Only a few years ago, nobody much liked Mary Bennet. Claudia Johnson condemned her “portentous moralizing“ as “mean” and “laughable” (3), Nina Auerbach styled her as a “mouthpiece” for empty “platitudes” (41), and John Lauber summed up a long and esteemed tradition of Austen scholarship when he ranked Mary among the most ridiculous of Austen’s “fools.” Even the Republic of Pemberley—an unruly digital production housing everything from blogs to bibliographies, chat forums and fan works—hosted a whimsical collection of miscellanea known as “The Jane Austen Punishments List,” which ranked “an evening at a recital given by Mary Bennet” as the very worst thing that could possibly befall a Janeite.
More recently, a cultural shift—with one foot in modern era feminism and the other in Austen’s world—has given rise to a different and perhaps more nuanced reading of Mary’s character, not to mention a plethora of adaptations (books, videos and plays, memes, gifs, and other fan works) that work hard to expand Mary’s inner life and endow her with a future that is every bit as sparkling as the one that Austen conjured for her older sisters.
These Mary Bennet story worlds are predicated on a kind of “upside down Austen.” They take leave from a “negotiated” or “oppositional” reading of Austen’s work, to use Stuart Hall’s term—proceeding less from a revisionary reading of Austen’s novel and more from Mary’s characterization in popular film and television adaptations, particularly as Mary’s short cameo-like appearances are cut, edited, and recirculated on internet platforms such as YouTube and Tumblr, giving rise to new fan-produced fictions on Kindle, Kobo, and Wattpad.
Understanding these emerging Mary Bennet story worlds entails, to use Christine Geraghty’s words, a practiced reading of “ghostly presences” left by an “accretion” of textual “deposits over time” and a capacity to unravel the “layering process” that gives rise to a sense of “shadowing or doubling of what is on the surface by what is glimpsed behind” (195). By observing the “ghostly” elements of Mary Bennet stories that follow what might be called a “Mary script” and noting points of divergence, readers can better understand which aspects of Mary’s construction have changed, how they have changed, and how these changes may be politically, socially, or culturally significant. Reading these often rebellious female “ghosts” can produce fascinating insights, if not always into the gender politics of Austen’s world, then into the place of Austen’s work in our own.
Reading Mary Bennet
Austen’s Mary is the forgotten sister in the Bennet family, famously endowed with “a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached.” She is roundly declared to be the “only plain one in the family,” and though she has “worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments” is said to be as devoid of “genius” and “taste” in such pursuits as she is “impatient for display” (25). Mary, according to her father, “‘read[s] great books and make[s] extracts’” but is incapable of “‘adjusting her ideas’” to the realities of the world (7). She is unable to think critically or independently about the things she reads, but then in Austen’s world she would never have been given the opportunity to do so. From her lengthy studies Mary has therefore gleaned only a “thread-bare morality,” which manifests itself in all the book-learned principles that she parrots at unlikely, if not insensitive, moments (60). Mary’s tragedy is that her pursuit of “accomplishments” has not helped her find the place that she craves in Georgian society. She may be a minor figure in Austen’s novel, but her marginality also constitutes a significant commentary on the gender politics of her society.
Like Anne de Bourgh, who is “sickly,” and Charlotte Lucas, who is “plain,” Mary is a failed woman according to the norms of Austen’s novelistic world: she doesn’t marry, lives at home, and even gives up on the pursuit of “accomplishments” (386). But recently a handful of critics—including Juliette Wells, Steven Scott, and Mary Bolton—have argued that Mary’s “failure” does much more than act as a foil for the novel’s heroine. Rather, Mary’s marginality as a character functions as a commentary on the social norms that the novel sets out to question, giving a darker undertone to a work that Austen famously described as “too light & bright & sparkling” (4 February 1813). Mary is not beautiful like Jane, witty like Elizabeth, rich like Anne de Bourgh, or accomplished like Georgiana Darcy. Her marginality draws attention to the inequities of a society in which female characters who are attractive, accomplished, and wealthy may have a limited range of choices available to them, but women who possess none—or only some—of these attributes have no choices at all.
