There Is Something About Mary (In Austen)

I distinctly remember my first reading of Pride & Prejudice at age eleven. I was too young to swoon over Mr. Darcy properly, but the book certainly inspired some passion in me.

Mary, who having, in consequence of being the only plain one in the family, worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments, was always impatient for display.

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. Elizabeth, easy and unaffected, had been listened to with much more pleasure, though not playing half so well… (Chapter 6, Pride & Prejudice)

Reader, I nearly threw the book across the room. I felt personally trolled. Because Mary Bennet, despite numerous attempts to rehabilitate the character in fan fiction and adaptations, is no quiet Jane Eyre, burning with intelligence and fire beneath the surface of her placidly plain exterior. She’s the stereotype of the intellectual bluestocking.

Mary is socially stupid (she’s the only sister who doesn’t think Mr. Collins is so bad), is depicted constantly and inappropriately quoting rather than understanding the dull books she reads, and is rather useless (she retreats to her books when her mother puts the house into an uproar after Lydia’s flight). She’s a pedant, making up for her lack of attractiveness with a display of faux “knowledge.” Even Lydia, for all her faults, has a certain animal vitality.

In other words, Mary was the embodiment of my greatest fears about myself.

Additionally, Dear Reader, my first name is Mary.

But Jane Austen’s trolling of people named Mary doesn’t end there. In Pride & Prejudice alone, there’s the nasty little freckled thing Mary King, who is nearly swept off her feet by Wickham (purely for her money, even he is quite open about that). While lots of people adore Marianne in Sense & Sensibility, it’s pretty clear IN THE BOOK (versus the film) that Elinor’s rectitude and sense are the model of good conduct, versus Marianne’s impetuousness, and Marianne’s notion that second attachments are inevitably inferior is pretty soundly trounced.

Mansfield Park contains a plethora of problematic Marys. There’s indolent Lady Maria Bertram who allows her sister Aunt Norris to tyrannize Fanny Price under her watch and her daughter Maria who marries a wealthy man to spite the rake Henry Crawford, before running off with Henry in disgrace, anyway. Henry’s sister Mary Crawford makes anal sex jokes about the Royal Navy at dinner, mocks the clergy, and speculates it might not be so bad if the elder wastrel uninclined-to-marry Tom Bertram kicks the bucket so the younger son she wants to marry can inherit the estate instead.

But what about sweet little Mary Price, Fanny’s dead sister? Or is the implication that the only good Mary is a dead Mary?

I’d argue that Mary Price is the most subtly evil Mary of all. She sows dissent in the family even after death, as sisters Susan and Betsey Price bitterly fight over the previous prized knife she left behind for them. Yes, Dear Reader, there are knife fights in Austen. Who knows what might have happened, Edward Gorey-style, if Fanny Price wasn’t around to break it up?

Of course, Persuasion features Mary Musgrove, officially the most annoying Mary, who insists on accompanying her family for walks (even though she hates walking) and complains about how put-upon she is, with her imaginary illnesses. She’s a clear foil for her (genuinely) responsible sister Anne.

I’ve had to face facts. Austen has it in for Marys. It’s tough being an Austen fan named Mary. Again, I realize that people can write fan fiction and adapt until they’re blue in the face, but the actual text isn’t pretty. At least there are no Mary Sues in Austen (and if there were, I have absolutely no doubt they’d be awful). Even her unlikeable Marys are complex and nuanced characters. They just hit way close to home (especially one of them).

I should say something sensible to end this, but, but…

What say you, Mary? for you are a young lady of deep reflection, I know, and read great books and make extracts.”

Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how.

“While Mary is adjusting her ideas,” he continued, “let us return to Mr. Bingley.” (Chapter 2, Pride & Prejudice)

Sigh.

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