You’ll have to forgive the Jane Austen/fairytale mash-up here, because it is too apt to ignore. Do you remember Pride and Prejudice’s Mary Bennet? No, not the “light and bright and sparkling” Lizzy, nor the lovely if diffident Jane. Nor the irrepressibly boy-crazy Lydia. Mary: the awkward, ridiculous one with no special beauty, charm, or accomplishments to recommend her. Definitely the ugly duckling of the Bennet household, a figure to be ridiculed and consigned, in the reader’s mind, to future spinsterhood. It is this unpromising middle child that Janice Hadlow lovingly attempts to rehabilitate in the charming tale of hard-won happiness, The Other Bennet Sister.
Much as we all have over the past months, Mary endures a stifling existence almost entirely indoors throughout the first half of the book–whether at home, at balls, or at her various married sisters’ houses. This imprisoning interiority is exacerbated by the reader’s awareness of this “ridiculous” character’s rich, if rather gloomy, inner life. The entirety of Pride and Prejudice is reimagined through the consciousness of this neglected and negligible character; we as readers come to understand the sad underpinnings of Mary’s awkwardness and risible flaws–as well as her painful self-awareness and increasingly desperate efforts to change. Her misery comes to a climax during a disastrous attempt to entertain guests with her music, followed by the public humiliation she suffers at the hands of her ironic father and, most hurtfully, her beloved sister Elizabeth.
The book’s second half witnesses a slow but certain emergence into the sunlight, as Mary escapes the confines of Meryton and discovers the comforts of her sympathetic extended family and the exhilaration of anonymity in London. Here, she finally gets a genuine chance to reinvent herself–to discover her own self-worth and even to make a bid for lasting happiness. The transformation Hadlow effects is both natural and extraordinarily well done; a stately Austenian plot pace is preserved, even to the cadences and structure of the sentences. Readers will feel themselves to be in familiar territory, with one vital difference: Mary struggles to master her destiny and grasp happiness with both hands. She’s baulked by convention and frustrated by the role of her sex, but she perseveres. Does the ugly duckling attain swanhood? You may just have to find out for yourself!
One of the catalysts for Mary’s transformation is a newfound appreciation for Romantic poetry, especially selections from William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (available on hoopla) such as “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” and “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge,” both of which extol the beauties of nature and the importance of a rich emotional life. You might try them for yourself–and if you’d like a companion soundtrack for your reading, have a listen to the album The Music of Jane Austen, a compilation of themes from various film adaptations.