It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone is the protagonist of their own story. (And also that any writing about Pride and Prejudice must re-create a version of its famous first line.) Shortly after writing my post of “unanswerable questions” and “roguish speculations” about Pride and Prejudice, wherein I shared my sympathy for poor, mocked Mary Bennet, I discovered that—lo!—last year someone published a novel from Mary’s perspective! The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow makes Mary the protagonist and proves the universal truth that readerly sympathies generally align with the star of the story.
The Other Bennet Sister‘s first section tells the story of P&P but from Mary’s perspective. It shows her attempts to distance herself from constant comparison to her pretty sisters through bookishness, being an “accomplished” piano player, and attempting to be a serious person interested in serious things. In this version of Austen’s world, Mrs. Bennet is not merely silly but abusive where Mary is concerned, constantly belittling her for not being pretty like her sisters until Mary is filled with self-loathing. The novel includes a handful of conversations between Mary and Charlotte Lucas, who sees in Mary a figure in a similar situation to herself. But as Charlotte at one point tells Mary, “It is my circumstances I dislike, not myself. I am not sure the same can be said of you.” Mary at this point does what many earnest, thoughtful young people do; she leans into the pedantry of her first learning in an attempt to formulate a philosophy of abstract truth.
After the events of P&P, Mary struggles to find her place, spending stints living with Jane and Bingley, Elizabeth and Darcy, the Collins’ (now ensconced at Longbourn), and finally the Gardiners, her uncle and aunt living in London. In Hadlow’s iteration we spend much more time in London, getting to know the constantly-shifting capitol, in a deeper way than in any actual Austen novel. (Austen herself did not spend time in London and so it makes sense that it appears merely as hated backdrop for the handful of characters who travel there for “the season.”) Disentangled from her immediate family, Mary expands like a plant brought into sun after starving under a shadow. The Other Bennet Sister also gives space to some of the other despised characters of the original novel, including Mr. Collins and Mr. Hurst. Mary feels sympathy for these sidelined, mocked people because she recognizes them in herself.
Readers, this book was a lot of fun. Hadlow does an admirable job re-creating the characters of Pride and Prejudice while building Mary (and others) in believable ways. In a mix that introduces a love interest and builds on Mary’s scholarly desires, Hadlow also has Mary engage with the new poetry shaking up the literary world of the time, particularly the work of one Mr. Wordsworth. Mary thus becomes something more modern than any of her sisters, someone who ultimately had time to mature and grow into herself only to discover she is her own person, not a lesser version of Lizzie or Lydia (or Emma or Elinor, Anne or Fanny). In Hadlow’s expert hands, Mary becomes as engaging and unique as any Austen heroine ought to be.
- Literature that is aware of literature—in dialogue with other works, drawing attention to itself as literature, etc.