A pattern is emerging here, I thought to myself as I sat down to read my third Mary Bennet centred spin-off. Improbable though it seems, Mary is on the rise and Austenites (Austenophiles? Austenauts?) apparently cannot get enough of her. Whether she is travelling off to Australia, trying to rid London of the scourge of poverty, voyaging in the Lake District or cataloguing someone’s library, Mary Bennet has in recent years become the busiest of Austen’s minor characters. Given her origin point, this truly surprises me and so I paused to ponder – what is it that is suddenly so special about Mary?
If there was a Austenish Mary prompting narrative intrigue, one’s first thought would be Mansfield Park‘s Mary Crawford. Justly or unjustly, generation upon generation of readers have preferred her to heroine Fanny Price. Mary Crawford is funny, friendly and flirtatious. She is glamourous. Sexy. By contrast, Mary Bennet is a total blank, yet somehow she is the one gaining all the limelight. Here is the description that Austen gave of her in the original book:
Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though 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.
Not exactly someone who you would want to get stuck in a lift with. Of the five Bennet sisters, only three serve any true purpose within the plot. You need Jane because if Darcy hadn’t interfered between her and Mr Bingley, Elizabeth would have had no real grievance. You need Lydia because if she hadn’t run off with Wickham there would have been no true complicating action. Mary and Kitty do not carry the same narrative weight. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries made Mary a cousin and cast a cat as Kitty and nobody really noticed the difference. Kitty is little more than Lydia’s shadow but Mary is not much more use. She sits in the corner and pronounces pious platitudes every so often and winds everyone up. There is nothing in Pride and Prejudice that could not have happened had Mary not been there. The Bennets would still have humiliated themselves at the Netherfield ball, Mr Collins would still have been refused by Elizabeth and married Charlotte Lucas instead and Lydia would still have gone to Brighton and eloped. Why then do so many people want to hear more from her?
In A Truth Universally Acknowledged, Ben Nugent recognises Mary as the ‘geek’ to Elizabeth’s ‘Cool Girl’. Lizzy is witty, charming and can do banter. Even Mr Darcy, who despises her family, cannot help but be captivated. Mary did not have any of these advantages – she is socially awkward. The modern era is poised to be sympathetic towards those who have these struggles with mainstream comedy such as The Big Bang Theory centred around these issues. If you are socially awkward, you can channel your intelligence into other directions and those mean popular people are the ones who peak in high school anyway. In the Regency era however, things were quite different. Nugent explains that the ability to make conversation was the only way that Regency women could get ahead. Mary could not channel her skills elsewhere since there was only one template for how a woman should be and she failed to fit it.
Interestingly, some writers have even argued that she was on the autistic spectrum. That being said, in her book So Odd A Mixture: Along the Autism Spectrum in Pride and Prejudice, Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer diagnoses half the cast as autistic. Mr Darcy is socially awkward and ‘has not the talent that some possess’ of making himself agreeable to strangers. Mr Collins lacks social awareness and has to practice before he speaks. Lady Catherine de Bourgh cannot conduct herself in public (but then she’s also genetically related to Darcy). The list goes on and includes both Mr and Mrs Bennet as well as their middle daughter. Bottomer argues that when Mary attempts to ‘say something sensible but knew not how’, this is because her father put her on the spot and her language processing disorder meant that she was unable to respond in time. Mary’s reliance of books, writing extracts and avoiding society is seen here as someone building their own reality. Seen through this lens, her attempt to console Elizabeth after Lydia’s elopement is the classic behaviour of a female autistic – mimicking what she has seen others do but unable to carry it off successfully.
