The Other Bennet Sister‘ – Concluded

In the second part of my review of ‘The Other Bennet Sister’ by Janice Hadlow, we find Mary Bennet, of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ infamy, in the company of the cheerful Gardiner family.

Faced with their easy kindness and general optimism, Mary Bennet quickly realises that growing up means, rather paradoxically, learning to present a buoyant and kind exterior; and, whatever one’s personal doubts and feelings, consciously making the best of whatever positive attributes one has to one’s credit: a tidy figure, lovely eyes, a kind smile, a willingness to work hard… Twin themes with which I identify quite closely, occasional glimmers of wisdom in the text catching me unexpectedly and leaving me feeling wistful and gratefully wiser: The notion that happiness is a choice comes through loud and clear.

There are many dangers in attempting a work of this nature. Not only the obvious problem of repeats and the realisation that P & P is one of the best-known novels of all time and that its devotees can probably quote large parts of the book. The reach back to more formal language is also fraught with difficulty: how far should a modern re-telling attempt to ape the language, flavour and wit of the original, and to what degree must a modern version use more accessible English?

There is also the problem of plausibility. It has often occurred to me that Mr Collins, in searching for a wife, was looking in entirely the wrong place, and that his helpmeet in life might well have been Mary. And indeed, in TOBS we have a fleeting, mutual regard between Mr Collins and Mary – prompting a jealousy in Charlotte Collins which does, at least, galvanise her to be kinder to her husband – followed by a dance with two younger, far more suitable men in the Gardiners’ entourage, one of whom is, admittedly, not handsome.

It’s a curious twist that Mary, cast as so plain and pedantic and without any fortune to call her own, should now find herself with a choice of two entirely eligible suitors. Does the ugly duckling become the swan, or are the feelings roused in her two vying suitors more likely the consequence of jealousy, the ‘you have it, I want it’ feature of possessiveness? Mary chooses her suitor, and chooses, therefore, her life, buoyed by happiness and by the joy of having, and running, her own home. It hardly occurs to her that in electing to enter the married state she is, in many ways, electing one form of servitude over another. Perhaps a more comfortable one. But it speaks volumes for the aspirations of Georgian and Victorian women that they aspired so ardently to marry, thus exchanging the service they owed to their fathers and brothers, for that which they will offer to their husbands.

All in all, a very creditable novel, painstaking and carefully written and even, dare I say it, educative!

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