Scott argues that Mary is an enigma in a “novel concerned with the construction of individual, authentic selves” in a social world that considers “marriage the only viable option for genteel young women.” He notes, “she is consistently unsocial, and often very nearly anti-social, in a novel that is taken up entirely with social issues and situations” (229). Nor does Mary “think” like Austen’s other female characters, according to Scott (236). Although fan cultures have attempted to pair her off with Mr. Collins—partnering them in Katherine Chen’s Mary B and in the Mormon teen flick Pride & Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy, for example—Austen’s original Mary actually damns Mr. Collins with faint praise. Mary, writes Austen, thinks Mr. Collins “by no means so clever as herself,” conceding only that “if encouraged to read and improve himself” he might become a “very agreeable companion” (124). And this is clearly not quite the same thing as romantic infatuation.
Mary is, for modern readers, the “typical” middle child: caught between her beautiful and amiable older sisters, and her wilder and thoughtless younger sisters, with no discernible friends or allies of her own. But in this sense Mary is also singled out in Austen’s novel and endowed with a quality of contrarianism that makes her interesting to her twenty-first-century fandom. This resistant reading of Mary is explored in Colleen McCullough’s The Independence of Mary Bennet, although McCullough capitulates to the expectations of the popular romance genre by conjuring a politically progressive partner for her maverick heroine. It is more recently explored in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, the updated version of Pride and Prejudice commissioned as the fourth instalment of HarperCollins’s Jane Austen Project, in which the final coda reveals the tough-minded complexities of Mary’s inner world, including the possibilities of a fulfilled and self-fulfilling single life, in a way that turns the concerns of the preceding 180 chapters on their head.
What is striking about the growing list of works that comprise what Charlotte Jones has dubbed the Mary Bennet “industry” is the way they invest Mary with the kind of agency and capacity for choice and a self-realized existence that was historically denied to women living within the oppressive regimes of patriarchy that defined Austen’s world. These fan works are aimed at—and, indeed, often produced by—a generation of women for whom the romantic fantasies embodied in some of the more Harlequinized screen adaptations of Austen have not delivered on their promises, leaving their audiences grappling to find new forms of cultural attachment to Austen’s work that satisfy. One Tumblr meme contains the striking realization, “Every girl who loves Pride and Prejudice is probably Mary when they go to a party.” Another sardonically reads, “The quickest way to a gentleman’s heart is through the fourth and fifth rib,” signed “Mary Bennet.” Another, with a picture of Mary pushing back against her partying sisters, enigmatically reads, “I will cut you.” Meanwhile on Twitter, readers continue to protest, “Mary Bennet is a hugely underrated character,” or, more pointedly, “Mary Bennet is underrated as f——.”
To better understand Mary’s emerging story world, it is necessary to return to Mary’s characterization in film and television adaptations, paying careful attention to the way in which the sympathies of Austen’s narrative have been restructured in the process of adaptation from one medium to the next. Untethered from the organizing principles of Jane Austen’s particular—and, indeed, revolutionary—use of free indirect discourse, minor characters get more attention, as both Cristina Neckles and Juliette Wells have pointed out. In Austen’s novel, Mary is pushed into the margins. But when she is filmed, she is always there, visible in the background. Whether Mary is pictorially excluded from her sisters’ conversations, or else interrupts and pushes her way back in, she elicits a qualitatively different emotional response.
Mary Bennet on screen
Until recently, adaptations of Pride and Prejudice have kept Mary—like a faded wallflower—in the background; bespectacled, hair sternly parted, with her nose in a book. Indeed, in the 1967 BBC television series—made to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen—Mary is omitted altogether. In Robert Leonard’s 1940 feature-length adaptation for MGM, written by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin, Mary is played for comic relief by Marsha Hunt. But other than her myopic-looking glasses—which appear oddly out of place amid the plethora of bows and ringlets—there is little to distinguish this comedic Mary from the rest of the Bennet brood. Hunt’s Mary is an amiable and essentially benign character, softened both by the genre conventions of romantic comedy, as well as by the care and attention she receives from the characters around her, including the encouragements of a sensitive and well-meaning father, the lavish affections of an overly indulgent mother, not to mention all the feminine paraphernalia that Deborah Cartmell once labelled the “visually ridiculous” (82)—the billowing petticoats, outsize bonnets, and ballooning sleeves—that pictorially link Mary to the rest of her sisters, with whom she is also on demonstrably affectionate terms.
