The Pursuit of Mary Bennet by Pamela Mingle

Our first person narrator begins pretty angry, wanting “to chew thorns” that “would tear at the tender flesh on the roof of [her] mouth” so that “the sweet, salty taste of blood would linger on [her] palate.” Mary is apparently listening to her parents discuss Kitty’s prospects with a Mr. Walsh, one of Mr. Bingley’s friends “whom she had met during a lengthy stay” with them. This Mary chuckles inwardly, imagining her mama “casting” her papa “a severe look.” Would Austen’s Mary enjoy that, I wondered. We soon learn, however, that while this Mary looks like Austen’s, she has come a long way since last we saw her. Mary has consciously “tried to change,” seeing “Jane’s and Elizabeth’s happy, contented lives,” and wanting something that brings her happiness, too. She then overhears her mother tell her father that her mother “cannot think of any man who would have” Mary. No wonder she is angry.

Mary has benefitted from her older sisters’ marriages, even studying the pianoforte at Darcy’s expense and improving “dramatically.” (So does she now know how lacking her performances were? She knows her singing still makes “people squirm.”) Still, her mother is unkind, even if without awareness. Mr. Bennet, though, is paying more “more attention than he used to,” and Mary hopes to “replac[e] Elizabeth in his affections.” He defends her against her mother’s cruelty, saying Mary should have a say in her future. Kitty, too, shows Mary more attention, even “inviting [her] to sit with” Kitty and Mrs. Bennet and sharing local gossip. And then, just as Mary fights back about having to go to Lydia for her confinement, a very pregnant Lydia shows up at Longbourne, announcing she is moving home.

Wickham apparently told Lydia not to “begrudge him a little fun” (with a Miss Susan Bradford) while she is pregnant. We hardly have time to pity Lydia, however, because it turns out that Lydia has some explaining to do, too, and also, our pity returns to Mary, who, it turns out, loves the man supposedly interested in Kitty and continues to get verbally abused by her mom. When Mary comments that babies kick in the womb, for instance, Mrs. Bennet says, “What do you know about it? Nothing! Nor will you ever.”

Jane, meanwhile, hopes to “swap Kitty” for Mary (so this is a changed Mary because no one, even sweet Jane, would have done that voluntarily in Pride and Prejudice). At the same time, Mary would rather stay home with her “books and [her] solitude,” so she is not entirely new, except now the books are better. Jane shows more authority now that she has experienced “marriage and motherhood,” and she stands firm in the face of Mrs. Bennet’s selfish and Kitty’s naïve desires.

There are very few mistakes in this text and many delightful parallels to the original. One errors occurs when the text says that, in securing Wickham’s future by purchasing his commission, Darcy “received all the respect and gratitude due him from” the Bennets; they don’t actually know. Interesting that this version says after Mary was embarrassed at Netherfield, Lizzy told Mary “she was sorry about the way Papa had treated” Mary; though it seems characteristic for Lizzy to feel it (more Jane, though), it doesn’t seem likely she would speak against her father. I was baffled by the comment that “there are no novels among [Mr. Bennet’s] personal collection.” Why? In the “about the book,” Mingle misspells Knightley (leaving out the e). Otherwise, this is a solidly constructed story.

Delight-wise, the parallels most strongly suggest Mary is the Elizabeth of this text, and her would-be partner, Mr. Darcy. Lydia is still Lydia; Jane, Jane; and Kitty, to be determined. In her role as Elizabeth, Mary has a close bond with her father. He calls on her when he receives a letter regarding Lydia. She tried to warn him about “tak[ing] the trouble” to check Mrs. Bennet’s inappropriate conduct (when Mrs. Bennet even excitedly asks Lydia about her “other” man). As he did with Elizabeth’s warnings about Lydia, he says he is not going to do anything. Mr. Bennet speaks to Mary as once he spoke to Lizzy, even taking responsibility in front of her for Lydia’s behavior and attitudes, blaming himself for being “so remiss as a parent.”

Mary also has a secret admirer. Like Lizzy before her, Mary has been observed playing piano, but Mr. Walsh seems to have enjoyed it! She must really have improved—or, more likely, he must be in love, as Darcy was. The language here—Mary’s sister “exaggerates” her talents—seems designed to trigger that memory for people who know the novel. Like Lizzy, Mary reads when most other guests in the Bingley home are playing cards. Mr. Walsh tells her he has “always admired those who are able to read while there is so much to distract them.” In another parallel, Mary and Mr. Walsh discuss perfection of character and ultimately, his faults, just as Darcy and Elizabeth discuss his faults early in their acquaintance. Walsh notices later that Mary “walk[s] every day,” which Darcy notices about Lizzy, too, but this, too, is a big shift from the Mary we knew. Their conversation, like Lizzy’s and Darcy’s, tends towards “mundane things,” such as “how long the excellent weather would last.”

