The essayist Sydney Smith, a contemporary of Jane Austen, famously defined pedantry as ‘the ostentatious obtrusion of knowledge’. Quite apart from the serendipitous pun—ostentatious—it’s a definition which fits the third sister in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice perfectly. Mary Bennet obtrudes her knowledge at every opportunity. She really is a bit of a pain.
Mary makes her first appearance in the second chapter of Pride and Prejudice, sarcastically framed by her father as a ’young lady of deep reflection’ who reads ‘great books and makes extracts’. A little later, Jane Austen tells us that Mary’s singing shows ‘neither genius nor taste’, that she is ‘always impatient for display’ and has ‘a conceited manner’ and ‘a pedantic air’.
Fashioning a heroine out of such unpromising material might seem daunting—if not downright perverse. As one editor of my novel, Mary Bennet, commented: ‘I feel that Mary needs to be a little more engaging/likeable. Obviously you’ve based her on the character in Pride and Prejudice, but if she is to be the protagonist, we need to empathise with her to some degree.’ (For a wonderful article on ‘likeability’ in fictional characters, see Charlotte Wood’s blog http://thehoopla.com.au/hate-loathe/ ) But the editor’s comment did point to my difficulty in reimagining Mary. On the one hand, I wanted to stick to Austen’s script and not ignore unattractive aspects of the character, but I also wanted the reader to empathise with Mary, to appreciate what a difficult hand she’d been dealt. She’s ‘the only plain one’ of the five Bennet sisters after all, and as a middle child she’s isolated within her own family, having no confidante among her sisters. And neither of her parents favours her— Mrs Bennet spoils her youngest daughter, Lydia, while Mr Bennet always gives his second daughter, Elizabeth, the preference.
My Mary doesn’t much like Elizabeth– she’s more than a little jealous of her of course—but I can’t help feeling that Jane Austen didn’t much like Mary! Austen had no time for people who ‘ostentatiously’ obtruded their knowledge. In a letter to the Prince Regent’s librarian, she writes of herself: ‘I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.’ (Letter [132(D)] 11/12/1815)
Blog post written by Jennifer Paynter for the Jane Austen Festival Australia Blog