In Leonard’s film, Mary ceases to be “difficult.” Even her piano-playing at the Netherfield ball—transformed into a song recital at an afternoon garden party—is tactfully handled. In place of the social humiliation depicted in Austen’s novel, Hunt’s Mary is encouraged to sing by an elderly member of the audience—“Charming! Won’t you favour us with another?”—before Mr. Bennet gracefully claps her off the stage, praising her efforts all the while, “Very good, Mary, my dear!” It is also perhaps inevitable that in a film billed as a romantic comedy—with a comedic trailer framing the husband-hunting antics of no less than “Five love-hungry sisters”—that Mary should gain a partner who, as her father foreshadowed early on, “likes singing and can discuss philosophy” and who presumably loves Mary for herself. The romance required by genre conventions unfolds cameo-style before the closing titles, when Mary returns the smile of an equally sight-challenged flute player who admires her piano-playing.
Leonard’s is a peculiarly American film. It is, as Linda Robinson points out, not an American slant on an English story so much as an American picture of an England that has never existed but that simultaneously functions to valorize Britain while aligning it with American ideals. It is, as Linda Troost puts it, an ideological set-piece “designed to strengthen the British and American alliance at a fragile moment” on the brink of America’s involvement in World War II (76). In this sense, Mary’s function in the film is to confirm the American ideal of social acceptance—to generate a sense that the dream of democracy is open to everybody, and that none will be excluded from its naively optimistic and thoroughly consumerist (the film opens in a fabric shop, after all) vision of middle class upward mobility. Mary’s character journey is an affective demonstration of the ways in which the ordinary girl next door can indeed become extraordinary—and that happy endings are available to anybody with the gumption to try.
By contrast, in the bookish 1980 BBC television series, directed by Cyril Coke and written by Fay Weldon, Mary—played by Tessa Peake-Jones—is pictorially set apart from the rest of the Bennet sisters, debuting in her now iconic brown-checked pinafore, with a blunt fringe, straight brown hair, and owlish-looking spectacles. In this adaptation Mary is constructed as a painfully anxious character, affectionate in her relations with her sisters but with a tendency to fall back on pious utterances to conceal her lack of social skill. Weldon’s Mary humiliates herself socially but not against the grand, aristocratic setting of the Netherfield ball. Instead, Mary’s piano-playing is confined to the family drawing room, with her mother looking fondly on, repeatedly informing Mr. Collins how “clever” Mary is, in the conspicuous hope that he might be prevailed on to marry Mary in her older sister’s place—an attempt that, as every Austen reader knows, is destined to fail.
In Weldon’s hands, Mary’s book-learned moralism is more conspicuous but also harmless. Like her clumsy piano-playing, Mary’s platitudes present themselves less as an impediment to the viewer’s empathy than as something that she may perhaps outgrow, given sufficient encouragement. Her thoroughly insensitive response to the news of Lydia’s elopement—the scene in Austen’s novel in which she invites her sisters to draw the “‘useful lesson’” that “‘loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable’” (289)—is deftly corrected by her mother, who dismisses it as “‘Nonsense!’” Neckles astutely draws attention to the way in which Mary’s face is darkened within this mise-en-scène as her mother leans across her, visibly excluding Mary as she converses with her other daughters (37–38), but such pictorial slighting does not actually preclude the viewer’s empathy (in contrast to the novel, in which Elizabeth’s silent response invests Mary’s comment with a level of brutality). In fact, the organization of the television space is more likely to elicit affective response. And yet, while the series draws attention to Mary’s neglect, creating space for a tragic reading of her character, it continues to marginalize her. Weldon’s Mary has no narrative arc, no character journey, and no resolution. She disappears from the action, with little explanation. This Mary may be young and harmless, but she is also—or so it seems—thoroughly beside the narrative point.
