On Mary Bennet, Hermione Granger, and two centuries of progress

I have a sneaking, uncomfortable suspicion about Pride and Prejudice; a dreadful secret, the nature of which I am about to relate. I’ve confessed before that I disliked the book the first time I read it. That is shameful enough for a book blogger. But here is the truth: perhaps the reason I could not stomach Pride and Prejudice the first time round is that I’ve known all along that I am, in form and substance, far more Mary Bennet than Elizabeth—the frump, the prig, the awkward girl in a corner with a book. It is not pleasant to read a novel in which a character I strongly resemble is constantly, viciously skewered by the narrator.

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This is how I always feel at parties.

On rereading Pride and Prejudice, however, I have developed an affection and empathy for Mary that Austen did not intend to leave space for. In fact, I’m fascinated by her. If you bring Mary Bennet forward by a couple of centuries, she becomes an entirely different character. Other than perspective and bonnets, for example, what really separates Mary Bennet and Hermione Granger? Both are dreadful at reading social cues, prone to moralising, bad at making friends, and decidedly unpretty*. Neither really has a sense of humour, and both take things a good deal too seriously. The only real difference is that Hermione has the chance to succeed academically, which is something that never would have been offered to Mary. Even if Austen had been interested in telling the story of a woman who was an exceptionally gifted mathematician or scientist, she couldn’t have done so. The only story available to women at the time was the courtship/marriage plot—which Austen subverts, but never derails entirely.

In fact, this is a feature of all Austen’s heroines. Some of them positively ooze with intelligence, but it is very much of the social smarts kind—witty, or empathetic, but not particularly analytical**. The closest Austen comes to writing a heroine like Mary is Fanny Price, who is hated by many Austen lovers due to her rigid principles and extreme introversion—and even Fanny is defined largely through her (lack of) social capital. We learn early on that Mary Bennet has “no genius”, but only one type of genius was actually valued in women at the time—that which makes a woman charming, not brilliant. Mary did not have the opportunity to be an ambitious civil servant, a talented researcher, an outspoken politician, a leading theologian. Mary Bennet, in 1813, could only fulfil the role she’s given in the novel: ugly, superfluous, a burden on her family. It may have been true that Mary was as unremarkable as the narrator claims, but we are not presented with evidence of that—except for her lack of musical and social skills, the only gifts that women were really encouraged to pursue. We have no idea what would have happened if Mary had been offered the chance to learn classical Greek, or botany. Hermione excels at almost everything she touches, but if we judged her solely on tact, or flying, we’d all assume she was incompetent.

Far be it from me, my dear sister, to depreciate such pleasures… But I confess they would have no charms for me. I should infinitely prefer a book.
-Mary Bennet, to Lydia, on talking loudly/laughing/general ruckus

Perhaps there is another difference between Hermione and Mary, though: Hermione is loved, deeply, by two friends. She is encouraged and helped by several of her teachers. There is no indication that her parents are disappointed in her. When Hermione is a know-it-all, Ron sticks up for her; when Mary is a know-it-all, her family laugh at her. Hermione’s advice often turns out to be right, if irritating, and her friends come to recognise that; Mary’s sermonising is consistently dismissed by her family as foolish. Her father refers to her as one of the silliest girls in England. He uses sarcasm to belittle her, even though it’s clear that she doesn’t really understand it. By the end of Pride and Prejudice, Mary’s little outbursts are becoming spiteful. Unlike her sisters, she seems to take pleasure in Lydia’s fall from grace. It’s not pleasant to read, but it’s also understandable. She has been wholeheartedly rejected by every member of her family, and has begun to reject them in turn. (We see glimpses of a spiteful Hermione, too, especially in the later books—that’s not an element of her character that is developed, presumably because she is not treated cruelly by those who love her).

Even with Mary reduced to being a foil for her sisters, we see hints of a much more interesting character beneath the surface. She expresses herself clearly, even when what she says is nonsense—her little monologues have the air of rehearsed speeches. That means Mary is constantly considering things, mulling them over, drawing conclusions. She has a rich internal life and loves reading, but has never been given tools to develop her critical and analytic abilities. There are indications that she has memorised long chunks of text, possibly to facilitate this chewing-things-over process, possibly just to stave off boredom—either way, it suggests a pretty impressive capacity for recall. Even though she is not a gifted musician, she’s pursued music tenaciously. We see her practicing throughout the novel, demonstrating focus and discipline that her sisters lack. (It’s interesting that pretty Lizzie’s poor piano playing is considered charming—something to flirt about—by Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam, whereas ugly Mary’s is roundly mocked by her own family).

Lots of women talk about how #relatable Hermione is because she’s awkward and bookish, but I relate to Mary at least as strongly as I do to Hermione. I too am opinionated, easily annoyed, fairly plain, normally reading, and terrible at socialising; I too can memorise long passages of text, am capable of focussing for hours on a single task without noticing the time, and love to know things just for the sake of knowing them. It’s funny (and wonderful) that, two centuries after Mary Bennet, these traits no longer consign women to useless, lonely, unfulfilled lives—to failing at the marriage plot and sinking into irrelevance. Instead, we can start Dumbledore’s Army, defeat Voldemort, and become Minister for Magic. Hurrah.

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Cheerfully making an illegal and extremely complex potion, aged 12. 

*When not being portrayed by Emma Watson, obviously.

**I might, possibly, accept Elinor Dashwood as an exception to this rule, but I feel like we see her in a caretaker role a lot of the time and don’t really get to know her at her full intellectual capacity.

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7 thoughts on “On Mary Bennet, Hermione Granger, and two centuries of progress

  1. Gah! I love the comparison of Mary Bennet and Hermione! 🙂 I love your thoughts on how this is seen differently in women today.

    • Thanks! I couldn’t work out for *years* why P&P bothered me so much when everyone else loves it, and then it finally hit me–and I realised that the Mary Bennets of the world no longer have to be side characters, and then I was super happy about that.

      • Do you think part of your annoyance is that the actress who plays Mary in the wonderful BBC version is so homely? She doesn’t even look like her siblings, then they add on the glasses and that high-and-mighty voice. While her family thinks her silly, I wonder if she’s just studying so much to escape such a boring world. She’s a bit of a Daria, really. What an excellent blog post, Lou! Thanks!

      • Actually, the fact that Mary’s actress is plain (or at least made to look plain) doesn’t bother me at all. It is disappointing (to me) when stunningly beautiful actresses are cast to play women who are supposed to be plain. It’s more everyone’s reaction to the fact that she’s plain that bothers me.

        I’d never heard of Daria before (it didn’t air over here), but I just looked it up and that’s a great comparison.

        Thanks for your comment!

      • Oh, god, I wish I could mail you the whole show. Daria is FANTASTIC. I, too, like that the actress who plays Mary is plain, but it’s the fact that her older sisters are so stunning that bothers me. I feel like the movie suggests she’s plain because she’s “silly,” like she DESERVES to be plain, whereas Elizabeth gets to be beautiful because she is “good.”

  2. I like the comparison. You also have the element that Hermione clearly is the Rowling avatar, while I don’t think Austen saw herself in Mary the same way (or even at all). While Elizabeth and Mary are both described as ‘readers’, it’s interesting that Austen draws the line between ‘good-readers’ and ‘bad-readers’.

    • That’s a great point about Hermione being Rowling’s avatar–I hadn’t considered that, but of course it would affect the way the two different characters are treated in the narrative. (And, yes, that line between the good type of reading and the bad type of reading aggravates me in the book, much as it does in real life!). Thanks for stopping by.

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