There’s Something About Mary Bennet

The things that make Pride and Prejudice’s middle sister so unappealing as a supporting character are precisely what make her compelling as a star.

'The Governess,' a painting by Richard Redgrave
The Governess, by Richard Redgrave (Historical Picture Archive / Corbis / Getty Images)
Poor Mary. When she pays attention to her at all, Pride and Prejudice’s narrator describes the middle Bennet sibling—younger sister to Jane and Elizabeth, older sister to Kitty and Lydia—as someone who, possessing neither “genius nor taste,” often “wished to say something very sensible,” but—oof—“knew not how.” Mary navigates the world with “a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached.” (Ooooof.) A little bit Mr. Collins, a little bit Lady Edith, a little bit Tracy Flick, Mary is at once introverted and attention-hungry, well-read and insipid, vain and insignificant. She is also, her novel’s acerbic storyteller makes a point of informing us, “the only plain one in the family.”
In spite of all this, though, recent years have seen a proliferation of Mary-related—and, indeed, Mary-focused—fiction. There’s 2009’s The Independence Of Miss Mary Bennet, an exploration of the escapades Mary enjoyed after her sisters were married, written by Colleen McCullough, the other of The Thorn Birds. There’s Jennifer Paynter’s 2014 The Forgotten Sister: Mary Bennet’s Pride and Prejudice, which narrates the events of Austen’s novel from Mary’s point of view. There’s also Pamela Mingle’s The Pursuit of Mary Bennet: A Pride and Prejudice Novel, which offers Mary an alternate romantic subplot. And A Match For Mary Bennet, which does the same.
And there will be more Mary to come. The publisher Orion recently announced its purchase of yet another Pride and Prejudice sequel, Perception, the release of which will coincide with the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death, and the plot of which will follow Mary’s fortunes as she ages out of her teens. 2018 will bring The Other Bennet Girl, promising a similar story and likely to join its fellow members of the burgeoning Mary Bennet industrial complex to do one broad thing: take the latent feminism of Pride and Prejudice—Elizabeth, that meadow-tramping, proposal-rejecting paean to self-assuredness—and apply it to Longbourn’s least likely feminist.
The books mingle across the literary spectrum to insist on Mary as a subject rather than an object, as a person rather than a mere foil. They assume something that Pride and Prejudice, via its narrator, refused to believe: that someone like Mary could have a rich interior life. In that, they form a sub-genre for a literary moment that emphasizes the “vision” in “revisionist history.” These new works, 200 years after the fact, are finally giving her the simple gift Mary so desperately craves: to be noticed.
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In a fantastic essay for The Guardian, Charlotte Jones describes the current attempt to reimagine and reanimate Mary as largely missing the point of her creator’s novel. Austen is not George Eliot, after all; she is neither copious nor comprehensive in her empathies. She is Jane Austen, OG Gossip Girl. Her narrator, in Pride and Prejudice, is judgy. She plays favorites. She mocks. She deploys her wit with surgical strikes. That is what makes her such an enduring delight to engage with, but it also serves another function, Jones argues. “The poignancy of Mary’s situation … resides precisely in her effacement,” she writes. “Neglected by her parents and unmarriageable, her silent and futile presence haunting the shadows of Pride and Prejudice is to me the best testament possible to the ranks of unremarkable women she stands for.” Mary is “the forgotten sister” because Austen chose, on behalf of her readers, not to remember her.
But just because Austen shunned Mary doesn’t mean other people must. In the age of fan fiction and remakes and reboots, it is quite appropriate for Mary, in particular, to be joining the ranks of Antoinette Cosway and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the Wicked Witch of the West and Alexander Hamilton in a public promotion from “supporting character” to “star.” And to do that under the influence of other people than the person who dreamed her into being. The modern Marian resurgence suggests not so much the death of the author as the reincarnation: People are finding value in Mary even if Austen, on the whole, did not.