It is in the influential 1995 BBC adaptation, directed by Simon Langton and written by Andrew Davies, that Mary’s character takes a decidedly nasty turn. Here, Lucy Briers plays Mary as an obviously mean-minded character: disdainful, self-important, and bristling with religious zealotry. There is no softening of perspective, as there is in Leonard’s or Coke’s version. There is also no ironic doubling of perspective, as there is in Austen’s novel. Instead the viewer is actively encouraged to delight in Mr. Bennet’s barbs at Mary’s expense, assuming Mary is either too stupid or too vain to be seriously harmed by them. In Mary’s best known scene—the failure of her piano-playing at the Netherfield ball—there is no indication that she is “disconcerted” by her father words, or that a genuine sense of hurt might underpin her “pretending not to hear,” or that other characters might actually feel “sorry for her, and sorry for her father’s speech,” as Elizabeth does in Austen’s novel (101). Instead, the sequence cuts between images of Mary singing at the piano and images of dogs in the courtyard, between the sound of Mary’s piano-playing and the sound of the dogs in the courtyard howling at the moon. These cutaways do not function to draw attention to the futility or hopelessness of Mary’s position—as a less than conventionally attractive woman, with limited accomplishments or social prospects—but carry the sharp sting of misogyny.
This is certainly not a meaning that inheres in Austen’s novel. It is more akin to the kind of ridicule experienced by modern women that has been usefully analyzed by Kate Manne. Misogynistic put-downs—likening women to witches or hags, or in this case dogs—may conjure up western culture’s long literary and artistic traditions (the ones that equate women with madness and monsters), but they are more frequently applied in a manner that is individualizing and tactically isolating for the woman concerned. Misogyny, Manne argues, is never about all women, and in a textual sense it is never about all female characters. The put-down is always aimed at the one woman in particular who attempts to defy the social norm. For example, in the wedding scene that closes the 1995 BBC series, the camera pans across the faces of characters in the church congregation gathered to watch Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy marry. It rests briefly on Mary’s face, dreary beneath her dowdy bonnet: pallid, slightly blotched, and jowly well beyond her nineteen years. In short, the series concludes with a judgment of Mary, standing in the church pew, clutching her prayer book, prematurely aged—a cruel portrait of the desiccated spinster she is yet to become. Implicit in the mise-en-scène is an anachronistic sense that Mary should be blamed for choosing her social isolation—in the sense noted by Scott (236)—at a time in which choices for women such as Mary were not available at all.
Misogyny, as Manne argues, is rarely deemed acceptable. It more often passes itself off as a witticism or a joke, or as the cultural inheritance of the West. It thrives because of its capacity to characterize itself as marginal and aberrant, or else because it slyly makes the woman responsible for the attitudes of the man. It may well be that a tacit recognition of the peculiar problems associated with gender and representation in adaptations of classic—that is, historic—literature have led writers and directors of the twenty-first century to radically change their approach to Mary’s character. Over the last two decades, Mary’s on-screen character has been altered in diverse and quite radical ways, as if film makers were actively searching for a new version of Mary that modern audiences could get behind.
In postmodern adaptations such as Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice—which transfers the action of Austen’s novel to contemporary Amritsar—Mary, renamed Maya, ceases to be afflicted by outdated conduct-book morality so much as a tendency to listen a little bit too well to the gossip of Punjabi matrons. Played by Meghna Kothari, Maya dresses in traditional Punjabi clothes and admonishes Lydia, renamed Lakhi, for the brevity of her more modern outfits. But Maya is less a killjoy than a comedic domestic goddess, who stuns—if not outright scares—the male members of her audience with her cobra dance, including a standout filmic moment in which Maya strikes snake-like at the film’s unsuspecting Mr. Darcy and Mr. Collins characters, in a scene that continues to circulate on the internet in cos-play videos and as a gif or meme. This is not social humiliation. It is female empowerment with a comic twist.
Similarly, in Dan Zeff’s Lost in Austen, Mary, played by Ruby Bentall, is presented as a nerdish rather than an enervating character. She may be bespectacled, pasty-faced, with hair severely parted, but she is also sunny-tempered, chummy with her sisters, and given to fits of giggling. “Do you want faggots?” she asks Amanda Price, the film’s contemporary protagonist, who has stepped into fictional Georgian England through a portal in her bathroom. Mary plays only a minor role in the series, appearing as just one more face in a unified chorus of Bennet sisters. Mary’s tribulations pale into insignificance when placed beside Amanda’s social humiliations, in an overtly postmodern work that poses interesting questions about the gender politics of contemporary Austen fandoms.
