Monday, March 5, 2018

Mary Bennet is a terrible person

Lady Augusta Murray's commonplace book (Royal Collection Trust)
The other day, I saw this review of a new novel in which Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and the Creature from Frankenstein cross paths. I was intrigued to find that, according to the critic, Constance Grady, "Mary is at the center of a cottage industry of sorts among Austen aficionados. There is a veritable glut of Austen fanfiction, published or otherwise, devoted to rehabilitating Mary and granting her the agency and subjectivity Austen denied her." She refers to one particular essay-review for the website of the Atlantic in 2016 by Megan Garber, who writes, in summing up recent Mary-centered fiction, "The current renaissance of Mary Bennet is literary revisionism that suggests a more sweeping ethical project—one that celebrates the dignity of the marginalized." Both essays describe a sense among today's readers of Pride and Prejudice that Austen's narrator treats Mary unfairly, like a mean girl in the cafeteria insulting the plain bookish girl in the corner, repeatedly making her the butt of some fairly venomous jokes. And the language deployed in favor of Mary—agency and subjectivity denied, dignity of the marginalized—suggests that a modern sense of justice, and perhaps feminist principle, might well be on Mary's side.

These readings, however, overlook the fact that Mary is not, in Austen's telling, merely bookish and prim (and a little self-besotted). She's actively sanctimonious and vacuously sententious in ways that lead her into cruelty toward others. It's easy for a reader in our times to look at Mary and see a proto-nerd, a woman whose talents were thwarted by her times, a figure whom Austen should properly have sympathized with. But a closer look shows that Austen knew exactly what she was doing. Mary is, to her, not merely a passively boring sad sack, but an actively bad person.

I suspect that many readers are drawn to feel bad for Mary because of her bookishness and plainness—"A little bit Mr. Collins, a little bit Lady Edith, a little bit Tracy Flick," in Garber's words. But this is to look at Mary through twenty-first century eyes, in a time when we have made reading books—any kind of books—a self-contained virtue.

This was not, however, how Austen or her contemporaries understood reading. In an age well before television or radio, what you read mattered more than the mere fact that you were a reader. Austen often uses reading practices as a shorthand for illustrating a character's personality. Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey is addicted to Gothic romances; Marianne Dashwood, to poetry. Emma's Robert Martin, a stolid farmer, reads agricultural reports and a little anthology of famous prose writers. And nothing is more damning a description of Mr. Collins than the fact that he forces the entire Bennet family to listen to him reading sermons aloud.

In Austen's time, the novel was seen as a light or un-serious genre in comparison with works of poetry, history, or philosophy. A reader who patted herself on the back for reading "great books" was, implicitly, reading anything but novels. It's in this light that we have to interpret her father's remark that she is "a young lady of deep reflection" who "read[s] great books and make[s] extracts."

She makes extracts: in the language of the early nineteenth century, this means that she copies passages of books into a commonplace book in order to organize or even memorize them. The problem, as the novel makes clear, is that copying is all she does: she doesn't think about the passages with any kind of critical depth. As the family dissects Mr. Darcy's behavior after the first Netherfield ball, Mary's one contribution is to prattle off general remarks on the nature of pride so vague that they fade into pointlessness:
"Pride," observed Mary, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, "is a very common failing, I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed; that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us."
It is as if she is reciting from a dictionary. Austen has particular fun with this moment: she gives Mary a little speech about one of the cardinal words in the title of her novel, mocking the very idea that a novel might be reduced to a set of maxims summarizing its lessons. Mary's not wrong. But she's oblivious to the particularities of the social context at hand, as well as the emotions of their participants. She also betrays a lack of self-awareness: though she "piques herself upon the solidity of her reflections," those reflections are actually as ephemeral (and unmemorable) as steam.

Self-importance, a failure to read social cues, bookishness—none of these alone are enough to condemn Mary. But these traits lead Mary into bad moral judgment, and at least one case of real cruelty. When Elizabeth is about to depart to nurse Jane back to health, Mary attempts to talk her out of doing so by rattling off moral maxims at her: "'I admire the activity of your benevolence,' observed Mary, 'but every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason; and, in my opinion, exertion should always be in proportion to what is required.'" The reason why Mary sounds a little like Spock here is that Austen is borrowing key terms from late-eighteenth century moral philosophy: benevolence, reason, proportion, impulses of feeling—any of these would be familiar to a reader of the philosophers David Hume or Bishop Butler. The irony is that Mary is missing the point: it's Elizabeth's moral intuitions that steer her right, and Mary's attempt to cite moral philosophy without actually thinking through it leads her into error here. Worse, it suggests that Mary herself may deep down lack the right impulses of feeling.

Far more damning is Mary's reaction when the family receives the news that Lydia plans to elope with Wickham. Elizabeth and Jane, and even Mrs. Bennet, react with alarm, and immediately think of ways they might be able to help Lydia. Kitty, however, misses the mark altogether, attempting to use the situation as a source of banal moral platitudes rather than evincing any human concern or sympathy:
In the dining-room they were soon joined by Mary and Kitty, who had been too busily engaged in their separate apartments to make their appearance before. One came from her books, and the other from her toilette. The faces of both, however, were tolerably calm; and no change was visible in either, except that the loss of her favourite sister, or the anger which she had herself incurred in this business, had given more of fretfulness than usual to the accents of Kitty. As for Mary, she was mistress enough of herself to whisper to Elizabeth, with a countenance of grave reflection, soon after they were seated at table:  
“This is a most unfortunate affair, and will probably be much talked of. But we must stem the tide of malice, and pour into the wounded bosoms of each other the balm of sisterly consolation.”  
Then, perceiving in Elizabeth no inclination of replying, she added, “Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin; that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful; and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.”  
Elizabeth lifted up her eyes in amazement, but was too much oppressed to make any reply. Mary, however, continued to console herself with such kind of moral extractions from the evil before them.
This is utter sanctimoniousness: acting as though one is the arbiter of right and wrong when one enjoys no qualification of experience or intuition to do so. Mary not only reads the situation badly; she acts callously toward Lydia (whom she turns into a "fallen woman," castigating her primly without batting an eyelash) as well as toward Elizabeth and Jane, who are distraught. 

