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Saturday, March 14, 2020

Review: The Other Bennet Sister

Title: The Other Bennet Sister
Author: Janice Hadlow
Publisher: 28th January 2020 by Pan Macmillan Australia
Pages: 480 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, retellings, romance, Jane Austen spin off
My Rating: 4 crowns


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.

My Thoughts

The Other Bennet Sister is an interesting tale of the often overlooked sister from Pride and Prejudice, Mary Bennet. The bookish and supposedly boring Mary, comes under the microscope and we see events from her point of view. 

‘I will only say it seems plain to me that you long for happiness and freedom. But I’m afraid the first is only to be had by embracing the second, and it takes a great deal of courage to do that. Especially for a woman.’ He rose, brushing the dust from his coat. ‘For you, I think it would be a risk worth taking. You weren’t made to live a dull, ordinary, little life. You deserve more than that.’

The first third of the book goes over familiar territory for fans of Jane Austen’s original tale, only this time seen through the eyes of Mary. For example, when she was pulled from the piano at Netherfield by her father. Interestingly, you see how Mary felt so ostracized being in the middle with the two older and two younger sisters pairing up. Her upbringing most certainly impacted upon her self perception and flowing on from that, her interactions outside the family. 

What sets this tale apart from the many reimaginings is how Hadlow brought to life many of the minor characters. For example, I particularly enjoyed Mary’s interactions with Mr Collins later on in the novel, where an increase in empathy occurs and it was interesting to see the lives of both Charlotte and Mr Collins after their move to Longbourn and how life turned out for them. Another great insight is provided into the Gardiner’s who featured so little in the original tale. 

Hadlow also delivers solid social commentary on the lives of women at this time. The conversations Mary has with Charlotte - both prior to and after her marriage - could be considered fairly typical for females in the older age bracket at that time. Even how Mary’s words were interpreted by Mr Ryder and his initial proposal are insightful. The other interesting aspect to consider is how Hadlow has sought to infuse a range of Jane Austen themes - pride and prejudice, sense and sensibility - are clear to see. Some may claim maybe a little too stereotypical, even Mary’s personal evolvement from start to finish is somewhat cliched. The one definite drawback (and loss of star) concerned what I consider the unnecessary length of the book - it’s just too long in places.

‘Our lives are so brief and yet we spend so much of them obeying rules we did not make. The spirit of this place can’t help but make me imagine what it would be like to be truly free. To speak and behave not as we thought was proper, but as we really wished to do, if we were honest enough to confess it.’

All up The Other Bennet Sister is a charming reimagining. For Austen fans, it will prove a wonderful trip back to familiar times with the charming addition of how life unfolded for the not so boring and bookish Mary Bennet. 

‘And above all, don’t long for what you cannot have, but learn to recognise what is possible, and when it presents itself, seize upon it with both hands. It seems to me this is the only route to happiness for those of us born with neither beauty, riches, nor charm.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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