Mary is also a belated addition to the Emmy Award-winning web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, created for Digital Pemberley by Hank Green and Bernie Su. Much of the action takes place off-screen in this adaptation. The events are narrated vlog-style by the eponymous Lizzie in a series of YouTube clips, with her friend Charlotte Lu and sisters Lydia and Jane adding their different reflections and perspectives. Mary’s first appearance is in a spinoff vlog that Lydia makes to amuse herself when she is sent to stay at her cousin Mary’s house while the Bennets’ family home is being “remodelled.” But although this Mary shares the attributes of her novelistic counterpart—spending much of her time studying, and even making “a terrible attempt to play the piano” off-screen—she’s a lot more sensible than sour. Lydia tells the viewer that Mary, in urban gothic style, likes “things like reading, and darkness, and having no facial expressions”—adding, “I mean, it’s not even Botox. She just comes that way.” And yet, it is sensible, street-smart Mary who clues Lydia in to the fact that her first love object is gay (not in any stigmatizing way, but in a practical sense) and, without turning a hair, confiscates the Xanax medication that Lydia has stolen from her employer.
Lydia may call Mary a “depress-o” who is “crying for help on the inside” or joke about Mary dying alone when a library stack falls on top of her, but Lydia also hits back against the college girls who have been bullying Mary, and the two become friends. Lydia discovers, along with the rest of the internet audience, “You’re not so boring” after all. And yet, even this trendy, edgy, book-smart Mary—who so obviously has a glittering future—disappears from the storyline. So too, in Mary’s other recent big screen appearance—the leather-trimmed Regency gothic parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—she remains a bit player. Unlike the third novel in the Quirk trilogy on which the film is based—in which Mary ditches the books and spectacles for a razor sharp katana and gets to be the heroine—in the film version she speaks only one line.
It is primarily in the niche world of fan-produced work that Mary moves from minor character to center stage. And yet, it is striking that much of Mary’s fandom takes off from Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation, in which Mary barely speaks but is nevertheless reinvented within the cinematic space through Talulah Riley’s confused and lonely looks, which, recycled as gifs, memes, and YouTube videos, have fostered a discrete but growing audience determined to read her character differently.
In Wright’s adaptation, the sound of Mary’s piano-playing spans the opening scenes. The rhapsodic melody frames the viewer’s first impression of Mary—glimpsed fleetingly from behind, seated at her piano—as Elizabeth walks by. The camera follows Elizabeth down the corridor, through the doors, and back into the drawing room, where the Bennet family gathers, talking and laughing about the two unmarried men who have settled at Netherfield nearby. Mary enters the boisterous family scene a full minute behind the rest of her sisters. “Who’s got warts?” she asks, standing in the doorway, inquiring into the source of her sisters’ mirth with an awkward opening line. The disjunction between Mary’s artful music and her stilted, ungainly speech deftly conjures up a portrait of a socially awkward but deeply empathetic character. Her rough brown gown and calico apron also contrast with her younger sisters’ sprigged muslins. Though Mary says little, she instantly engages the viewer’s sympathies.
In a film that is entirely caught up with space and movement—with how it “feels,” as Mary Chan has argued, to occupy a particular space—Mary’s discomfort in the scenes filled with noise, laughter, and conviviality is striking. At the Netherfield ball, her awkwardness and the social isolation that is its inevitable accompaniment is acutely felt. The camera wanders down halls and through foyers in long giddying takes, as groups of characters move from room to room. Mary mostly appears on the edges of other people’s scenes. She is often seen hovering at her parents’ elbows, as the camera leaves her behind, trapped in confusion. It is clear that the piano presents itself to Mary as a place of stillness. It is clear that she has sought refuge from unmanageable social demands—but then her father moves her on. “I hate balls,” Mary wails, after her father comes to find her, confiding that she has been practicing all week.
When Austen’s minor characters are filmed, they seem to have a higher claim on the viewer’s sympathies. This is not because Austen’s “fools”—like Mary and Mr. Collins—have become more eloquent, as Christina Neckles points out, but because the “[spatial] construction of the film better expresses their existence” (38). Mary lacks the social tools—money, beauty, grace, and wit—to establish a place in Georgian society, and the structure of film and television productions better expresses this exclusion, even as the film’s narrative pushes Mary aside. In Wright’s adaptation, social awkwardness replaces piety, confusion replaces vanity, and any pride Mary may take in her book learning or piano-playing is seen to be that of a complex and socially-challenged character with a very good reason to construct a socially-acceptable image for herself, and to take pride in that construction. Mary’s accomplishments function as a social mask to hide behind, and her platitudes are the hesitations of a young woman who is either unwilling or unable to judge the world for herself. In Wright’s film, Mary’s exclusion creates her as a profoundly tragic character—and a startlingly romantic one.
