On the 8th March, International Women’s Day, I wish to pay homage to one of my favourite heroines of literature: Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. I discovered Jane Austen at university when we read Pride and Prejudice as part of the English Literature module. I have loved Austen’s novels ever since, although I affectionately joke that they are all about “Mr. Smith who has £200 annual rent”.
I immediately identified with Mary Bennet, not only because we were namesakes. I loved how she always preferred to retire to her room (to read, write or play the violin) instead of socialising with possible suitors. However, while my bookishness eventually gave me a PhD and a job, Mary only got to be mercilessly ridiculed for her attempts to educate herself.
Was this mockery justified? First, Mary did not have the benefit of a formal education (no school, no governess). “We were encouraged to read”, Lizzie says, but Mr. and Mrs. Bennet do not seem overly concerned about furnishing the library, or buying new music sheets. Mary probably knows all their limited supply of books by heart, and has had to practice with the same piece over and over again. Second, “she thinks too much of herself” is a remark commonly aimed at women who do unconventional things. I still remember the mockery I received the day I pointed out to a male colleague that he was using the electric drill incorrectly. “The ‘expert’ has spoken”, they laughed. Even after explaining that my father had taught me DIY as a child, and I had actually assembled all the shelves in my flat, they still did not believe me. Similarly, one has the sensation that Mary would be mocked even if she were as accomplished as Mozart.
The Pride and Prejudice TV and film transpositions have tended to use Mary as comic relief or kept her faded in the background. The following are my two favourite Mary Bennet on screen (feel free to add your own):
I love Maya (played by Meghna Kothari) from Bride and Prejudice (dir. Gurinder Chadha, 2004). She is a carefree, happy teenager. She is a modern girl, but also interested about the traditional music of her country, which she insists on showing to the overseas visitors. Her hilarious “cobra dance” actually scares them, and they are not too heartbroken for not hearing play the sitar. However, she is cute and well-intentioned. The laughs her enthusiasm provokes are affectionate, not disdainful.
My favourite Mary Bennett is the one from the 1940 Hollywood version (dir.Robert Z. Leonard), with Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy. Played by Marsha Hunt, she is a comedic figure during the film. In a typical Hollywood ending, ALL the Bennett sisters find their Prince Charming in this version. In the final scene, Mrs. Bennett is pleasantly surprised to find Kitty and Mary (the only ones still single) in the garden, talking to two suitors. She cheerfully wonders which of her friends can give her “references” about the two men.
Is this ending as conventional as it seems? Mary is with a man she herself has chosen. She still has her unflattering hairdo and spectacles, so she has not had to change her appearance or demeanour to attract him. He is a bespectacled man, probably a teacher, so they share common interests (Could they run a school together in the future?). She has been accepted for who she is and, more importantly, her domineering mother is happy.
What else could she wish for?