The second half follows events after all Mary’s sisters make their marriages. Mary bounces between her sisters’ houses, never quite wanted. She ends up at her Aunt Gardiner’s house, and two young men vie for her attention. Released from Austen’s plot and characterisation, Hadlow struggles to find her own story. A narrative about a woman’s bold attempt to find purpose outside marriage becomes a novel about whom she will marry. There is much in this debut for Austen diehards to love and I read it happily enough in a mince-pie-and-whisky haze. If you cannot name all five Bennet sisters in order of birth, this is not for you.
The difficulty with trying to rewrite one of the best-loved novels in the English language is that the original is always there as the gold standard. So it is in the second part of the novel, which takes place two years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, when Hadlow’s version really takes on a life of its own. Away from her family, Mary has the chance to free herself from their (and the reader’s) narrow view of her.
The Other Bennet Sister reads as an enjoyable kind of fanfic and if it feels a little pedestrian by comparison, the fact that the appeal of these characters endures in hands less deft than their original creator’s is testament to how vividly they were first drawn and the place they have established in readers’ affections.
In The Other Bennet Sister, Hadlow builds an immersive and engaging new version of a familiar world; her approach feels at once true to the source material and to life. In Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, readers glimpse the person we might aspire to be – brilliant, beautiful, ending up with all the prizes – but in Hadlow’s Mary we recognise a more familiar figure: self-sabotaging, low on self-esteem, struggling to get through the day while others seem to sail effortlessly by. Hadlow’s great achievement is to shift our sympathies so completely that when happiness becomes a possibility for Mary, it’s difficult not to race through those final pages, desperate to know if she will, after all, be allowed – will allow herself – a happy ending.
An obvious labour of love, impeccably researched, this lifts Mary from obscurity, as she breaks out of her mother's world and follows her own path. Whether such an earnest, self-absorbed heroine merits quite such a lengthy account is with the jury.