Published by Pan Macmillan
Out of all the Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice, Mary-in-the-middle is, if not the least memorable, the least likely to have any focus of note squared on her. As with Little Women’s Jo, Lizzy Bennet is an aspirational character for many girls and women, Jane is to Meg, the beautiful but boring eldest sister, Lydia and Amy have vanity and precociousness in common. Beth doesn’t really have an Austen counterpart; Austen’s Kitty is an undeveloped additional limb for Lydia and Mary is the bookish wallflower who has no real prospects to speak of and is left forgotten about by all and sundry. Until now.
Initially, Mary might seem like a strange figure to follow. Much is made about her plainness and insecurity in comparison to her four lively sisters, to the point of labouring the ugly duckling motif. But ultimately it is a story of coming-of-age, of making peace with yourself and coming to terms with your shortcomings, but also an exercise in not selling yourself short to the point of creating a self-fulling prophesy, that of a fate of loneliness and anguish.
The first part covers the events of Pride and Prejudice, with certain aspects of it given renewed study under the shade of this new light. While Mrs. Bennet has always been known to be something of a harridan, it’s understood that at least some of her verve and veracity is out of genuine concern for her daughters. Here, she’s basically a bully, a tormenter and oppressor. Mr. Bennet doesn’t get off much lighter. He’s portrayed as viewing himself as entirely superior to anyone, smirking and sneering at any body who he considers beneath him and more or less closed to the feelings of others, apart from Lizzie.
Lizzie herself is too beloved to fall under too much scrutiny, but Lydia’s nonchalant brattiness is turned up to 90. Curiously, considering the beleaguered Mary’s character is being fleshed out and sympathised with, Jane and Kitty remain one-note ornaments, the first pretty but almost bland while the second has no real personality to speak of at all.
Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins, on the other hand are expanded upon. Mary sees Mr. Collins as the rest of his family does; ridiculous and socially awkward, but with the help of her own experience of not being entirely comfortable in social situations, Mary empathises with him and does her best to explain away his more troubling affectations. Charlotte sees Mary as an ally in plainness, and while she maintains that it’s her situation she’s unhappy with, not herself, she is determined to marry the next man who comes along, whoever he may be.
Part Two takes up two years after Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy marry, and circumstances dictate that Mary must begin finding her own way in the world. Still without a suitor – the only one of her sisters – she finds herself drifting from one household to another to find her place in the world. She never feels quite at home with either of her older sisters’ families and a promising start taking up residence with Mr. Collins and his new bride Charlotte Lucas ends in awkwardness, forcing her to take flight yet again. Part three begins the story proper, when she moves in with her genial and welcoming aunt and uncle in London, and makes the acquaintance of one Mr. Hayward.
The Other Bennet Sister is a very enjoyable read, in an authentic Austenian style. Mary’s growth is well imagined, and the world building is impressive. There are thoughtful, introspective passages on philosophy, and the joy of Romantic poetry that are very pleasant additions to an already intelligent narrative. I found myself half way through wondering if Mary is a truly convincing heroine, as her coming-of-age seemed a long time coming, but when it does arrive it’s both convincing and satisfying. Her transition from desperate parent pleaser to a woman who knows her own mind rings true, but at the book’s heart it is a traditional, old-fashioned romance of the kind that it’s an homage to, albeit with considerable perception and hints of feminism. This is a sensitively told story for girls who have trouble identifying with Lizzy or Jo and require a literary figure to aspire to, thus making it a worthy addition to the canon.
First published in The Tuam Herald on February 26th, 2020.