As Sarah Ailwood and Deborah Cartmell have both pointed out, Wright’s film blends big-“R” philosophical Romanticism with small-“r” Hollywood romance in some fascinating ways. The many tangible changes that screenwriter Deborah Moggach makes to Mary’s character are crystalized in the way she gives her Elizabeth’s classically romantic line, “‘What are men to rocks and mountains?’” (154). In Austen’s novel, this line forms part of an ironic rhapsody that anticipates Elizabeth’s delight in her trip to the Lake District. It references “mankind” in terms of fashionable early-nineteenth-century ideas about the picturesque, including broader philosophical inquiries into humanity’s relationship with nature and capacity to live a fulfilling life, but it also ironically references Elizabeth’s disillusion with three men in particular—that is, the disappointing conduct of Mr. Wickham, Mr. Darcy, and Mr. Bingley. Austen’s irony is particularly effective here because it draws attention to the effect of gender difference on the capacity of individuals to pursue their desires.
But in Moggach’s screenplay, it is Mary who speaks the words in keeping with their Romantic meaning and Elizabeth who inflects Mary’s words with irony. In this way, the film aligns Mary with the Romantic fantasies set in train by the piano soundtrack in the opening scenes—conjuring up all the big nineteenth-century Romantic questions, the ideas of Goethe and Herder, Wordsworth and Coleridge—as they are brought to bear on the question of the conflict between individual self-realization and the demands of society. Mary not only speaks the lines but does so in the only scene in the entire film in which she appears quite unbaffled, sitting by the hearth in the family kitchen, but she is, tragically, unable to pursue the desires that the thought inspires. In Wright’s film it is the wealthy and accomplished Georgiana Darcy—seated at the piano in the music room at Pemberley—who concludes the rhapsodic piano soundtrack. Mary remains a woman trapped within the social strictures of her time, yearning for more, but with little choice or opportunity.
Mary Bennet story worlds
Nina Auerbach famously conjures up the nineteenth-century drawing room as a kind of shadowland where single women wait for the arrival of men—“the story, the glow” writes Auerbach, “will begin with the opening of the door” (38). It is perhaps unsurprising that so many modern readers have begun to wonder what might happen to these waiting women if they are pushed into that space that Auerbach evocatively calls “the glow”—regardless of whether they are single, partnered, married, queer, straight, or alone. This curiosity is perhaps why Mary—the most contrary of Austen’s waiting women—has become the focus of a burgeoning subgenre of fan works that attempt to retrieve her from the shadows. The growing list of Mary Bennet books currently includes Patrice Sarah’s The Unexpected Miss Mary Bennet, which brings Mary to Pemberley for an Elizabeth-and-Darcy style romance, Pamela Mingle’s The Pursuit of Mary Bennet, which sweeps her off to Netherfield for a similar end, and Jennifer Paynter’s The Forgotten Sister, which pairs her off with a young musician. In a more revisionary vein, Colleen McCullough sets her novel’s eponymous heroine—miraculously cured of her “suppurating spots” (20)—to work on a book entitled the “Ills of England,” drawing the world’s attention to all the slums, orphanages, poorhouses, and factories where Georgian people dwell in poverty. But even McCullough’s politically-minded Mary—much like the Mary in Terri Fleming’s Perception, who exclaims that she would not wish to be married to a man who “treats me as a breeding machine” (3)—finds romance in the end. These book-length fan works confirm the political boundaries of a subgenre in which a nostalgia for marriage and romance is a constant theme.
And yet, unlike the many Elizabeth Bennet fan fictions, which, as Doreen Thierauf argues, are often inclined to fall back on the high temperature repertoire of patriarchal romance narratives—in which the typical heroine possesses a flawless and unconscious beauty, and the hero’s greater age, wealth, and social power invariably legitimates his assertion of control over her (604)—the Mary Bennet story world is fascinating because these books, plays, blogs, memes, and gifs turn less on the question of romance and more on the question of how Mary might grow, or change, or “come into her own.”