And those people are not just “authors” in the traditional, commercial sense. “Mary Marry Quite Contrary,” fan fiction by Emily the Riveter, takes Mary to London, where, despite the fact that “she is hesitant to attend assemblies and balls,” she carves an independent social life for herself. LJ Summers’s “The Last Miss Bennet asks of Mary, “Did she rusticate a spinster forever? I choose to say she did not.” This video version of those stories imagines Mary as a different kind of romantic heroine—a kind of empire-waisted Keyser Söze:
And this one pays more straightforward emotional tribute to Austen’s “forgotten sister”:
It’s Mary’s flaws—or, perhaps, it is other people’s flawed perceptions of Mary—that make her worthy of such attention. In Pride and Prejudice, Mary is mocked by her sisters; she is insulted by her father (“You have delighted us long enough,” he informs her at the Netherfield ball, abruptly ending her piano forte performance and promptly humiliating her); she is by most other people—and this is the thing that really oooooofs—merely tolerated. Mary is “plain,” in Pride and Prejudice’s arch estimation, not just in her appearance, but in every sense. She is “vain” in every sense, too. While Lizzy has Jane and Kitty has Lydia, Mary has … herself, and her books. She is lonely. She is—oooooof again—simply there.
You have to feel for her, don’t you? This teenager (scholars estimate Mary’s age to be 18 as Pride and Prejudice takes place) is, in that sad sense, the most relatable character the novel offers. Yes, Jane is sweet, and yes, Lizzy is self-confident, and yes, Kitty … is probably good at embroidery, or something? In the end, though, how many times have you felt what it feels to be Mary—desperate to be heard, to be seen, to be not-ignored? How many times have you tried your best, only to be bested by someone else? (Someone, ugh, who barely even tried?) How many times have you been lonely, and petty, and indignant, and misunderstood? How many times have you wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how?
The current Mary moment—all those resurrections and re-imaginings—tends to take that core relatability and amplify it. The Forgotten Sister, its marketing literature declares, “plucks the neglected Mary from obscurity and beautifully reveals her hopes and dreams.” And “with nearly all of her sisters married and gone from the household,” The Pursuit of Mary Bennet announces, “the unrefined Mary has transformed into an attractive and eligible young woman in her own right.” This transformation is a common resolution for Mary’s story. (It is one, in fact, that Austen herself reluctantly gave her, as well: In his 1870 biography of his aunt, James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote of the author informing her family that Mary, in the end, “obtained nothing higher than one of her Uncle Philips’s clerks” in marriage, and “was content to be considered a star in the society of Meryton.” Ooooooof.)
Authors who are not Austen, though, tend to focus on the liberation Mary experiences after she is freed of her family. One summary reports that “after her older sisters were married and went away, Mary improved somewhat as she was finally given a consistent amount of her mother’s attention, and no longer had to suffer the frequent comparison between her sisters’ beauty and her own.” And Curtis Sittenfeld gave the final lines of Eligible, her 2016 re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice, over to Mary—via a scene of the middle Bennet sister … bowling. And finding contentment, contra the enduring pressures of the “marriage market,” in that fairly solitary sport.
Once freed, Mary often exhibits the same kind of vivacity and verve that made Elizabeth such a beloved character. “Still too willful to be confined within traditional marriage,” The Independence Of Miss Mary Bennet explains, “she embarks on an adventure of her own.” The adventure in this case involves writing a book, The Ills of England, which documents the plight of “orphanages, factories, poorhouse, mines—a thousand-and-one places where our own English people live in impoverishment. With that, Colleen McCullough gives Mary a fitting coda: She finds freedom, finally, via her intellectual pursuits. The character who once informed her youngest sister that she would not be dancing at the ball, for “I should infinitely prefer a book,” is now an author herself.
That serves as a mild rebuke not only to Lydia—it is hard to imagine such self-fulfillment materializing for Wickham’s wife—but also to Pride and Prejudice’s Mary-mocking narrator. And to all of Jane Austen’s narrators, really, who—being judgmental and cruel and kind and omnipotent and arbitrary—mimic history’s own ruthless whims. They decide, as the victors in battles of everyday banality, who will be acknowledged, and who will not. They take it for granted that some people (the people, often, with the “fine eyes” and the “light and pleasingfigures) deserve attention, while others (the “plain” ones) do not.
In that sense, the current renaissance of Mary Bennet is literary revisionism that suggests a more sweeping ethical project—one that celebrates the dignity of the marginalized. One that refuses to see Hamilton’s refrain (“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”) as merely rhetorical. One that attempts to reclaim history on behalf of the people, as that bard of empathy put it, “who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” And one that understands that it’s really not the worst thing in the world to be the only plain one in the family.