- The Other Bennet Sister, by Janice Hadlow. Mantle. $32.99.
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen describes Mary, the middle daughter of Mr and Mrs Bennet of Longbourn, as "the only plain one in the family" who, as a result, "worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments [and] was always impatient for display". However, Austen's character "had neither genius nor taste; and although 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".
To Janice Hadlow in The Other Bennet Sister, Mary is frustrated intellectual, marginalised and disparaged by her mother and sisters, and neglected by her father.
Hadlow, a Fellow of the Royal Television Society, was Controller of BBC4 and then BBC2, commissioning programs as diverse as The Great British Bake Off, Wolf Hall and Line of Duty. She has said in an interview that she has read Pride and Prejudice since the age of 15, but "it's Lizzy who dazzles your eyes".
It was only recently that she "began to notice at the edges this rather sad, rather dowdy, rather disliked and dislikable . . .character Mary . . . it's pretty hard not to have some sympathy for her".
At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Austen declares that "Mary was the only daughter who remained at home", a companion for her difficult mother. She was "obliged to mix more with the world, but she could moralise over every morning visit".
In The Other Bennet Sister, however, Mr Bennet dies two years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, the entail comes into force and the Collins move into Longbourn.
Mrs Bennet and Mary go to live with the Bingleys, where Mary's life is made a misery by both her mother and the acerbic Caroline Bingley, "an accomplished practitioner in the art of insult".
Mary decides "she would not allow herself to become Miss Bingley's cowed and willing victim" and, leaving her mother with the Bingleys, begins her journey of self-discovery, visiting the Darcys at Pemberley and the Collins at Longbourn, before finding a happy and supportive home in London with her aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs Gardiner.
As a result, Mary, like Anne Eliot in Persuasion, blooms and attracts the attention of both Tom Hayward, a lawyer, whose love of fabrics is reminiscent of Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, and the seductive, amoral, wealthy Mr Ryder, evoking the role played by Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park.
The Other Bennet Sister is an affectionate, well-written sequel to Pride and Prejudice in which Hadlow's Mary finds the courage to pursue happiness on her own intelligent terms.
For lovers of Austen sequels, this is the novel for you.