(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, March 31, 2011

More about Mary Bennet as Jane Austen's alter ego

During the past few months, I have written on several occasions about Mary Benet as a veiled self-portrait by Jane Austen. I recently rekindled that topic in Janeites, and it led to an interesting thread which I will give the highlights of, below.

First, Nancy Mayer questioned my claim that Mary Bennet whispers her most famous speech about the brittleness of female reputation to Elizabeth, and does not blare her opinion to the entire Bennet family:

[Nancy]: "Mary whispers once. The other times she speaks out."

Here's the actual text, which is clear that Mary whispers and then "added" and "continued", which I believe is most fairly read as _also_ being whispers. As for the narrative judgments on Mary's speaking, they can either be read as objective (as you read them) or as strongly colored by Lizzy's _subjective_ thoughts about Mary (as I claim is a valid and plausible _alternative_ reading):

"As for Mary, she was mistress enough of herself to _whisper_ to Elizabeth, with a countenance of grave reflection, soon after they were seated at table -- "This is a most unfortunate affair; and will probably be much talked of. But we must stem the tide of malice, and pour into the wounded bosoms of each other the balm of sisterly consolation."

Then, perceiving in Elizabeth no inclination of replying, she added, "Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable -- that one false step involves her in endless ruin -- that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful -- and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex."

Elizabeth lifted up her eyes in amazement, but was too much oppressed to make any reply. Mary, however, continued to console herself with such kind of moral extractions from the evil before them."

Lizzy _feels_ like she is being oppressed by Mary, and that Mary is narcissistically indulging in preaching, but what if that is not what Mary is doing at all, but is only one more misjudgment of people by Lizzy? She certainly spends most of the novel misjudging others.

I see a perfectly valid alternative reading in which Mary warns Lizzy against Lizzy's hubris in thinking herself so different from Lydia, but actually being in danger of unwittingly following Lydia's example, by being vulnerable to seduction. After all, Wickham had Lizzy wrapped around his finger, until _he_ abandoned _her_ to go after Miss King. It was not Lizzy who saw Wickham for who he was. And Aunt Gardiner warns Lizzy too--Mary is being a concerned proactive sister here, telling Lizzy what she does not want to listen to...but should.

Maybe Mary, like Charlotte, foresees what is coming between Lizzy and Darcy, and is worried for her sister.

Cheers, ARNIE

No comments: