If you’ve been keeping up, you know that my current work-in-progress (Return to Longbourn) continues the Pride and Prejudice saga with a story centering on Mary, Kitty, and the new heir to the Longbourn estate. Jane Austen doesn’t paint Mary Bennet in a very favorable light.
Mary, who having, in consequence of being the only plain one in the family, worked hard for knowledge and accomplishment… Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner… They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study..and had some extracts to admire, and some new observations of threadbare morality to listen to.
Despite all this, I have a soft spot in my heart for Mary, and so I set out to redeem her. She makes excellent progress in The Darcys of Pemberley. Compare how I describe her in the Prologue versus the final chapter:
Mary attempts to compensate for the misfortune of being plain by developing her mind and displaying her accomplishments, to no great advantage thus far.
Mary…had blossomed in the time since her siblings left Longbourn… Thus, well seasoned by time, practice, and renewed dedication, she made great strides toward the standard of the truly accomplished young woman she had always aspired to be.
But in Return to Longbourn, we start to learn what really makes her tick:
The tide of grief had already threatened to overpower Mary more than once. Yet she dared not give in to it. Outward expression of emotion was both foreign and frightening to her, so long had she practiced the art of stoicism. That philosophy had served her well in the past, enabling her to endure the disappointment of every one of her sisters being favored, complimented, courted, and three married ahead of her. Now, however, its strictures allowed her neither vent for her own sorrows nor protection from the false presumption of others that she had none….
Once again, Mary felt herself the odd one out, accepted by all but the particular friend of none. It came as no surprise; it was always thus. Although she made no doubt her sisters loved her even as she loved each of them, their true commonality ran little further than their blood lines. None of the others shared her thirst for intellectual and musical accomplishment, and neither could she enter in to their pursuits, her younger sisters’ so trivial and the elders’ now so thoroughly domestic. As for the men, they were something of an enigma to her, like another species altogether – vastly intriguing but far too exotic to trust oneself to completely.
I’m liking Mary better already. How about you? Even Elizabeth has noticed the change in her sister.
“I cannot agree with you about Mary, Mama. I think she is much improved in her looks this last year or two, and it sometimes happens that a woman is handsomer at twenty-nine than she was ten years before. Furthermore, her manner has been softened by the passage of time. She is now not so quick to judge or forever moralizing as she used to do.”
Mary is a certified late bloomer, and she still has a long way to go. But I think we should give her the benefit of the doubt. What do you say? She may turn out a credible heroine in the end.