Sunday, 17 January 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Other Bennet Sister, Janice Hadlow (2020)

A few years ago, as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, I reviewed Katherine J. Chen’s Mary B (2018). Today, I’m writing about another twenty-first century novel centred on Mary, the plainest of Elizabeth’s sisters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813)—Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister (2020). 

Hadlow’s Mary is true to Austen’s original characterisation. She’s spectacle wearing, bookish and, oh so very, serious, rejected by her mother for her plainness and uninteresting to her father due to her lack of humour. Caught between two pairs of sisters—Jane and Elizabeth, and Kitty and Lydia—Mary seems totally alone, even at bustling Longbourn. The housekeeper Mrs Hill is one of the few people to show compassion towards her, while Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas tries to give her practical advice about how a woman without beauty can get by in a patriarchal world. The first section of Hadlow’s novel begins with Mary’s childhood, including her gradual realisation of her perceived inferiority to her older sisters. Then the book covers well-worn ground, rehashing the early events of Pride and Prejudice, up until Mr Collins’s engagement to Charlotte.

At this point, I was intrigued, if not delighted. It was interesting to see familiar scenes from Mary’s viewpoint, especially her disastrous piano playing. And there were great historical details, for instance regarding Mary’s reading material and early-nineteenth-century optometry. 

However, the novel really came into its own when we jumped forward in time to a few years after the conclusion of Austen’s book. When we rejoin Mary, she is the only unmarried Bennet sister. Of no fixed abode, she moves between the houses of her sisters and friends, trying to find her place in the world. Her father is dead. Her mother has despaired of her. The domineering Lady Catherine would like to see her packed off as an unfortunate governess. 

I have an especial interest in this plight of single upper-middle-class women in the period, who found themselves dependent on the charity of their friends and relatives. In my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I depict what this might have been like for a widow, but unmarried girls like Mary had even fewer options. However, as she matures, Hadlow’s Mary turns these unfortunate circumstances to her advantage, using her methodical mind to assess the different households she visits—Jane’s, Elizabeth’s, Charlotte’s and her aunt Gardiner’s.

Other, non-canonical characters begin to take centre stage, including Tom Haywood, a London lawyer with a love of Wordsworth, who helps Mary discover her more poetic and feeling side. But I also enjoyed Hadlow’s on-going nods to her source material. Mary’s final confrontation with Miss Bingley recalls her sister Elizabeth’s argument with Lady Catherine. A well-described trip to the Lakes with the Gardiners brings back Lizzie’s truncated vacation. 

Overall, while I do agree with some reviewers that The Other Bennet Sister could have been slightly shorter, I’d highly recommend the book to fans who prefer their Austen-inspired fiction to be less radical and revisionist, and more thoughtful and additive. I was worried that spending another book with Mary might be tiresome, but she won me over by the end!

What twenty-first-century written, nineteenth-century set novels would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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