The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow is a book I've had on my radar for several years now. It seems to divide the crowd a bit, I notice on Goodreads that there are a lot of 4 and 5 star reviews but also quite a few 2 stars. I fancy though that this is ever the way with Jane Austen adaptations, they are loved and loathed in equal measure, an equal opportunities genre if ever there was one!
I'm going to warn of a few spoilers in my review, if you want to read this book and know nothing about it then maybe don't read all of the following.
So the first quarter or so of this book shadows the events of Pride and Prejudice somewhat. Not entirely, as Mary, the sister that this book focusses on, was not always present in that of course. Plus, we see her in her childhood, happily keeping company with Jane and Lizzie until one day she overhears a conversation between her mother and her sister, Mrs. Phillips, and realises with horror that she is plain. Not only that, she has four very pretty sisters and beside them she will never shine. It's the start of the Mary we see in P&P, very bookish, a bit priggish, a figure of fun.
Janice Hadlow takes quite another sort of approach to Mary. Why is she like that? We're all a product of our upbringing and Mary is no different. Between her father's indifference and hatred of anything that disturbs his peace and her mother's selfishness and dislike of anything that doesn't match her view of 'pretty', sits Mary, desperately trying to attract her father's attention and trying equally as hard to avoid her mother's. It's incredibly sad. She's made to feel dowdy and uninteresting, so that's what she becomes.
The catalyst happens when Mr. Bennet dies and Longbourn has to be vacated so that the Collins family can take up residence. Four of the sisters are married so are not much affected. Mrs. Bennet and Mary go to the Bingleys but somebody there is determined to make sure Mary is unhappy. And thus begins Mary's search for a family to take her in.
Well, you'll probably have guessed by now that I come into the '5' star category on Goodreads. I thought this was an amazing book. To take a character who is not heavily featured in a classic and create a whole life for her is an amazing acheivement to my mind. Not only that but to turn her into a thinking, feeling, intelligent woman who, rather than being a figure of fun, was actually someone we should feel mightily sorry for. 'Plain', unmarried women with no income had very few choices back then. But even Mary realises that she is better off than some, citing the example of the single woman who comes to teach the sisters the piano who lives in poverty and has no one.
What struck me so forcibly about Mary's situation is how very few people gave a damn what happened to her. Her own mother, although that did not surprise me, Jane and Lizzie, very wrapped up in their own married bliss, Charlotte Collins in a strained marriage, none of them seemed to have any idea that Mary had nowhere to go. Thankfully, she does eventually find a place to be and then the book takes another turn completely as Mary discovers that she is a worthwhile person with a right to exist and to be loved. A whole section takes place in The Lake District and I think for me those were the best chapters. There are misunderstandings and unrequited love and internal wranglings and all the things that make up a good romance, so I think you could read this and enjoy it even if you're not really into Pride and Prejudice.
I'm pretty certain that The Other Bennet Sister is going to be in my top five books for 2022, it was just wonderful. I believe it's Janice Hadlow's only fiction book to date, I 'sincerely' hope she has more planned.