Review: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
So, I may have mentioned (once or twice, or six dozen times, or five hundred million; I’ve rather lost track) that Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book. It is, in my humble opinion, the greatest book ever written, and I will personally and physically fight anybody who disagrees with me. And because of this passionate love affair I have had for a decade and a half now with Jane Austen’s masterpiece* means that I have a very weird, and probably deeply unhealthy relationship with all ‘retellings’ of Pride and Prejudice – I buy all of the ones I can get my hands on, read them, and then always end up being disgusted at them and myself because they are, obviously, not nearly as good as – cannot even be compared to – the peerless original. I went through a phase in my early teenage years where I read just about every retelling of P&P from Darcy’s point of view that was in print, including some self-published ones. And oh boy, those were bad. None of them were any good. Even my deep, unconditional, forever abiding love of Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Pemberley in Derbyshire, could not excuse or forgive those appallingly bad books.
But, surprisingly, I didn’t hate The Other Bennet Sister. I didn't love it either, and I found it a bit disappointing by the end, but I didn't hate it and I think it even had some truly good points, and some truly enjoyable parts. I think a big part of why I didn’t hate it is because it’s not an attempted retelling of Pride and Prejudice from someone else's point of view (which most of them are), and which always fail to impress; but rather uses P&P as the basis for a new, different story. I mean, don’t get me wrong – by the end, Janice Hadlow isn’t using P&P as a springboard but rather as a template, and is perhaps a bit freer with her copy-pasting than I otherwise would have liked (she quite literally lifts lines of dialogue from the original, and I’m really hoping that she’s doing that as a tongue-in-cheek reference to her source material rather than just trying to pass off Austen’s dialogue as her own). And when I say ‘template’, I do mean template – she copies the structure and the denouement of the latter half of Pride and Prejudice to a T, even throwing in some of Mr Darcy’s more famous lines in a different man's mouth.
It was hard to get as gripped or involved by the plot as perhaps Janice Hadlow would have liked, but I think that’s more to do with her topic than anything else. It’s hard to get really pulled in by a P&P retelling/revisit, as they certainly do follow a common structure: two people fall in love, are briefly pulled apart, and end up together in the end (and, let’s face it, no one has ever done it better than Jane Austen. Nobody. Absolutely nobody.), but you know how it’s going to end the second the handsome, eligible young bachelor appears on the scene. Hadlow attempts to throw in a love triangle, and throws in another trope of novels about this time period – one of the main characters miraculously inherits a spectacular fortune from a distant relation – but it does, in spite of her attempts at originality, remain a retelling of P&P, with Mary Bennet instead of Lizzy Bennet, and the Gardiners instead of Mr and Mrs Bennet. She even uses the same character tropes and key scenes, just with some character swapping: that pivotal scene in the original, with Lizzy Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh at Longbourn, is reproduced basically line-for-line just with Mary and Caroline Bingley instead of Lady Catherine.
And, ultimately, that’s what stopped this book being really enjoyable for me. Even though she started off trying to tell a different story, by the end of the book it does end up a rehash of Pride and Prejudice just with the less interesting characters. And she doesn’t really add anything to the vague brushstrokes you get of these lesser-known characters from the original: Mary Bennet remains very one-dimensional and a bit flat, if slightly more sympathetic; Caroline Bingley continues to be spiteful, bitter, and frustrated, but also somehow less interesting and less funny than in the original; and Mrs Bennet is reduced to even more of a caricature than she is in Jane Austen’s masterpiece, but with less of the clever satire she inspires from the reader and the other characters in P&P. And neither of Mary’s love interests inspired any sort of feeling in me at all – one was boring; and one was obviously drawn to be flighty and charming with no real substance to him, but he actually ended up being way more interesting than his ‘dutiful and depth of feeling’ counterpart because you actually got to see some of their conversations, rather than Hadlow recounting them as Mary’s memories later in the book. It is possible that I was judging the male love interests in this book too harshly because I’m comparing them to Mr Wickham and Fitzwilliam Darcy**, who are both so expertly created love interests and nobody will ever compare to them, but Ryder and Hayward do just ultimately fall a bit flat for me.
Also, I got very fed up of Hadlow lifting lines of dialogue from P&P and injecting them as different conversations into her book, and having the wrong characters say these lines of dialogue three to four years after they would have actually happened and being passed off as original bits of conversation we were witnessing. The writing also tapers off in quality as you move through the 658 pages of the book – it starts off crisp and precise and ends up being sloppy and unbelievable in parts, and I think this book would have been better served if at least 200 of the pages were cut and the story was more ruthlessly trimmed. If Hadlow had had less space to go off on tangents, she would have been forced to focus on bits of the story that would have been more original and more interesting to discover – such as the relationship Mary Bennet has with the Collinses after Mr Bennet’s death, or the way she salvaged her relationship with the Gardiners (who, lest we forget, are quite clear about the fact that they only enjoy spending time with Jane and Lizzy in the original book).
I think Hadlow did make the right decision in choosing to focus the story far away from the characters we all already know and love from the first book, as it gave her the space to develop new characters in a way that I did find appealing. And there are bits where I did legitimately laugh out loud because Hadlow pokes such good, clever, biting fun at the whole Austen mania of the modern world. It’s unfortunate that she chose to take the path with the book she did. As it is, it does end up being just a bit of a Pride and Prejudice fanfic about Mary Bennet – same character tropes, same structure, same dialogue, same everything. For a book that started out with a very interesting premise, and that I found very appealing and interesting for the first 60% of, it is a bit disappointing.
But, if you, like me, love anything that even remotely touches on the Pride and Prejudice universe, and anything that lets you rediscover such a wonderful story, then The Other Bennet Sister is one of the best offerings of the revisits that there is.
I will sign off by saying, as I always do – just read Pride and Prejudice, guys. It’s the best book there is.
*some people say her masterpiece is Emma. Those people are wrong and should not be listened to under any circumstances.
**Fitzwilliam Darcy is the world’s most perfect man, even though he’s fictional. Again, I will fight anybody who disagrees with me on this one. I love him and that’s that.