If you are a Pride and Prejudice fan, you might remember middle sister Mary Bennet as being bookish and quiet. In fact, the only significant scene of hers I can recall is when she’s playing the piano at the Bingley ball (the one where all the Bennet family comes across as ridiculous in front of Mr. Darcy) to the point that her father has to pull her away with “You’ve entertained us enough for now.”
Janice Hadlow has crafted a novel from Mary’s point of view: The Other Bennet Sister. Hadlow delves more deeply into Mary’s character and what might have been after P&P ended.
The Bennets had five daughters. Mr. Bennets property is entailed, meaning it will go to a male cousin upon Mr. Bennet’s death rather than a Bennet daughter.
Even though the Bennets are landed gentry, there’s not enough money for any of the girls to have large enough dowries to attract the “right” kind of husband. But most of the girls are pretty enough to attract attention, and their ambitious mother is determined to place them where they can be seen and admired.
Mary, however, is plain. In Mrs. Bennet’s book, that’s almost a sin. At the very least, Mary’s plainness is a great disappointment to her mother. Mrs. Bennet is one of the most annoying characters in literature, and one of my least favorite. Mary’s mother not only has little use for Mary, she constantly berates her daughter. “She had learned from Mrs. Bennet that without beauty, no real and lasting happiness was attainable. It never occurred to her to question what she had been taught.” Mrs. Bennet didn’t even want Mary to get needed glasses because they would further hamper her ability to get a husband.
Since Mary doesn’t have the looks or personality to be “pleasing,” and she loves to learn, she sets herself to study in her father’s library. Perhaps at some point she can discuss books with him. But he demands absolute silence in the library—except when Lizzie, his favorite, is there.
Mary tries other venues, like music, in which to stake her significance, with poor results.
Mary is also in the very middle of the five sisters. The older two are close, as are the younger two, leaving Mary with no one. Lizzie and Jane are not unkind, but they don’t draw Mary in, either.
Since Mary feels invisible, she looks invisible as well, wearing very plain dresses with no color or frill.
The first part of the book covers the events of P&P, but from Mary’s point of view.
Then the book jumps ahead a couple of years. Mr. Bennet had died, and all the Bennet daughters are married except Mary. Mary and her mother go to live with Jane and Mr. Bingley. But the days there are dreary for Mary, with her mother’s constant harping and Caroline Bingley’s sniping remarks. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy for a while, then Charlotte (Elizabeth’s close friend) and Mr. Collins, the obsequious cousin who inherited the Bennet family home. Charlotte and Mary have several talks about life as a plain woman.
Single women did not have many options in those days. Spinsters were pitied and often poor, earning money as governesses or music teachers. Mary is not interested in either profession, but living with one of her sisters is not ideal, either.
Finally Mary goes to London to stay with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners—the same aunt and uncle Lizzie stayed with in P&P. Things start to turn a corner as Mrs. Gardiner gently draws Mary out and convinces her that it is not drawing undue attention to herself to dress nicely. And the Gardiner’s friend, Mr. Hayward, convinces Mary’s very rational mind that poetry and feeling are valuable.
I loved a lot of Mrs. Gardiner’s advice, some of which had a double meaning.
Sometimes the very best stuff can seem quite plain, until one examines it closely. It is only then that one sees its true quality.
I see plainly enough that you don’t like to make a fuss about dress—that you dislike having attention drawn to you. But there are times when the best way to ensure you are not remarkable is to conform to the expectations of those around you.
There is a middle way between an obsession with one’s appearance and an absolute denial of its importance.
It’s hard to persuade anyone, especially a man, that your regard is worth having if you have none for yourself.
In our house, no-one is obliged to sparkle. Which, I find, makes it far more likely that they might.
There were several things I liked about this novel. One is Mary’s slow “blossoming,” often with one step forward and two back as she makes mistakes.
I thought the author did an admirable job keeping the personality of each of Austen’s main characters close to what they were in P&P. Even though Hadlow’s style is different from Austen’s, the book still had a cozy Regency feel to it.
I had two minor complaints, though. One is that, especially in the beginning of the book, there was a lot more “telling” than “showing.” That improved after the story got into new material after the P&P timeline.
The other complaint is that sometimes there was too much explanation. The narrative would belabor a point long after the reader understood.
Those two aspects made the story drag just a little in places, but not enough to ruin the book.
Overall, I really enjoyed this story. I wanted to speed ahead to see how things worked out for Mary, but then I didn’t want it to end. Some parts of the book had me in tears.
I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Carla Mendonca.
Thanks to Lois for putting this book on my radar.