There are some, but not too many, new characters to meet. Mr. and Mrs. Ashton are visiting Jane and Bingley. The Bingleys now live in Derbyshire, as many sequels have them do, to “live near Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.” Henry Walsh will also be there, and it’s now clear that both Kitty and Mary would welcome his attentions, but Mary really has strong feelings for him. Amanda Ashton is surprisingly eager to make Mary’s acquaintance, but Mary dislikes Amanda, a “cursed woman” who keeps up a “barrage of questions” even when Mary doesn’t reply. Something is suspicious about Mrs. Ashford, and I suspect it is too keen interest in the affairs of Mr. Wickham, pun intended. She reminds me of Lucy Steele, too eagerly befriending a relative stranger (here, Mary) and saying too direct things (like she “cannot be blind to” Walsh’s “preference” for her). When she impolitely inquires as to the relationship between Darcy and Wickham and then tries to cover her impropriety by telling Mary that she, Amanda, thought Mary would like to know, Mary responds like Elizabeth responds to Lady Catherine: “If you didn’t credit it, I rather wonder you took the trouble to ask me about it.” Mrs. Ashton becomes even worse, after the ball commenting on “Mr. Walsh’s neglect” of Mary, which “one could hardly help noticing.” That hardly helps matters, but Mary wisely doesn’t rise to the bait. When, much later, we learn who Amanda Ashton is, her behavior at least makes more sense.

Though Mary has improved, it seems she feels less confident in herself than she does in P and P; thus, though we can see clearly that she has won the admiration of people she values, she is busy imagining that people see her as “a prig” and “ridiculous and boring, too.” Mr. Walsh shows ease with the Bingley baby, David, owns an estate nearby, and shows politeness to Kitty’s silly excitement about the “lace she purchased for her gown” but more keen interest in the music and books Mary enjoys. When they go to Linden Hall, Mr. Walsh’s estate, Mary describes it much as the narrator describes Pemberley in P and P, the house “set atop a gently rising slope, with a broad expanse of verdant lawn reaching toward a small lake.” It’s Pemberley Junior. Like Georgiana, the lady of Mr. Walsh’s house, his mother, has heard of Mary’s skills on the pianoforte and is eager to hear her play. Like Elizabeth, Mary is surprised the man in question has praised her talent. Trout fishing among the gentlemen follows. (I wondered if Mr. Ashton supposed to be the new Mr. Hurst, belching and then “sprawl[ing] out on one of the chairs.) Mr. Walsh doesn’t directly ask Mary’s opinion about the house but instead about a temple he is contemplating building. Jane, as with Lizzy and Wickham at Longbourne, frees Mary to speak alone with Mr. Walsh. Just when he tells Mary that he “admire[s] [her] very much,” an express arrives, requiring the Bingleys to “take [their] leave.” This time, it’s Elizabeth to Jane, the reverse of in P and P, but no doubt, still about Lydia.

Convinced even still that the man she loves does not love her, Mary chooses, in her disappointment, to give her Mr. Walsh “a taste of the old” Mary, which immediately surprises and horrifies Elizabeth, who now obviously expects better from her. When she chooses to sing, however, and deliberately selects a song whose notes she cannot hit, we understand the depth of her despair. This time, however. Instead of being scolded by her father, she is rescued by a gentleman who clearly has romantic feelings for her. The “guests beg[] for another song,” no doubt a first for Mary, and at least some order is restored. Elizabeth and Jane demand to speak with her afterwards about her behavior, and Lizzy understands what Mary won’t articulate: that Mary is “afraid of risking her heart . . . because she has always felt unloved.”

Like Darcy before him, Mr. Walsh’s proposal does not go smoothly. We can only hope there will be a second one, and it will go better. (Still, Mary’s reaction here seems unwarranted, but it does at least nicely set up her later request for him not to “mention” her earlier bad behavior.) Like Darcy, Walsh is in the doghouse with Mrs. Bennet, who thinks he has slighted Kitty. Like Darcy, Henry asks permission to “introduce” Mary to a young lady very special to him “during [Mary’s] stay at” High Tor. Henry even admires Mary for her “quick mind, [her] candor, [and her] sweetness.” Like Elizabeth, Mary worries “what must [the man she loves] think of [her] now?” when Walsh learns the truth about Lydia. Little does she imagine that, just as Mr. Collins is publicly declaring that Mary has been “tainted” by Lydia’s behavior and will now have no chance “for a happy union,” Mr. Walsh is resolving to try again.

Once Mary returns to Longbourne, she becomes more a mother to Lydia’s baby than Lydia is (other than the physical feedings), but she still longs for Mr. Walsh. Even Mrs. Bennet notices that Lydia “does not seem to have the natural feelings of a mother.” Kitty, meanwhile, has formed another attachment, as we imagined she would since she never really loved (or knew) Mr. Walsh anyway. Now, suddenly, when Lydia causes problems, the primary concerns are the baby’s well-being, Kitty making amends to Mary, and Mary’s being able to form a match. How those concerns are resolved, I leave it to you to discover in this delightful look at Mary Bennet.

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Published in: on August 2, 2015 at 6:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

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