Obsessive Readers Unite!

22 December, 2013 by katelaity

Mary Bennet“Far be it from me, my dear sister, to depreciate such pleasures. They would doubtless be congenial with the generality of female minds. But I confess they would have no charms for me. I should infinitely prefer a book.”

It’s no mistake that Mary Bennet is made a figure of fun. While we might expect the book-loving author to sympathise with her über-literary character, it’s clear that Jane Austen found Mary to be far too obsessive when it came to books.

She was, alas, “The only plain one in the family” Austen tells us. In a family with Elizabeth and Jane, it would be bad enough, but up against the pert liveliness of Lydia and her co-hort Kitty, there was little for her to do but charge up the intellectual pathways of books, even if it did little to prepare her for the real world.

There was, of course, the piano incident:

Elizabeth’s eyes were fixed on her [Mary] with most painful sensations; and she watched her progress through the several stanzas with an impatience which was very ill rewarded at their close; for Mary, on receiving amongst the thanks of the table, the hint of a hope that she might be prevailed on to favour them again, after the pause of half a minute began another. Mary’s powers were by no means fitted for such a display; her voice was weak, and her manner affected. — Elizabeth was in agonies. She looked at Jane, to see how she bore it; but Jane was very composedly talking to Bingley. She looked at his two sisters, and saw them making signs of derision at each other, and at Darcy, who continued however impenetrably grave. She looked at her father to entreat his interference, lest Mary should be singing all night. He took the hint, and when Mary had finished her second song, said aloud,

“That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.”

Mary, though pretending not to hear, was somewhat disconcerted; and Elizabeth sorry for her, and sorry for her father’s speech, was afraid her anxiety had done no good.

Such a shame! No wonder her mother thought the poor young woman might be persuaded to marry Mr Collins. All of Mary’s pronouncements bear the stilted prose of inserting great books into daily life without the time to shape them:

On the occasion of a proposal to walk to Merryton: “I admire the activity of your benevolence,” observed Mary, “but every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason; and, in my opinion, exertion should always be in proportion to what is required.”

On the occasion of the Netherfield Ball: “While I can have my mornings to myself,” said she, “it is enough. — I think it no sacrifice to join occasionally in evening engagements. Society has claims on us all; and I profess myself one of those who consider intervals of recreation and amusement as desirable for every body.”

On the occasion of Lydia’s apparent ruin: “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.”

How many of us bookish types recognise ourselves in the awkward regurgitation of great minds through youthful ones that have failed to sufficiently digest that wisdom — or are too socially tone deaf to discern when to offer it — or NOT offer it? (mea culpa, mea culpa…).

Better to keep our noses in those books, surely! When have you seen a headline “Enraged Reader Interrupts Very Good Book to Go On Killing Spree”? Or “Avid Reader Leads Bloody Coup”? It just doesn’t happen. Join with me, Be More Mary and declare:

“I should infinitely prefer a book.”

[Thanks to the Republic of Pemberley for the Hypertext Pride and Prejudice]

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