If all that is true, Mary and I have much in common. I have dyspraxia and a number of autistic behaviours. I was also very socially isolated as an adolescent. I should feel more sympathetic to Mary. Yet somehow she remains tedious. Is it through Elizabeth’s perspective that we are invited to despise Mary, or is it Austen herself? Again it comes back to the vexing question of what is Mary even for in Pride and Prejudice. She pontificates in the first chapter and drives her mother up the wall. She plays the piano proficiently but without apparent charm. She chides Elizabeth for walking to Netherfield to check on Jane because it is an irrational thing to do. Yes, she really does that. She tries to sing at the Netherfield Ball and does it badly, being yet another notch of embarrassment for Elizabeth during an already wretched evening. Mary is the only sister who it is believed might have actually consented to (and actually been contented in) becoming Mrs Collins. She speaks once more after this to offer a useless pontification after Lydia’s elopement. She is not unduly upset by her sisters’ marriages since it means that she is no longer compared to them and is regarded as plain by contrast. At the end of the novel she is still a teenager, likely no more than eighteen or nineteen.
Mary’s post P & P trajectories vary wildly. The Forgotten Sister casts her as an outcast with her own family. She adores Jane but Elizabeth despises her and so Mary is cast out of their pairing. Kitty and Lydia also want little to do with her. Mr Bennet is cruel to her and Mary falls into a melancholy so severe that she is sent to live outside of the family home for years, only returning for visits until shortly before the events of Pride and Prejudice. She has several friendships but always she remembers Peter, the son of the family with whom she was fostered in her toddler years. Ultimately, she emigrates with him to Australia. In The Other Bennet Sister, Mary is consumed by self-loathing due to Mrs Bennet’s early obsession with her plain appearance. She adores Elizabeth but deliberately isolates herself from her sisters due to her feelings of inadequacy. Mary also decides to cast off emotion after feeling obliged to cease an almost-flirtation with the son of the man who makes her spectacles. Mr Bennet ignores her and inadvertently ridicules her interests. The general character arc is around Mary learning to respect herself but she spends time in almost all of the households from the original novel as she goes about it. In Perception, Mary is a useful type of person and is asked early in the novel to catalogue the library of a local gentleman. She is shy but Mr Bennet is fond of her and recommends her for the task. The arc is around her gaining the confidence to escape her assumed spinster fate. The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet casts Mary as the dutiful stay-at-home daughter, put in charge of Mrs Bennet after the death of their father and only with her mother’s death is she finally able to spread her wings. Even in Longbourn, Mary has her own mini-arc. She is seen to be upset when Mr Collins announces his engagement to Charlotte Lucas and Mrs Hill regrets encouraging her to pursue him. At the book’s end, she starts studying with the younger maid Polly and is able to support Polly’s ambition to become a local schoolteacher. And these are just the ones that I have actually read.
The thing is though … Jane Austen actually said what happened to Mary after the final lines of the novel. And I don’t mean the part where she states that Mary was obliged to mingle in society slightly more now that her sisters were off and married. To her family, Austen revealed that Mary did not become an old maid but that instead she married one of her Uncle Phillips’ clerks. Also, her sister Kitty married a clergyman. I always kind of thought it would have been the other way around. The idea seemed to be that for all Mary’s vanity about her accomplishments, she still had to plump for a fairly average marriage. Even after she had finished writing her, it is unmistakeable – Austen did not like Mary. We sense the author’s itch of irritation every time Mary opens her mouth. With so many reasons to dislike her, what is it that readers are responding to?
Mary is a popular stopping point for readers looking for LGBTQIA+ representation in Austen. Is her reticence and social awkwardness a sign that she is struggling with a sexuality that barely even had a name in the circles within which she was moving? Another character who prompts similar musings is Charlotte Lucas but I think in that case, Austen is genuinely exploring the kind of pragmatism that leads an intelligent woman into marriage with a foolish man. With Mary? Maybe there’s more to it. In her article about her play The Queer Musings of Mary Bennet, writer and actress Kelsey Hercs examines the ways that Mary clings to religion and piousness as a source of stability. She ponders the type of marriage a slightly older Mary might have been ready to make as a ‘Regency lesbian with no fortune’. She is also struck by Austen’s heartlessness in Mary’s characterisation. If even Lady Catherine is humanised by her blind pride in her daughter, why then does Mary get no such mercy?
