Miss Mary Bennet is only a minor character in Pride and Prejudice and yet, in spite of that, she’s a very interesting one. She is not a stereotypical character. She has interests and reads a good deal, but not from passion or even particularly from interest.
There’s a section, which I find a fascinating examination of her character from chapter six in which Miss Lucas had just forced Elizabeth to be the first one to play and sing at a gathering at Lucas Lodge.
[Elizabeth’s] performance was pleasing, though by no means capital. After a song or two, and before she could reply to the entreaties of several that she would sing again, she was eagerly succeeded at the instrument by her sister 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; and Mary, at the end of a long concerto, was glad to purchase praise and gratitude by Scotch and Irish airs, at the request of her younger sisters, who with some of the Lucases and two or three officers joined eagerly in dancing at one end of the room.
When Jane Austen writes that Mary acted out of vanity, I don’t think that we are to suppose she meant that Mary acted in a calculated manner. Rather, I think she was overly shaped by the people around her. There is a hint of this in the epilogue.
Mary was the only daughter who remained at home; and she was necessarily drawn from the pursuit of accomplishments by Mrs. Bennet’s being quite unable to sit alone. Mary was obliged to mix more with the world, but she could still moralize over every morning visit; and as she was no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters’ beauty and her own, it was suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without much reluctance.
I think what we see is that Mary received pleasing attention only from her accomplishments, and so in pursuit of that attention, pursued accomplishments. Her trouble was that she failed to recognize that it is as much vanity to wish to be thought wise as it is to wish to be thought beautiful. It is just as much of a trap to long for people to want you to be around because they like listening to you as it is to long for people to want you to be around because they like looking at you.
So what sort of girl is Mary? In one sense it’s not hard to find her; all one need do is to look among the people with accomplishments for those who do them more for the praise than for the sake of doing them. So why, then, is Mary not a stereotype?
I suspect it’s because the stereotypes are frequently created by people just like Mary. Actors, singers, writers, YouTubers—I don’t think that it’s hard to find vanity that could not be sated otherwise, here. And vanity does not often mix well with self-examination and honesty.
This is, I think, a mark of the greatness of Jane Austen as a writer. She is sometimes described as writing biting satire, though I think that this description is in many cases projection. However that may be, when she wrote what could be considered satire, she did it honestly. Many satirists simply wish to take their competition down a few pegs. Jane Austen was willing to look at the failings of people who bore at least superficial resemblance to herself.
Miss Mary Bennet is, indeed, a very interesting character.