A fictional character whose backstory seems to intrigue writers is Mary Bennet, the plain and bookish middle daughter in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, of whom Austen writes in chapter six, “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.” Ouch.
Mary, of course, represents in Austen’s book the plight of women of the time who could not find husbands—which might be partly why Mary fascinates readers in an era where women can do very well on their own without having to latch on to another human being just to stay alive. In “There’s Something About Mary” (The Atlantic, August 19, 2016), Megan Garber shares a list of books by modern authors who have been compelled to give Mary her own story: The Independence Of Miss Mary Bennet, (2009) by Colleen McCullough, author of The Thorn Birds; The Forgotten Sister: Mary Bennet’s Pride and Prejudice (2014) by Jennifer Paynter; The Pursuit of Mary Bennet (2013) by Pamela Mingle; A Match for Mary Bennet (2009) by Eucharista Ward, a Franciscan nun; The Other Bennet Sister (2020) by Janice Hadlow.
Part One of The Other Bennet Sister shares Mary’s perspective on her growing-up years in the Bennet household. She is closed-off, battened-down, raised by her indifferent father and bitter mother to hide her feelings and to be as invisible as possible. Her longing to be loved is palpable on the page, but nothing she can think of to do earns her a crumb of affection. She is her mother’s whipping boy, her father’s burden, and her sisters’ constant embarrassment. As far as Mary’s family is concerned, she is a figure in the background of a section of wallpaper hidden behind a cabinet.
Hadlow writes that Mary, “had been told so often she was a failure that she had come to believe it. A woman with her disadvantages did not deserve to wear handsome clothes. Nor was she entitled to enjoy the other pleasures that made life worth living—love and affection chief amongst them. From these too she was excluded, and nothing she had told herself would change this or make the slightest difference to her future.” A third of the way into the novel (by the time Part Two comes along), readers might want to leap into the novel and rescue Mary from her family. I did. Yet for all her family's cruelty, part of Mary's problem is her own blindness about her failings—yes, of course, they do exist. Mary’s painful lack of awareness is demonstrated in her singing in the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice.
At Longbourn, Mary establishes what she sees as an intellectual friendship with Mr. Collins. They are kindred spirits, both intellectually and emotionally, for Mr. Collins, like Mary, was unwanted by his parents. Mr. Collins says, “My father was a bitter and disappointed man. There were many things that made him angry, but chief among them, I fear, was myself. He made it plain enough I was the worst of the many vicissitudes life had inflicted on him. He told me often enough I was worthless, and I soon learnt to take myself at his evaluation.” Thus, at a stroke, Hadlow provides a pitiful backstory to Austen’s ridiculous caricature, making Mr. Collins three-dimensional and, at the same time, revealing to the reader that parental disdain is exactly why Mary, too, has such a low opinion of herself. Mr. Collins says, further, “I was stiff and odd and awkward. No matter how I tried, I always struck…the wrong note.” This is Mary’s problem as well, and very soon thereafter, Mary is cordially invited to leave the Collins household by Mrs. Collins, who is jealous of the accord between the two misfits.
In Part Three, Mary rattles off to her mother’s brother in London, where she finally experiences for the first time in her life what it is to be a member of a family to whom she is not a burden. Like a wilted, battered flower thrust back into a vase, she soaks up the Gardiners’ affection and advice. When Mrs. Gardner takes a dowdily dressed and reluctant Mary to a dressmaker, Mrs. Gardiner says, “I am very far from suggesting a woman is to be judged solely by how she dresses…[but your appearance suggests you] dress as you do because you do not believe you deserve anything better; and in doing so, you communicate that low opinion of yourself to everyone who sees you.” For the first time in her life, Mary connects her outward appearance with her inner self, and she allows her rich sister Elizabeth to pay for flattering new clothes. In addition, Mary decides to change her attitude along with her wardrobe, to “open herself up to the possibility of happiness.”
Naturally, Mary’s new outlook and appearance attract the kind of attention she never expected—the attention of eligible prospects for matrimony—and Part Four brings Mary’s awakening to a “happily ever after” for which this prickly, intelligent, independent soul is ideally suited, a happily ever after that allows her to be completely herself.
The Other Bennet Sister is a delightful first novel, whether one has read Austen or not, whether one appreciates Austen or not, whether one is an ugly duckling or a swan. Highly recommended.