Have you read Pride and Prejudice?
In all likelihood you have. And if you haven’t it’s probably because Austen doesn’t work for you. Don’t judge me if I judge you just a little bit here and wonder: Who ARE you?
Coming back to the book I really want to talk about: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. This is a P&P spin off. You might still enjoy it if you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice but you’ll miss the perspective that the book gives.
It tells the story of Mary Bennet – the sister least talked about in the Austen original.
Mary is the third of five Bennet sisters. Jane and Elizabeth are the older two while Lydia and Kitty are the younger ones. In the middle is Mary – plain and pedantic; mediocre in every respect.
In an extract from P&P Mary is described thus:
Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached.
Her worst crime is that she is plain
She becomes aware of this ‘shortcoming’ at the young age of seven or eight when she finds her mother scrutinising her in puzzlement and disappointment as if searching for signs of beauty and wondering why she could find none.
Mary suffers further more through comparison — because the rest of her sisters are all beautiful. Over time, she convinces herself of her ugliness. Here’s a conversation with Mrs Hill, their housekeeper:
‘You are very kind, Mrs Hill, but you don’t need to indulge me. The mirror cannot lie.‘
‘Perhaps. But in truth, I don’t think you see yourself at all clearly, miss. Your sisters get in the way….’
She struggles constantly to make up for that single ‘flaw’
She reads till she exhausts all the books in the children’s library. She practices the piano till her fingers hurt and yet her studied rendition cannot match the melody of Elizabeth’s gay abandon even though she hits all the right notes while Lizzy does not.
She’s alienated from her sisters
Both Jane and Elizabeth, whom she was once close to, drift away into a world that excludes everyone except the two of them. Lydia and Kitty are too flighty and flirtations to suit her serious disposition. Lonely and unhappy she is left more and more to her own self.
Her parents have no love for her either
She learns to ignore her mother’s rejection, but her father’s complete disregard breaks her heart. To him, she is simply invisible. So wrapped up is he in his own world he sees no one, except Elizabeth.
Books bring her solace but her reading choices are not for entertainment — that is a luxury she cannot afford. She reads to elevate herself intellectually losing herself in books on Philosophy, Morality and History.
While Mary makes her way tentatively into their father’s library, Elizabeth strides in with the confidence of one well-loved. The difference in his treatment of Elizabeth and that of Mary is stark and sad.
There is a sequence in the book where Mary daydreams of having an intellectual discussion with him, where he looks upon her with love and warmth, rather than mocking or belittling her.
It is such a simple desire, one most of us would have had the good fortune of experiencing with our parents at some point in our lives, one I have taken for granted. And yet, for Mary, that is something unattainable, a dream. One that is cruelly shattered only too soon. Mr Bennet will never be the same for me, ever again.
It is her quest for love ad approval that makes her over serious, over-anxious to impress. She drives herself hard, so hard that she forgets to have fun. In her attempt to be loved she forgets to be herself.
The book is divided into three parts
The first part is largely Pride and Prejudice from Mary’s point of view.
The second part sees the girls all married apart from Mary. Mr Bennet is dead and Longbourn has passed on to Mr Collins who has made it his home along with Charlotte. Mary spends her time between Jane, Elizabeth and Charlotte.
Jane welcomes Mary to her home but Hadlow puts aptly when she says:
There was something distancing in Jane’s benevolence, bestowed as it was equally upon both those who deserved it and those who did not.
Kind people needn’t always be the warmest ones. Only for Mr Bingley and Lizzy did Jane show any real depth of emotion. Also, there’s Caroline Darcy who constantly directs barbed taunts at Mary refusing to leave her in peace.
At Pemberly Elizabeth and Mr Darcy are wrapped up in each other. Their circle includes their toddler and Mr Darcy’s sister Georgiana but leaves Mary out as an intruder.
As Hadlow puts it:
Mary once caught a look pass between them (Darcy and Elizabeth) of such intimate intensity that she dropped her eyes, as flustered as if she had come upon them alone and unawares.
Mary is hurt by the attention and encouragement Elizabeth showers on Georgiana gently drawing her out from her shy shell, while not extending the same kindness to her (Mary).
It hurt to watch Lizzy offering Georgiana all the praise she had once yearned to receive herself.
She shares a special rapport with Charlotte as also with Mr Collins (who we see in a very new light) and tries to find peace with her at Longbourn but here too she feels unhappy and unwanted.
In Part 3 of the book, she travels to spend time with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. It is here, away from the shadow of her sisters, from the nagging of her mother and the cruel taunts of Caroline Bingley that Mary finally comes into her own.
The gentle affection and warm appreciation of the Gardiners see her blooming into a woman who learns to be herself and love herself. That makes others see her for what she really is — kind, well-read, intelligent and pretty too.
And she finds love, just as she deserves.
There are many reasons why I loved this book so much
One gets to see the characters of Pride and Prejudice in a whole new light; not just Mr and Mrs Bennet, Elizabeth and Jane but also Charlotte and Mr Collins.
In Part 3, Mary seems like a whole new person. She holds intelligent, even witty conversations. She plays the piano because it brings her happiness, she begins to read for pleasure opening her heart and soul to the joys of poetry.
I found the character arc a little steep. However, it did bring home the effects of a negative, judgemental environment and the way it can kill the spirit of a young girl. And also, how that same girl can flourish and sparkle when made to feel loved and accepted.
The book talks about self-love and that happiness finds its way to you only when you learn to love and accept yourself.
“It’s hard to persuade anyone, especially a man, that your regard is worth having if you have none for yourself.”
Mary is fascinated by the concept of happiness and what makes one happy. She tries to look for answers in books and through discussions, only to finally find it at the Gardiner’s home.
“They did not consider happiness a matter of chance or destiny. Instead they did everything in their power to cultivate it, prizing generosity over petulance, preferring kindness to umbrage, and and always encouraging laughter rather than complaint.”
On that note let me add, in Part 3 Mary transforms into an Austen heroine. So if you’re looking for a new-age feminist, you won’t find her. However, she is perfect for her time.
As an endnote I have to add that this was my first audiobook and the narration by Kristin Atherton on Audible was phenomenal.
Last thought: Go listen to the audio book on Audible.