Janice Hadlow allows badly-served Mary Bennet to shine in her own satisfying story of hope and a brighter future.
For Austen followers, developing the earnest, awkward Mary character is an intriguing idea. An ugly duckling, perhaps, but the Bennet middle child fighting for attention among her prettier, more popular sisters, is only 18 when we meet her in Austen’s tale, and how many of us were fully formed at 18?
Hadlow – a former BBC Four and BBC Two controller, who played a big role in popularising history on TV (she was behind Simon Schama’s A History of Britain, and commissioned the Wolf Hall series) starts Mary’s story before Mr Bingley and Co come to Meryton, so we relive some of Austen’s drama through her eyes.
Hadlow digs more deeply into hints Austen dropped that Mary considered herself a good match for Mr Collins, although she remains largely invisible to him when he is choosing a wife.
This interpretation also creates an important relationship between Mary and Charlotte Lucas, as Charlotte advises Mary on how to approach life as a plain, unmoneyed spinster of the parish.
In The Other Bennet Sister, we also get to see how Jane and Mr Bingley and Lizzy and Mr Darcy fare post-marriage, as Mary stays with various family members after her father’s death and the family home passes to the Collinses.
The Mary Bennet we get to know is an intellectual, a conversationalist and a warm person when valued by the people around her.
Hadlow gives Mary a good old 19th-century makeover, she is helped to find a dress style that accentuates the positive, she gets new spectacles, and suitors emerge in London society who appreciate her intellect and questioning mind.
Of course, the path of Mary’s story does not run smooth. Where would be the fun in that? The horrid Caroline Bingley is still trying to put her oar in, jealous over the attention Mary is getting – and the management of two possible suitors takes some dexterity that she does not have, but eventually she rises to the occasion. Hadlow is no Jane Austen, and Mary is no Elizabeth Bennet, but she delivers a satisfying story of hope and a future for the badly served Mary. This big book – 655 pages – has been optioned for a TV series, so the Austen bandwagon rattles on, thanks to Hadlow.
THE OTHER BENNET SISTER, by Janice Hadlow (Macmillan, $34.99)
This article was first published in the February 29, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.