I had reserved The Other Bennet Sister from the library before COVID-19 hit; I managed to collect it during the brief (oh so brief!) window between Lockdown I and Lockdown II, and I feel as if I've been reading it for weeks (in fact I have been reading it for weeks). I finished it just as the return chutes were closed again, so I will be hosting it on my bedside table for a few weeks more. But it has been a welcome guest.
Janice Hadlow's very new (2020) novel takes on a subject who has always been close to my heart, namely Mary Bennet, Lizzy Bennet's plain and pompous sister from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, whose piano playing is famously dismissed by her father announcing, 'You have delighted us long enough.' I've always felt sorry for Mary, eclipsed by her prettier, more flirtatious sisters, always overlooked, trying to be intellectual but only succeeding in making herself ridiculous.
Hadlow is also sympathetic toward poor Mary, and gives her a narrative where she is the centre of the story. She plausibly traces Mary's childhood as the middle sister, shut out from the closeness of both the elder daughters and also the younger two, scorned by her mother because she is plain and wears spectacles, overlooked by her father because she lacks Lizzy's sparkling charm. Mary earnestly tries to improve herself but without guidance, makes heavy weather of her studies (as well as the piano).
Over the course of this extremely long novel, Mary finds refuge with her kind aunt and uncle Gardiner (who also help out Lizzy in the original story) and after her own trials, finds an ending as happy as Elizabeth Bennet's own.
There is plenty here for the Austen fan -- battles between sense and sensibility, plenty of prejudice and pride, dollops of persuasion, and cameos from many of the characters from Pride and Prejudice, some of whom are also given a more sympathetic portrayal than originally allowed by their inventor (notably Mr Collins).
At 658 pages and 95 chapters, one can hardly claim that The Other Bennet Sister is 'perfect in being much too short' but I thoroughly enjoyed it.