One of the more interesting—and even elegant—works in the Mary Bennet genre is Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a play that situates Mary as an awkward middle child wedged between her “kindest, cleverest, most beautiful” older sisters and her “loudest, silliest, prettiest” younger sisters in a way that—as Mary herself points out—leaves “very few adjectives for me.” Gunderson and Melcon’s Mary travels “on pages, and in ink” and longs for something more than to “care for Mother and Father until they die” and then “end up in someone’s attic” (17). This figure of female longing is a common trope in film and fiction, as the reference to Bertha Rochester’s incarceration in the attic makes clear. “I never chose this life either,” Mary tells her sisters. “I don’t recall ever being asked.” “Asked what exactly?” says Jane. “If I longed for something of my own” (19).
Christmas at Pemberley rewrites Mary’s character in the context of American democratic ideology, with its specific focus on the individual’s regenerative potential. Change, hope, and renewal take on thematic resonance in the play, particularly through the welter of intertextual references to the philosophical and scientific works of Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin, which Gunderson and Melcon’s scientifically-minded Mary reads avidly. Just as Lamarck’s giraffe stretched its neck and his bird sprouted wings, so too, or so the motifs worked through the play tend to suggest, characters can change themselves and their society. “Miss Bennet,” says Darcy, “if you’ll excuse a spontaneous observation. I find you quite matured this visit” (28). “I like Mary,” Elizabeth confesses; “Is it terrible to admit I didn’t know I did?” Jane agrees, “She is changed is she not?” (34). And yet, the play betrays its contemporary, neoliberal logic less through the incorporation of this ideology of change and self-help than through a plot twist that turns on what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism.”
Berlant uses the term “cruel optimism” to designate certain cultural products of our current affective moment, which, she argues, hold out false hope as a means to stifle dissent and render meaningful change unattainable. According to Berlant, what we seek constantly eludes us because the mechanisms by which we pursue our objectives are irredeemably flawed. Berlant raises the spectre of a society in which people are busily and endlessly set to work on themselves, in ways that actually preclude the more equitable social outcomes they desire. In the Mary Bennet story world, the shift in focus from Lizzy to Mary—the focus on stories about so-called nerd women who allegedly fail to impress but still get a chance at love and lives of their own—draws attention to the ways in which the promise of equality has come under stress and strain. Inclusion and aspiration of this sort is not actually available to Mary, and so Gunderson and Melcon conjure up a rich, titled, and scientifically-minded suitor for Mary who can make her dreams of a leisurely and self-realized existence possible.
So too, Katherine Chen in the recently published Mary B recasts Mary as a bookish and enterprizing woman in a novel that centers almost entirely on individual acts of self-realization that are completely incommensurable with the historic reality of the Georgian social structures in which Mary finds herself ensnared. Chen’s Mary is the ugly duckling of the Bennet family, whose “plainness” has become an “unshakeable religion” to her siblings (21). She begins to read because books hide the “imperfections of the face” and provide an “excuse for not partaking in conversation” (21). Kitty cuts up Mary’s music (39); Lydia taunts her about her clothes (37). Worst of all, perhaps, Charlotte Lucas’s brother Thomas likens her to weeds, which, he says, “choke the beauty of the flowers and thrive at the expense of others.” “The fewer Mary Bennets there are in the world, the better,” he adds. “They add no beauty to their surroundings and will all grow up to be ugly old maids, living on the charity of their families” (70). Unlike the characters around her, Chen’s Mary is able to see the gender injustice of the insult. Thomas, she complains, will have an occupation although he looks like a “hooting chimpanzee.” He will “be able to make something of himself, and I can’t” (71–72). “But you can, dear Mary” says Charlotte, drawing her attention to the patriarchal remedy, “through marriage” (73).
