The Mary Bennet makeover: Postfeminist media culture and the rewriting of Jane Austen's neglected female character
Nelson, C. (2020). The Mary Bennet makeover: Postfeminist media culture and the rewriting of Jane Austen's neglected female character. Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, 40 (2).
Only a few years ago, nobody much liked Mary Bennet. Claudia Johnson condemned her “portentous moralizing“ as “mean” and “laughable” (3), Nina Auerbach styled her as a “mouthpiece” for empty “platitudes” (41), and John Lauber summed up a long and esteemed tradition of Austen scholarship when he ranked Mary among the most ridiculous of Austen’s “fools.” Even the Republic of Pemberley—an unruly digital production housing everything from blogs to bibliographies, chat forums and fan works—hosted a whimsical collection of miscellanea known as “The Jane Austen Punishments List,” which ranked “an evening at a recital given by Mary Bennet” as the very worst thing that could possibly befall a Janeite.
More recently, a cultural shift—with one foot in modern era feminism and the other in Austen’s world—has given rise to a different and perhaps more nuanced reading of Mary’s character, not to mention a plethora of adaptations (books, videos and plays, memes, gifs, and other fan works) that work hard to expand Mary’s inner life and endow her with a future that is every bit as sparkling as the one that Austen conjured for her older sisters. These Mary Bennet story worlds are predicated on a kind of “upside down Austen.” They take leave from a “negotiated” or “oppositional” reading of Austen’s work, to use Stuart Hall’s term—proceeding less from a revisionary reading of Austen’s novel and more from Mary’s characterization in popular film and television adaptations, particularly as Mary’s short cameo-like appearances are cut, edited, and recirculated on internet platforms such as YouTube and Tumblr, giving rise to new fan-produced fictions on Kindle, Kobo, and Wattpad.
Understanding these emerging Mary Bennet story worlds entails, to use Christine Geraghty’s words, a practiced reading of “ghostly presences” left by an “accretion” of textual “deposits over time” and a capacity to unravel the “layering process” that gives rise to a sense of “shadowing or doubling of what is on the surface by what is glimpsed behind” (195). By observing the “ghostly” elements of Mary Bennet stories that follow what might be called a “Mary script” and noting points of divergence, readers can better understand which aspects of Mary’s construction have changed, how they have changed, and how these changes may be politically, socially, or culturally significant. Reading these often-rebellious female “ghosts” can produce fascinating insights, if not always into the gender politics of Austen’s world, then into the place of Austen’s work in our own.
Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice, adaptations (film, television, stage, video), Mary Bennet, character interpretation, gender politics