Monday, 25 May 2020

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow - Review

UK Book Cover: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
UK Cover
Today I’m bringing you my review of Janice Hadlow’s ‘The Other Bennet Sister’, the focus of which is the middle Miss Bennet, Mary. Let’s look at the blurb and then I’ll move on to my thoughts on this novel.

Book Description:

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.

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UK Cover
The Other Bennet Sister - Review

I am not the biggest fan of Mary Bennet, although I do feel sorry for her position, caught between two close sets of sisters. I’ve always imagined that she would have felt quite alone and that the reason she worked so hard on her accomplishments was to have a defined role – Jane was the beautiful one, Elizabeth the clever one, which left Mary to try and distinguish herself another way.

…who having, in consequence of being the only plain one in the family, worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments, was always impatient for display.
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

And from The Other Bennet Sister:

Learning would rescue her, not just from boredom and frustration, but from the likelihood of making any further sad mistakes.

It’s interesting to speculate on Mary’s perspective, and this is where books like this come in. This is a book in four parts and it’s quite a mighty tome – the best part of 700 pages. Part one looks at childhood and the events of Pride & Prejudice from Mary’s perspective and this was probably my favourite part of the book. Here, Mary is aware of the deficiency of her looks compared with those of her sisters, and it isolates her from them:

She had always been a cautious, watchful girl; now, she thought of little else but the poor impression she must make upon those around her.

I felt that the portrayal of Mary in the P&P part was obviously quite sympathetic to her, as it’s written from Mary’s point of view. I felt it showed Mrs Bennet as being more unkind to Mary than I got a sense of from P&P. Mr Bennet is just as insensitive and neglectful though!

The truth was, she thought bitterly, that there was no one in her immediate society who considered her worthy of attention; and it this was so when she was still young, why should it improve as she grew older?

Once we move past P&P, Mr Bennet has died, the Collinses take possession of Longbourn and Mary struggles to find her place in the world. I felt extremely sorry for her at this point, because at Jane’s home, Miss Bingley is still in residence and basically bullies Mary, and at Pemberley Mary feels like she’s intruding in the family party. She stays for a while at Longbourn and finally ends up with the Gardiners where FINALLY she feels accepted and loved for being herself.

It was as if a great abyss had opened up before Mary, and in it, she saw nothing before her but loneliness. In the space of a moment she understood how fervently she longed for affection.

US Book Cover: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
US Cover
There were some parts of this story that for me didn’t tie up with Pride & Prejudice. Some details like Sir William Lucas being a baronet rather than a tradesman who was knighted. Mr Collins is different too – firstly, he was shown still acting as a clergyman once he had inherited Longbourn but I think it more likely that he would have revelled in the status upgrade of being a landed gentleman. He is also better-educated than P&P Collins, who had an ‘indifferent education’. I felt quite sad for Mr Collins here, who has started to come to the realisation that his wife doesn’t care for him.  

I didn’t follow some of the facts relating to Lady Catherine either. Here, it is said that Lady Catherine recognises Darcy as titular head of the family but I don’t know why that would be. He is head of the Darcy family, but she is either a de Bourgh or a Fitzwilliam. Also, a character called Mr Ryder is described as her closest relation but I wasn’t clear on how he was related to her, unless he is the son of another Fitzwilliam sister and in that case he wouldn’t be any closer than Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam or one of their siblings. Unless he was an illegitimate child of hers, which doesn’t seem likely!

Going back to the story, I thought Mary’s tale seemed quite a typical story of a person who is completely lacking in self-esteem. If you are a person who has similar issues I think this could cut quite close to the bone for you, and in that, I thought it was well done.

“Mr Wordsworth says elsewhere that nothing of value is to be gained from books. For him, our affections are the only real guide worth following.”
She felt tears begin to well up in her eyes.
“And I’m not sure I have any. Or none strong enough for me to follow with confidence. Perhaps they are too weak – too frozen – to help me find my way.”

Mary benefits hugely by living with the Gardiner family who genuinely love her. They see her for herself and love and value her. She finally finds like she has a place and begins to blossom. And once she has a greater value for herself she begins to find other people who value her too.

You dress as you do because you do not believe you deserve anything better and you wish to communicate that low opinion of yourself to everyone who sees you.

I found the character of Mary frustrating, though – while she learns to put a higher value on herself and becomes less despondent, in other aspects of her life she doesn’t seem to learn at all. She makes some mistakes through not trusting her own judgement – realising immediately that it’s a mistake but does nothing to rectify it, and then when she has a similar feeling in the future she learns nothing from the previous incident and just follows the same pattern. I was pleased to see her seize the moment in order to take the advice that she is trying to live by of being the architect of her own happiness.

In summary, there was a lot to like about this story, such as Mary’s take on the events of P&P and her coming to value herself, but I found I that it was drawn out a bit much for me. I prefer a shorter read. I’d rate it as a 4 star read.

4 star read

* My thanks to Netgalley UK and the publishers of The Other Benent Sister, Pan Macmillan for the review copy.

Book covers: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
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  1. I enjoyed reading this story because to show that someone who was emotional abused by her parents could survive and finally be happy made it worthwhile reading

    1. I think that was the nicest aspect, seeing somebody who hasn't been encouraged actually start to shine. I felt that this book was a bit harsh on Mrs Bennet though as I didn't think she was as bad in canon as she was shown here.

  2. I enjoyed this one, though it was too long and slow at times. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Ceri!

    1. That was pretty much what I thought too! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

  3. Like you, I was fascinated by the choice to include the early years at Longbourn and Mary's perspective on P&P. Yes, she was written well as an emotionally abused/neglected person. Great review, Ceri.

  4. I have not read this story. Mary's story is neglected (along with Kitty's) among JAFF stories. Sounds like an interesting and different take. Thanks for sharing here.

    1. I've read more Mary stories than Kitty. I should make it my mission to find a Kitty story to read :)

  5. Great review, Ceri. I'm not sure this will be a story for me. I appreciate your in-depth review.

    1. I'm glad I read it but it's not one I think I'm likely to re-read.

  6. Unlike you I do like Mary, she is my favourite sister, and your review made me very curious about this story Ceri. It is a pity it is such a long book though, lately I haven't had the patience to read long books. Thanks for this review, it was very insightful :)

    1. My preference is for a shorter book, I have a crazy, huge, TBR list and a book this long takes the time to read that 2 or 3 books would. I know you've been trying to read more paperbacks, and this one would be a whopper if you didn't read a digital version!

      I don't dislike Mary, but she is so lacking in humour that I find it hard to warm to her. Sometimes Mary stories change her character, but to be fair, I felt this was generally quite a faithful rendition of her. I was glad that she gained a bit more insight into herself and found a place where she was valued and loved.


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