Mary Bennet Was Glad To Purchase Praise

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.

Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night

My favorite novel is Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Among my favorite mysteries is Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I don’t know how often they are connected in other people’s minds but they are connected strongly in mine, and in case this is not universal, I’d like to explain why. (Spoilers will follow, so if you haven’t read both, go do that now.)

Both novels are, fundamentally, stories of reconciliation. Pride & Prejudice includes the incidents which separate Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but the real story is that of them coming together. Gaudy Night does include a bit of the strange and strained relationship between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter—and, if one wants to be tedious, a mystery—but it too is a tale of the fixing of a relationship.

But these are not merely reconciliations. Reconciliation can be done in many ways, such as the revelation of information which fixes a mistake, as in the movie Top Hat or the Shakespearean play, Much Ado About Nothing. But both Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night are reconciliations in which the characters reconcile with each other by improving themselves.

Also curious about both is that this improvement is effected both through the help of the other, as well as by the help of someone else acting viciously. The improvement thus becomes a push-pull. The protagonists are both pulled toward virtue but also pushed toward it by the bad example of the witness of vice.

It only takes a few sentences but I think it is a very important part of Pride & Prejudice when Elizabeth hears her sister say that Wickham didn’t care two farthings for Miss King—who could about such a nasty little freckled thing, and that though incapable of such coarseness of expression, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had harboured and fancied liberal. This was one of the first moments of true self-knowledge for Elizabeth, though it was led up to, certainly, by previous realizations.

It reminds me very greatly of how Harriet saw a picture of herself in Violet Cattermole’s desire to bite the hand of her friend toward whom she was always having to be grateful. Harriet’s advice in this case was quite interesting and also a piece of self-insight; she advised Violet that if she disliked being grateful she should stop doing things that would require her to be grateful to others.

Harriet’s being tried for murder was in a sense bad luck, but it was bad luck that she had let herself in for by living with the poet on terms other than marriage. Had she done what she ought, she’d never have been tried for murder. Had Violet Cattermole not went out without leave and gotten drunk, she’d not have had to be grateful to her friend for helping her into her room and nursing her. Though Harriet didn’t say it, I think she realized in the moment of giving advice that her own bitterness at gratitude was not, in fact, bitterness at being grateful. It was bitterness at her own misbehavior. Genuine gratitude is a pleasure; what Harriet disliked so much was having to acknowledge her own bad judgment.

There is a curious aspect to repentance: it is difficult not because one must do something differently, but because one must admit that one was formerly wrong. The meaning of hell is that it can be so painful to admit that one was wrong that people can cling to it instead of letting themselves be happy. Curiously, the feeling which attends admitting that one was wrong is a freeing feeling. It’s also, interestingly, freeing in social circumstances. If one announces a mistake oneself, most people don’t care past whatever trouble is now involved in fixing it. It can be amazing how much, if one takes all of the blame one is due, no one else bothers to give it to one. There’s probably something in here related to, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.