What do we actually know about the middle Bennet sister?
I am using the term “fanon” to refer to both Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF) and adaptations, illustrations, etc. The way people imagine Mary Bennet in particular seems to be heavily influenced by adaptations and JAFF, more than any other character except perhaps Colonel Fitzwilliam (maybe I’ll do him next…)
Mary styles her hair differently than her sisters/dresses like a nun
Fanon, not canon. It is never mentioned in the book that Mary has short hair or doesn’t style her hair. The sisters likely use the same servant, Sarah, who Mrs. Bennet directs to stop doing Lizzy’s hair and focus on Jane instead, and she probably does their hair in a similar manner.
There is no indication in the novel that any sister dresses better or worse than the rest. Also, despite claiming to focus on study, Mary loves attention. It’s unlikely she would dress in a drab way or that Mrs. Bennet, who is all about looks, would let her. We are also never told that Mary Bennet wears glasses.
We see this difference in appearance in most adaptations, though it was probably the most striking in the 2005 movie:
Mary LOVES Fordyce’s Sermons
Fanon, not canon. Mr. Collins is the one who selects Fordyce’s Sermons in Pride & Prejudice, the family was reading a novel together. According to David Shapard in his annotated edition, Mary quotes the novel Evelina by Frances Burney and either Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters by Hugh Blair or Letters on the Improvement of the Mind by Hester Chapone. It is reasonable to assume she may have read Fordyce since it is in the house, but we don’t know if she liked it. If she was obsessed with it, she’d probably quote it more often… or at all.
This is such a funny association because it’s very, very common to see Mary Bennet clinging to Fordyce in JAFF but she is never associated with it in the novel. I assume this connection is mostly due to P&P 1995, where in an added scene, Jane tells Mr. Collins that Mary needs help with Fordyce.
Mary is intelligent or knowledgable
Fanon, not canon. Mary wants to be perceived as intelligent, but what we get from her is mostly parroting things she has read. In a way, she’s very similar to Mr. Collins who must prepare his “delicate compliments”. When Mr. Bennet asks Mary her opinion on something very early in the book, the narrator notes:
Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how.
Mr. Bennet was likely mocking Mary here by putting her on the spot. He knows that she has a very shallow understanding of what she reads, and therefore is not ready to comment on the spot. He is showing her inadequacy (in his opinion, father of the year).
For a modern comparison, Mary would be someone today who brags about their online IQ test score, spouts random facts, and acts like a know-it-all, without having a deep or full understanding of what they are talking about.
Mary is shy
Fanon, not canon. Jane Austen writes some really excellent shy characters, like Georgiana Darcy and Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, but Mary Bennet is not one of them. Far from a wallflower, Mary pushes herself into the notice of others:
Mary, after very little entreaty, preparing to oblige the company. By many significant looks and silent entreaties did she [Elizabeth] endeavour to prevent such a proof of complaisance,—but in vain; Mary would not understand them; such an opportunity of exhibiting was delightful to her, and she began her song. (Ch 18)
Being the centre of attention is delightful to Mary Bennet. Fanny Price, probably the most shy character Austen ever wrote, is mortified when she is to lead the ball held in her and her brother’s honour. Mary also draws attention to herself with her moralizing speeches. She is not shy, she’s a show-off.
Mary sings and plays piano terribly
Fanon, not canon, though this one is a little tricky. Mary plays in a way that people do not find enjoyable, but it isn’t bad. It is likely that she plays very technical pieces that aren’t good toe-tappers, but she plays them correctly.
At the Netherfield Ball, “Mary’s powers were by no means fitted for such a display; her voice was weak, and her manner affected.” According to David Shapard, the voice being weak means that Mary gets worse over time, so the fact that she is doing a second song is the real problem. She’s not off-key. Her manner is affected, as in she’s showing off and that is easy to perceive. So while Mary plays better than Elizabeth, she plays for her own vanity instead of for others’ pleasure.
Mary doesn’t dance at balls
Fanon, not canon. We never hear of Mary dancing, but she does attend balls and if someone asks her, she assumably would dance. We know Mr. Collins intended to dance with all his cousins in chronological order at the Netherfield Ball, except for Elizabeth being first. It’s probably not mentioned that Mary dances because she isn’t a main character or having a romance during the novel. It’s also likely that she danced with Mr. Bingley, who also seemed to be dancing through the sisters by age at the Meryton assembly, but Mrs. Bennet is cut off before she says so.
(Thomas Rowlandson Ballroom)
So who is Mary Bennet?
Mary is, as Caroline Bingley says, “one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own“. We see this in her words to her sisters:
To this Mary very gravely replied, “Far be it from me, my dear sister, to depreciate such pleasures! They would doubtless be congenial with the generality of female minds. But I confess they would have no charms for me—I should infinitely prefer a book.”
Mary knows she isn’t beautiful, so instead she shows off her accomplishments and memorized quotations. While her behaviour doesn’t seem as bad as Lydia’s and Kitty’s to us now, she is vulgar because she pushes herself to the front of the line and flaunts her display of talents.
Only about nineteen, we can hope that Mary improves as she interacts more with the world, but I can’t say I like her character in the book very much! I do feel for her, she’s fairly neglected by her parents who have clearly chosen favourites. She is showing off in an attempt to gain some positive attention, she’s just doing it in the wrong way. I feel like she could be doing so much better if the Bennets had just, you know, employed a governess…
What do you think of the middle Bennet sister?
David Shapard’s The Annotated Pride and Prejudice
The Mary Map (a collection of every quote said by or about Mary Bennet)
For a free sequel to Pride & Prejudice which completes Mary’s story, read Yet the Son was to Come