Reader, I loved them both…
Sooooo, these took a little while longer than I expected when I set myself a Jane Austen reading challenge, but I'm convinced you should never rush a good story - and neither of them disappointed.
The Other Bennet Sister is a 650-page delight divided into 4 parts, each chronologically charting Mary's timid forays into adulthood as an unmarried woman dependent on her family's generosity. Initially, we revisit the story so familiar to all Pride and Prejudice fans out there, but it doesn't feel repetitive because this time the events – from Mr Bingley's arrival through to Mr Darcy's unexpected announcement – are all relayed after being scrutinised under Mary's cool gaze.
Moving forward, our curiosity for what happened next is wholly satisfied, as events following the death of her father – and her situation as the ‘boring, plain’ middle sister conspire to take Mary all around the country, as she visits various relations.
There are many reasons why I thoroughly enjoyed this book, such as the way the author manages to tread lightly over such a well-known (and well-loved) story, but is not afraid of making it her own. The language is something else I must praise, as – please, do pass the smelling salts! – I felt I was right there, in the parlour, sitting among the Bennet sisters.
But the most surprising achievement, in my opinion, has been the way this book managed to dramatically alter my previously formed perception of Mary as a side character of little importance – here she is in the spotlight and a whole other side of her shines. What a difference a book makes!
Longbourn looked at the story of Pride and Prejudice through yet another different angle, as suddenly we're back inside the Bennet household but the focus has been tilted upside-down. The trials and tribulations we're following are happening downstairs – we're in the kitchen, the scullery and the servants' quarters, and life has a very different rhythm, one that is marked by back-breaking chores.
There we meet Mr and Mrs Hill, Sarah, Polly and (soon) James; their feelings are the ones taking centre stage and they’re no less moving. Once again, we start from the familiar events of Pride and Prejudice but then jump both into a future and a past totally independent from Jane Austen’s imagination.
The narrative is quite descriptive, and the pace at times a bit slow, but I enjoyed this original take on such a classic. I also found this to be another thought-provoking opportunity to delve into the mind and heart of characters that have been overlooked in the original story.
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