Tuesday, 18 February 2020

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow



Whether it's from multiple readings of the book or casual watching of TV and film adaptations, most of us know Jane Austen's story of the Bennet family of Longbourn; of Mrs Bennet's desperate ploys to marry off her five daughters, of the happy-ever-after romances of elder sisters Jane and Elizabeth, and the wild, impetuous, embarrassing (totally teenage) behaviour of youngest sisters, Lydia.and Kitty. But what about the middle sister, Mary?

In any other family Mary Bennet would have been considered, if not pretty, at least attractive, but with four sisters - beautiful, witty, vivacious, or just younger -  she's overlooked by family, friends and, most importantly, any young men she meets as the dull, plain one. Snubbed, she turns to books for solace and improvement - not the fiction loved by her mother, but serious moral, philosophical  works - and in a vicious circle finds herself to be more of an oddity than ever

In The Other Bennet Sister, Janice Hadlow revisits the familiar events in Longbourn from a new perspective - that of 'middle' sister Mary. She's dismissed by her family as dull, boring, prim, She looks set for life as a spinster. But with her sisters married Mary gradually starts to come into her own. Mary is now 'allowed' a romance of her own - and even a choice of suitors; a young eligible gentleman who seems a perfect match and a tempting alternative who might just prove to be incredibly wrong for her.


There are a lot of Pride and Prejudice spin-off novels and films (and I'm a sucker for them) - some work, some don't. This definitely does. The setting remains Austen's Regency England, and for the most part Hadlow captures the style and feel of Austen's original work. Where it differs is in following marriages past the wedding ceremony, and in exploring the restricted options open to the un-married gentlewoman of limited means. In Austen's world it's taken as read that a young lady should marry, but not much thought is given to the alternative. As Charlotte Lucas outlines to Mary Bennet what the future of an 'old maid' looks like, we can see why she herself was so eager to grasp her chance of marrying, even when the prospective groom was Mr Collins.


I suspect few Austen fans would agree wholeheartedly in their interpretation of, say, Mr Bennet's attitude to his family, Mrs Bennet's obsession with marrying her daughters to the richest men available, or the hasty marriage of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins, but an author taking these characters and giving them life beyond the original text has to pick an interpretation and stick to it - and it may not coincide with yours. Personally I felt Mr Bennet, and even Lizzie, were dealt with a little harshly - though, of course, I've previously only seen them from Lizzie's biased viewpoint - and a few words from Caroline Bingley throw the whole view of the Elizabeth/Darcy romance on its head, when she says that in feigning disinterest, Lizzie couldn't have played him better.

All in all this is an excellent addition to the works inspired by Pride and Prejudice. I loved it, and would definitely recommend unless you're an Austen purist.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
Mantle (Panmacmillan)

Genre - adu
lt fiction, Jane Austen 

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