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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

‘They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study of thorough-bass and human nature’: Mary, the ‘well-tempered’ Bennet sister in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (and elsewhere)

I recently saw Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, and found the following rave review to be spot-on:  It’s easy to understand why this play has been staged all over the country in both 2018 and 2019, and bids fair to become an annual national holiday tradition. And it didn’t hurt that all the performers in this recently concluded Portland production, but most of all Mary as played by the force of nature known as Lauren Modica, were uniformly excellent.

This is that rare sequel to a beloved original which creates its own independent vivid dramatic reality, and doesn’t rely on frequent winks at highlights from the original for its force and appeal. The winks (as when Mary expresses snarky pride at her piano playing, her playful riposte to the public humiliation she suffers at the hands of her sarcastic father) are few and far between, and are carefully chosen for most telling effect. Lauren Gunderson (who co-wrote this play with Margot Melcon) is justifiably already famous as a very gifted young playwright; and, as a rabid Shakespeare lover, I’m sorry I missed The Book of Will at OSF this past summer, and hope it’ll have another run soon somewhere I can go see it).

Miss Bennet reflects the authors’ canny sense of plot construction and pace, and reliably consistent, even (yes, I’ll say it) Austenesque, sharp wit. And I felt throughout the play, in plot twists like the misdirected love notes, the subliminal presence of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. That demonstrates that Gunderson and Melcon really did their homework – I can’t be offbase in inferring that they recognized (as Sir Walter Scott was the first to suggest 2 centuries ago) Shakespeare’s most beloved romantic comedy as a key source for Austen’s most beloved romantic comedy; and their reboot of that “merry war”, but this time with their own original sparring lovers, Mary and Arthur, is a worthy successor.

In choosing Mary Bennet as their heroine, they avoid the trend of typical P&P fanfic sequels, which apply variations to the original story, with little or no basis in the original text. Instead, Gunderson and Melcon follow in the footsteps of Prof. Steven A. Scott, whose 2002 essay, "Making room in the middle: Mary in Pride and Prejudice”, was the first to make a case that there was more to Austen’s Mary Bennet than met the eye; and then, in 2008, the late Colleen McCullough’s The Independence of Mary Bennet, which presented Mary as a heroine in a sequel that takes her far afield from Longbourn and Pemberley. So, there’s both textual justification and precedent for elevating Mary to the unlikely status as heroine.

I also have a horse in the Alt-Mary race. In 2010, I first presented my own alternative view of Mary, as one cog in what I call the “shadow story” (or alternative fictional universe) of P&P that I claim Austen  deliberately created. The primary means of access (to each of Austen’s six shadow stories) is by reading most of the narration in the novel not as objective reality (as they’re generally read), but as a subjective reality filtered and distorted through the proud, prejudiced and therefore fallible mind of the focalizing heroine. So Eliza Bennet, in that alternative plausible interpretation, is still a smart, but nonetheless essentially clueless, young woman, from one end of the novel to the other.

So I say it’s up to the reader to figure out who the shadow Mary is, by avoiding getting trapped inside Elizabeth’s often jealous, dismissive, uncharitable view of her. And here’s the crux. In the shadow story of P&P, Mr. Darcy does not actually reform and repent from his selfish ways after Elizabeth rejects his first proposal, he merely pretends to do so. And in that dark alternative reality, I see Mary as a feminist, selfless, would-be protector of her elder sister Elizabeth; Mary is (like her creator, Jane Austen, as characterized long ago by Mary Russell Mitford) the “sharp poker” sitting quietly by the fire unnoticed, the sharp eyed observer who sees through Darcy’s sham reformation, and tries her best, albeit unsuccessfully, to warn her all-too-trickable Elizabeth off from his dangerous charms.

So I believe it is Mary who is the unnamed girl at Longbourn, who, when Darcy shows up there for the first time near the end of the novel, and Elizabeth wonders whether he still has feelings for her, whispers in Elizabeth’s ear the line in the novel you never hear in any of the film adaptations:
“The men shan’t come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?”

But, alas, Elizabeth by then has had her resistance so thoroughly shattered by Darcy’s relentless manipulations and stage management, including her “unplanned” visit to Pemberley, and his “accidentally” meeting her there,  and so she does desperately, even cravenly, want Darcy, and is deaf to Mary’s whispered warning.

As you might have guessed by now, there are a dozen other major differences between the great love story of P&P that everybody knows and loves, and the shadow story of that same novel that I believe was Austen’s greatest cautionary tale. But the shadow story is also a love story--- although n a very different way, in that it centers not on Mary, but on another unlikely heroine - Charlotte Lucas  (who, notably, is utterly absent from Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley) and her undying, highly romantic love for her beloved, Elizabeth! But that is another story……. ;)

So although Gunderson’s and Melcon’s vision of Mary is a departure from the normative reading of Mary, it is not the Mary of the shadow story I see. Let’s call it an “upgrade” of the Mary of the overt story. Nonetheless, I don’t hold that as a flaw at all, because (as I said at the start) Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is an authentic, successful work of sophisticated romantic comedy entirely in its own right! In other words, it would be great theater to watch and enjoy even if Pride and Prejudice had never been written --- although, of course, it would surely not be selling out theaters around the country if not for its unique pedigree!