For geographical reasons, I’ll never be able to see Hercs’ play. But I was impressed by the fact that she seemed to be engaging with Mary as she was originally written. All of the previously mentioned novel versions soften Mary in some way. She becomes less judgmental. She gains a recognisable sense of humour. She actually does care about her sisters. She buys nicer clothes. She is kind to the lower classes. The authors excuse her embarrassing behaviour at the Netherfield Ball – she had had an extra glass of wine, she was trying to impress Mr Collins, her musical accomplishments were the only crumb of happiness in her life so nobody had ever had the heart to tell her that she could not sing etc, etc. None of these spin-off books are able to find a way to make Austen’s original Mary a believable heroine. And all of them seem to rely on her meeting a bloke and being prompted to change her ways. Is it just me, or is that a little bit of a cliche?
Perhaps that is what people are drawn to about her. Our natural instinct is to champion the underdog and who is more of a family underdog than Mary Bennet? But it’s also that the makeover idea which become so over-done in recent years. They take the pretty actress, ugly her up and have her stomp about complaining about being ugly for the first half hour, then whip off her glasses and straighten her hair and expect the audience to think that something amazing has happened. The epitome of this for me was always Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries but there are so many others. Mary is the Austen character who fits this template the best and so she has been repeatedly crow-barred into it. Maybe I don’t find stories about her to be particularly engaging because I find that trope incredibly patronising? Like, if you just get a decent haircut then all your problems are solved? Yeah, right. Or that if you set the books down and show some flesh then your life gets better? Umm … no. Maybe Mary liked her books. Fan fiction never seems to be able to accept that a character might be happy alone, they always have to pair them off. Why does Mary have to be changed? Nowhere in the primary text does it ever seriously suggest that she is unhappy, only that she makes a fool of herself at the Netherfield Ball and that seems to have been a family-wide state of affairs.
Some have suggested that Mary represents Austen herself. That the reason why Austen loathes Mary is that she contains a self-portrait of sorts. Having read Austen’s letters, I really doubt that is the case. On her best day, Mary never had Austen’s wit or sharp tongue. To participate in high level discourse, Mary relied on passages which she had painstakingly copied out for herself. She was not a quick thinker. She would never have been able to write the way that Austen did. However, she does represent the literary antecedent of the know-it-all, a character type that persists even now with figures such as Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger. In the Guardian’s article on Jane Austen at 200, Janet Todd argues that Mary was poorly treated by her creator. Todd points out that all of Austen’s heroines are untaught, almost as if Austen felt that education would make them seem unsympathetic to the reader. Mary did not care. She would however be the only Bennet sister fit to earn her own living as a governess in the event of Mr Bennet’s death. Writing as Mary, Todd suggests that she was born too early,
‘We don’t choose our creators or our parents. If I had a choice, I’d be very happy with Miss Brontë. I feel myself much suited for Jane Eyre.’
A novel which transplants Mary to Thornfield is one that I would definitely find intriguing. Already I can imagine Mr Rochester’s eyes bulging at one of Mary’s bland platitudes. She could remonstrate robotically with his wife on the importance of decorum. Mrs Fairfax would try to make excuses to sit alone in the evenings. Adele would ask in piteous French when la méchante dame was going away. But when Anne Brontë created Agnes Grey and then slightly later Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre (let’s not forget that Agnes came first), they were responding to the fact that plain women were not represented in fiction. Mary is an effaced character because women like her were effaced in Regency society. Austen knew this, not only through personal experience as a spinster herself but she even vocalises it via her hero Mr Knightley in Emma. Charlotte Jones argues in a Guardian article that Mary’s purpose in Pride and Prejudice is to be futile. The whole novel is a commentary on marriage; you have the unharmonious Bennet union, the pragmatic Collins partnership, the Wickhams’ scandalous elopement. And then you have Mary. Plain, lacking in charisma and deaf to social nuances and haunting the book’s shadows just like the thousands of fortuneless women like her. Far, far beyond the reach of anything a good haircut could remedy. Nothing to mark her out. Ignored. Finally we reach a plausible explanation of what Mary’s role is: to be ignored. Society was not kind to women like Mary. In granting her a story of her own, we lose this whole point. There is nothing special about Mary and that is her silent tragedy.