There are more points that could be made against the attempt to read Mary as a kind of victim of circumstance, or the idea that she could have had a richer inner (and outer) life if only she'd lived in a better time (or had a kinder narrator). Mary isn't some accident of Austen's biting wit going too far—as Garber puts it, "Jane Austen, OG Gossip Girl." She's an intentional effort, a foil, to show an extreme that Elizabeth, despite her own love of books and reading, avoids. Lizzie thinks critically; she's capable of doing more than parroting what she has read; it's her ability to marry sound moral intuitions with cultivated sense that leads her to good moral judgment. Mary, in contrast, thinks that her reading and seriousness have made her a cultivated moral arbiter. But in her rush to judge and make pronouncements as a way of showing off her own learning, she disqualifies herself.

One of the Mary Bennet rehab efforts Garber describes imagines her escaping into an adulthood where her intelligence and seriousness lead her to become a social reformer and writer, a kind of Harriet Martineau avant la lettre:
"“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."
In contrast, Garber mentions, Austen's nephew tells us Austen imagined that Mary "'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.'" Austen's attempt to imagine an extra chapter for Mary is more internally consistent: the point of Mary within the novel is that, for all her reading, she is not a good person (nor a thoughtful one), and lacks the kinds of broad moral sympathies necessary to lead her to such a project as The Ills of England. Any attempt to transmogrify her into such a character presupposes a Bildung of her own far more dramatic than her sister Elizabeth's (more like Dorothea Brooke's).

Garber's article, in fact, ends by invoking the call to sympathy with which Eliot ends Middlemarch. But the point of Middlemarch is that Dorothea learns to transcend her desire to be a mere amanuensis to a man, Casaubon, who shares (as does Dorothea herself) Mary Bennet's sententiousness, occasional cruelty, and lack of originality. Dorothea learns over the course of the novel that there is a moral application of intellect to life beyond merely parroting ostensible instructors. Perhaps Mary might have learned that later in life, too. But you have to imagine a radical change in her personality after the events of Pride and Prejudice in order to justify any such depiction.

***

Miscellaneous passages from Pride and Prejudice underscoring my point:

"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."

"They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study of thorough-bass and human nature; and had some extracts to admire, and some new observations of threadbare morality to listen to."

Regarding Mr. Collins's letter to the family, in which Mary entirely misses the point, reading it for rhetoric rather than content: “In point of composition,” said Mary, “the letter does not seem defective. The idea of the olive-branch perhaps is not wholly new, yet I think it is well expressed.”

"“While I can have my mornings to myself,” said she, “it is enough—I think it is no sacrifice to join occasionally in evening engagements. Society has claims on us all; and I profess myself one of those who consider intervals of recreation and amusement as desirable for everybody.”"

The famous scene where Mr. Bennet tactlessly interrupts Mary, a favorite of Mary fans—but note that even here Austen underscores Mary's total lack of self-awareness, never a positive trait in her characters even if a somewhat pathetic one (compare Miss Bates in Emma):
"But not long was the interval of tranquillity; for, when supper was over, singing was talked of, and she had the mortification of seeing Mary, after very little entreaty, preparing to oblige the company. By many significant looks and silent entreaties, did she endeavour to prevent such a proof of complaisance, but in vain; Mary would not understand them; such an opportunity of exhibiting was delightful to her, and she began her song. Elizabeth’s eyes were fixed on her with most painful sensations, and she watched her progress through the several stanzas with an impatience which was very ill rewarded at their close; for Mary, on receiving, amongst the thanks of the table, the hint of a hope that she might be prevailed on to favour them again, after the pause of half a minute began another. Mary’s powers were by no means fitted for such a display; her voice was weak, and her manner affected. Elizabeth was in agonies. She looked at Jane, to see how she bore it; but Jane was very composedly talking to Bingley. She looked at his two sisters, and saw them making signs of derision at each other, and at Darcy, who continued, however, imperturbably grave. She looked at her father to entreat his interference, lest Mary should be singing all night. He took the hint, and when Mary had finished her second song, said aloud, “That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.”"

Mary boasts that she reads in order to put down others:
"To this Mary very gravely replied, “Far be it from me, my dear sister, to depreciate such pleasures! They would doubtless be congenial with the generality of female minds. But I confess they would have no charms for me—I should infinitely prefer a book.”"
Compare this self-important boasting with the way Elizabeth does not flaunt her reading
"On entering the drawing-room she found the whole party at loo, and was immediately invited to join them; but suspecting them to be playing high she declined it, and making her sister the excuse, said she would amuse herself for the short time she could stay below, with a book. Mr. Hurst looked at her with astonishment. 
“Do you prefer reading to cards?” said he; “that is rather singular.” 
“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else.” 
“I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth; “I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.”
And compare with Miss Bingley's:
"Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, “How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”"

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