There's Something About Mary ... Bennet

Image courtesy of Project Gutenburg
When Pride and Prejudice was released I sincerely doubt that Jane Austen would have had any idea that, some two hundred years after its release, the character of Mary Bennet would see a rise in popularity. The least amiable of the five Bennet sisters, Mary is described as being rather plain and bookish, and something of a boor as she over-estimates her ability as an intellectual and a musician. In the book, she provides little more than comic relief. And, let's face it, Mary is a supporting character in a novel that is intended as a social satire. She doesn't have to be accomplished. All she needs to do is find some way to unintentionally cause embarrassment to her older sisters Jane and Lizzie.

In recent times, though, readers have taken a more sympathetic view to Mary. After all, it is not easy being the middle sister, especially when the others have all paired off, and nor could it be easy being the least attractive of the sisters. She is paid very little attention by the others. And out of the five sisters, she is the least likely to marry--tragically, she is the only one to show any interest in marrying the foolish Mr Collins and even he doesn't want her. 

The thing about Mary is that she also embodies what it means to take comfort in books. Mary has been rejected by everyone around her, which gives her time to develop a sincere interest in reading. Unfortunately, she lacks real life experiences and insight into human behaviour, which hinders her ability to understand her chosen reading material, though this may improve as she grows older. And, as the novel closes, Mary is still in her teens. There is plenty of time for her to grow and develop, especially as there is only one sister left at home instead of four, and Mr Bennet has now pledged to keep a closer eye on his unmarried daughters. (And there is always the possibility that the marriages of her two older sisters will help Mary advance socially.)

In recent times, Mary Bennet has become a popular character to feature in Jane Austen fan fiction, reinventing the character as a deep thinker and an independent women. Several novels have been published featuring the character, most notably The Forgotten Sister by Australian author Jennifer Paynter, which puts the authors own spin on the character. 

But then again, this may not be what Austen intended for the character. In a biography written by her nephew, he claims that she told her family that after the events of Pride and Prejudice, Mary married a law clerk and was content to be a star in Merryton society. 

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