What do you do when you are the plain, dull, unimaginative and socially awkward one of five sisters, the one most likely to be overlooked and dismissed not only by your family but also by any eligible movers and shakers in your social circle?
You could sink quietly into the corner, resigned to your lot as an invisible woman, or you could throw yourself into developing skills and attributes which will bring you some recognition.
Mary Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Perjudice chooses the latter course, immersing herself in the study of books, music and human nature. And much good it does her.
She becomes technically proficient – described as the most accomplished girl in the neighbourhood – but is relentlessly mocked and derided for her pains.
Mary has not learned how to wear her talents in a pleasing and unassuming way. She has neither Elizabeth’s confidence nor Jane’s charm. Instead, she fights for praise and attention by showing off her skills, which are not quite as developed as she would like to think.
Her pedantic air and conceited manner are unattractive – she has not acquired the social skills and ease of manner which would make her an asset rather than an object of ridicule.
She seizes every opportunity to show off her playing and singing, as when she ignores her audience’s expressions of scorn and embarrassment and insists on outstaying her welcome at the keyboard, until Mr Bennet removes her with the killer remark that she has delighted them long enough.
Mary longs to be clever and make trenchant observations, but has to fall back on secondhand, moralistic observations. She is particularly tedious in her response to Lydia’s antics, delivering a little sermon about ruin and reputation.
However, in fairness, she makes these points only when Elizabeth ignores her suggestion that, as sisters, they should ‘stem the tide of malice’ and console each other. Rebuffed, Mary resorts to the safety of trite generalisms.
This is what is unsettling about Jane Austen’s presentation of Mary. It’s very enjoyable to share Austen’s mockery of the sister who is as tiresome as Lydia but without her liveliness, more well-read than Elizabeth but without any of her alpha-female qualities, less pretty than any of her sisters and more technically accomplished than all of them.
But at times we may feel uncomfortable in colluding with the vitriolic presentation of someone who tries hard but gets it wrong, and who has no one to guide her into ways of getting it right.
Her father, himself a clever man, puts the knife in time and time again. Her mother? Yeah, right.
A different role
Mary is familiar to anyone who longs to be clever or witty, but just can’t think of the right thing to say, who works hard to become knowledgeable and educated but who keeps missing the mark.
Determined not to be overlooked, she puts herself out there, only to fall flat on her face time and time again. She’s the girl who doesn’t get the joke, who makes the outdated reference, who wants to sound clever but comes across dorky.
Jane Austen seems fiercely determined to make Mary fail. It would be nice to see her flourish, become the girl with less than model looks but with a brain and an attitude which allow her to claim her place on the stage.
If only Mary had been exposed to different role models and influences, she might have been the Tina Fey of her times. With a smartened-up act and a pair of adorable glasses, she might even have ended up with the de rigueur hubby. And we have to say she deserves it more than that silly Lydia.
My new book, Charlotte’s Wedding, is a contemporary reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which explores the compromises and choices made by women as they negotiate their way through issues of independence and security, love and money in their complicated 21st Century lives. It’s available at a special introductory price at Amazon worldwide.