But, of course, in Georgian society, marriage is not available to a woman without beauty, money, or “accomplishments.” Chen’s Mary therefore sets herself to work to overcome her “plainness” and create “a life of my own” by penning a bestseller. Her approach is agentic and entrepreneurial. Indeed, this Mary is a figure of postfeminist discourse, as it has been analyzed by Angela McRobbie and Rosalind Gill. Mary’s life “like my book . . . would be of my authoring.” “I would compose its pages, whatever shape and course they took” (312). Writing and money both come effortlessly to Mary. And yet, as in so many Pride and Prejudice fan works, it is actually Darcy who becomes Mary’s unlikely conduit to financial independence. “What had been denied to Jane and Lizzy, Lydia and Kitty, my mother, my aunts, and all my female acquaintances was now being offered to me,” Mary exclaims (307), after Darcy sells her first novel for £200, much more than the £110 that Jane Austen made from Pride and Prejudice in the whole of her lifetime.
Here is the familiar postfeminist theme of having it all. And, in the context of Chen’s novel, it engenders a peculiarly American sense that anybody can make it, despite the odds stacked against them. The twenty-first-century fantasy of celebrity authorship feels even less real in the patriarchal nineteenth century, but Chen’s Mary believes, like the novel’s ideal reader, that health, wealth, and, of course, love is theirs, just as long as they are willing to work hard at it, believe in it, keep the image of it always before them. Such optimism is cruel in Berlant’s sense, because, unlike the reader, Chen’s Mary possesses the unlikely good fortune of getting an enormous book advance from the hands of Mr. Darcy, who, in doting on Mary, has at last recognized that Elizabeth is not for him.
In a more interesting vein, John Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus, a novel-length exposition of his Nebula Award-winning short story of the same name, is conspicuous for the way in which it actively interrogates the “something better” and “something more” for which postfeminist Mary is seen to yearn, and for the way in which the novel submits the “Mary myth” to its own radical form of disenchantment. In Kessel’s novel, romantic yearning is undercut by a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Promethean tale, which famously cautions readers against striving for the sublime and unattainable. Kessel’s Mary comes to realize that in her youth she had not been scared of danger so much as scared of offending social proprieties. She now believes that “propriety consisted of a veil of hypocrisy over self-interest” and that the “machine of society was prepared to grind those without money or powerful friends” (364). Kessel’s Mary abandons the fantasy of a future that rests on a normative narrative of success. Instead, she finds a vision of a new “sublime life” unaffected by social niceties. She shakes off the idea of marriage, wealth, and success, and opens herself to a new reality that she hadn’t dared to dream. In Kessel’s novel, this new vision is a close female friendship with the working-class fossil collector, Mary Anning, the historic finder of the ichthyosaurus. The novel ends with Mary “alone in the gathering dusk” on the Cobb at Lyme Regis shaking her fist at God (367). Significantly, this Mary’s yearning no longer functions as a form of “cruel optimism” to rob her of her actually existing present. Instead, Kessel presents Mary with a vision of the future that is neither desired nor dreaded but merely found—that is, teased out of really existing hopes and interests—in a way that is also, in the strangest of ways, quintessentially Austen.
“A little like Jane Austen herself”
Mary Bennet story worlds are very much a product of our current affective moment. They may revolve around a Cinderella-like plot, but it is more often one that is focused on finding relief from domestic drudgery than searching for Prince Charming. In this sense they bring a democratic impulse to their resistant reading of Austen’s work. And yet, like so many postfeminist media productions, Mary Bennet stories tend to individualize their heroine’s claim to agency, endowing her with a capacity for choice and autonomy that is untethered to any social reality or economic constraint, typically setting her on a path to self-realization of the sort only available to the select few with the financial capacity to earn or pay or buy.
In the edgier, anarchic world of gifs, memes, and image flips, Mary continues to take on new and surprising forms. Lucy Briers, in particular, is regularly flipped into a darkly gothic uber-villain, as in the “Pride and Prejudice Parody Trailer” that turns on the plot question, “Who really gets the 5000 a year?” In a string of memes, Tessa Peake-Jones’s mousey Mary metamorphoses into a queen of the information age. Meanwhile, in “Incorrect Pride and Prejudice Quotes,” a coolly sardonic Mary is one of Tumblr’s driest wits. For a discrete and perhaps growing number of fans, Mary is actively seen to be choosing the single life. “Why should Mary marry?” asks Tilly’s Shelf, in a comment affixed to “Mary is the best character,” an episode of YouTube vlog the Spinster’s Library (irresistibly subtitled, “Reader. Cat Lady. Feminist”). Mary is “well out of that” situation, Tilly protests, and this makes her, or so Tilly argues, “a little like Jane Austen herself.”