As to that independent reality of Miss Bennet, perhaps the best aspect for me was that this sequel to Pride and Prejudice presented us with an organic family dynamic that is convincingly enacted by the ensemble. That Mary and Arthur are both engrossed by the theories of Lamarck which preceded Darwin’s, in regard to the effect of the environment on heredity, is, it is clear, a metafictional wink by the authors at the complex family ecosystem which they have successfully set spinning onstage.

[SPOILERS follow for the ending of Miss Bennet, although not shocking spoilers, for those who have not seen the play yet]


The end point of that evolutionary process is reflected as the curtain falls on the unexpected, heart-warming harmony that prevails among Lydia, Mary, Jane, and Elizabeth, and the men who belong to the latter three. Lydia comes around to wanting to be a real sister, and in a surprisingly plausible way; and Elizabeth and Lydia show newfound respect and admiration for Mary.

So it is not only that Mary emerges from the wings of Austen’s novel to take center stage. It’s that we also see her as the catalyst who sparks this positive revolution in the Bennet family. This new Bennet family happy ending brings to mind a bit of wit in P&P about Lady Catherine --- she who would, by self-profession, have been “a great proficient” in music:
“…whenever any of the cottagers were disposed to be quarrelsome, discontented, or too poor, she sallied forth into the village to settle their differences, silence their complaints, and scold them into HARMONY and plenty.
In short, Gunderson and Melcon are skilled enough as theatrical “composers” that they did not need to scold their characters into plenty of familial harmony, because that harmony arises organically, as it does in Austen’s original, through an artfully constructed chain of plausible character interactions.

One last point, which I hinted at in my Subject Line, before I close. Being a hardcore pun-nerd, I was particularly struck by one early exchange between Mary and her future husband, Arthur, which I now quote here (no, I don’t have perfect recall, I found an online version of the play text in Google Books!). This is the moment when the leading man haltingly begins to court the leading lady:

ARTHUR: ….And. That is to say…I do hope to hear more from you. You are so very full of SONG.
MARY: Sometimes I am. And sometimes I am full of things much less pretty.
ARTHUR: You see to me…enough of.. prettiness.
MARY: I mean my TEMPER. I know I have one and I have yet to learn how to MANAGE it.
ARTHUR: The Beethoven’s a good start.
She smiles.
MARY: You are wittier than you think, Mr. de Bourgh.
ARTHUR: I don’t know if one can take credit for unconscious wit.
MARY: And yet people take credit for things far less compelling.

While watching, I asked myself why Mary smiled, and what “wit” Arthur was so modest about? Upon quick reflection, I found this to be a subtle pun, as Mary’s struggle to manage her own “temper” surely relates to the ‘well tempered clavier’ that Mary repeatedly plays during the play, during her Beethovenian struggles with her tumultuous feelings. (Here’s a link to a great explanation of what this musical term means: https://www.piano  )

That got me thinking…when I got home, I checked, and saw that the word “temper” is a subtle but pervasive keyword (get it?) in P&P (as it is in all of Austen’s novels --- not surprising given that there are major characters who play the piano in 4 of the canonical 6!), in that it refers to the contrasting tempers of certain characters, most notably the unforgiving temper of Mr. Darcy, versus the easy, pliant tempers of Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley.

And so, with that Bachian pun in mind, I had to laugh at the following early assessment of Mr. Darcy by Elizabeth Bennet as she learns about him from Mr. Wickham, which I now read with new eyes:

“I should take him, even on my slight acquaintance, to be an ILL-TEMPERED man.”

I.e., not a “well-tempered” man at all! And that’s another way of stating the fork in the road that divides the paths to the overt story and the shadow story. In a nutshell, the question is whether Darcy’s character will be, or not be, brought into harmony after Elizabeth rejects him the first time, or will it instead remain in dark dissonance.

Given the profundity of the musical metaphors that echo throughout the entirety of P&P (most of all in the salon at Rosings when Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s merry war of words about her piano playing and his people skills reaches a peak), we can also read, with new, admiring eyes, Elizabeth’s earlier, sarcastic snap judgment on her sister:

‘They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study of thorough-bass and human nature’

When we recognize that it was Jane Austen herself who was usually deep in the study of these same endlessly fascinating subjects, including most of all the difficulty of knowing the hearts of other people and ourselves, it is fitting that we see Mary as a self-portrait more in harmony with her creator than her more flamboyant sister Elizabeth.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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