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The Other Bennet Sister - by Janice Hadlow

The Other Bennet Sister

This new angle on ‘Pride and Prejudice’ looks at the events that take place in that classic novel through the eyes of Mary Bennet. The part of the book that takes place during the Pride and Prejudice storyline is a tough read in that the earnest book reader and piano player is so dismissed by the rest of her family, even her father, despite their shared love of books and learning. Her two older sisters are a team, and her two silly younger sisters are a team. She is alone in the midst of a chaotic family on the hunt for husbands.

The horrible thing is that I as a reader realises I have also failed to care at all, or even to notice Mary, in exactly the way the Bennet family does.

She meets one like-minded soul, in John Sparrow, who comes to fit her glasses. But after one dance she is admonished for taking up with a tradesman rather than a gentleman. She dutifully accepts this assessment and instead talks herself into a willingness to trade her heart for the security and acceptability of a life with the dull Mr Collins. Alas, even this compromise is foiled, as the girl who advised her to stay away from John Sparrow swoops in to nab Mr C for herself.

The novel really comes to life when Mr Bennet dies and the fate they have all being dreading comes to fruition. The remaining Mrs Bennet and Mary are cast out of the Bennet home, to rely on the charity of the married family members. Mary travels from house to house, but does not feel at home anywhere.

The interactions with Mr Collins and Mrs Collins are masterly. They are an exploration of what could have been, and it is here that Mary starts to come into herself as someone with enthusiasms and appeal, once she is more free of the constraints in which she has grown up.

Then the happy state of being at home with the Gardiners gives her the environment to discover and express her authentic self. These scenes show how much we all need that encouragement, that acceptance, that ‘being seen’ and ‘being heard’ to flourish. This is an introvert’s book – a book about an introvert and for introverts. Because who among us has not experienced being overlooked, unheard or misinterpreted due to our reserve or social diffidence?

Then Mr Hayward arrives on the scene. He sees Mary, he likes Mary, they do the dweeby thing of challenging each other to read a book of the other’s choosing and then discuss it. As they do this, the connection between them becomes less formal and careful, much more free-ranging and affectionate. They enjoy each other’s minds. But like all good introverts, they are a bit slow to say how they feel, and circumstances get in their way, as the more fulsome extrovert threatens to wreck their real connection.

Mary is tested. She faces the alternative of being a disempowered, homeless spinster reliant on the charity of family when the glittering jewel of social acceptance, wealth and high regard is offered to her.

What is most satisfying about this book is the way it portrays all that is good about a relationship between two introverts, all the hidden mutual pleasure in talking, in taking in nature, in imaginative flights of fancy that doesn’t make for flash magazine covers.

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