture of Jane and Elizabeth, their lives and their bond, and we also see a clear snapshot of Lydia and Kitty, their silliness and their sparkle…but Mary is simply ignored. Ignored by her family and ignored by the author.
The Other Bennet Sister begins not where Pride and Prejudice leaves off, but instead years before. It begins in Mary’s childhood, beautifully illustrating how a quiet, investigative soul would suffer under the harsh disappointment of the overbearing Mrs. Bennet (especially after the unforgivable sin of requiring spectacles!), and in the shadow of her glowingly beautiful and noteworthy older sisters. It isn’t until about chapter twenty that Hadlow’s novel crosses into the beginning of Austen’s.
I found it warmly exciting to revisit the events of Pride and Prejudice, though from the perspective of Mary’s quiet watchfulness, her awkward attempts to join with the family and not provoke her mother’s nerves.
But then it jumps forward in time, and we follow Mary on a journey of her own self exploration, and this is where the novel truly shines. Though Hadlow keeps to the lovely, lilting style of Jane Austen, this is not at all a re-telling of a well-loved story. This is an adventure all its own, but through a countryside we know and love.
Once twenty-year-old Mary is out from under the thumb of her mother and the shadow of her sisters, she must discover for herself who she is and what sort of life she will choose. Her evolution from the dowdy, overlooked spinster-in-the-making to the firmly self-assured young woman at the end of the book is gradual, step by step, and utterly believable.
An interesting element of the story is that, because Mary is determinedly studious, the reader is taken on an excursion into the literature she studies. When Mary is excited about Aristotle, we get to share that excitement, and when Mary finds herself lost in Wordsworth, we are treated to the full emotional impact the poetry has on Mary, and on the person she is becoming.
Throughout the novel, we are treated to visits with characters that we know and love from Austen’s world. Notably, in The Other Bennet Sister, we see a lot more of Charlotte Lucas (Collins) and Mr. and Mrs. Gardner (Mr. Gardner being Mrs. Bennet’s brother) who play a major role in Mary’s “becoming.” But to me, the most surprising and memorable of them all is the revisiting of Mr. Collins, the cousin who was merely a mockable caricature in Pride and Prejudice, but has the opportunity to be fully human in this new novel; we get to see inside his goofy awkwardness to the man who is trying so painfully hard to be the best he can.
If there is an identifiable theme to The Other Bennet Sister, it can be summed up in the line from Aristotle that Mary seizes upon and returns to repeatedly for strength: “Happiness depends upon ourselves.” Armed with this bit of wisdom, Mary Bennet steps out of the shadow of classic literature to reinvent herself in a world which we already know and love. Get ready to love Jane Austen all over again.
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