But you yourselves, I think, will allow that war, commerce, politics, exercises of strength and dexterity, abstract philosophy, and all the abstruser sciences, are most properly the province of men... Those masculine women that would plead for your sharing any part of this province equally with us, do not understand your true interests. There is an influence, there is an empire which belongs to you, and which I wish you ever to possess: I mean that which has the heart for its object and is secured by meeknesss, by soft attraction, and virtuous love.
-- Sermons to Young Women, Dr. James Fordyce
Mary Bennet was a very accomplished girl. Everyone said so, although sometimes they had to be prompted a few times to say it. She could play three whole concertos and countless reels and jigs, could quote from all the major classics, and had the largest collection of dried beetles in two counties.
Mary had often felt pity for her sisters: yes, they might perhaps be somewhat prettier than herself, but could any of them perform Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor or name all the kings of England in order? No, they could not. Surely any man with sense would see past the ephemeral blush of youth and choose a helpmate with more lasting and important qualities.
And yet three of her sisters were married, and Mary had yet to receive a single proposal.
Jane was no surprise: she was by far the prettiest. And while Mary personally found him both stupid and dull, Jane's husband seemed to share her sweet but irrational disposition, so they would probably be happy enough.
Lydia, again no surprise, had fallen into iniquity. Her unguarded and thoughtless behaviour deserved no better than a dissolute wastrel like Wickham.
But Elizabeth – Aah! There Mary's view of the world was shaken. For while Elizabeth had some accomplishments, she lacked the discipline to apply herself as Mary had. Her piano playing was amateurish, her reading unrefined, and the closest she came to Mary's beetle collection was a few pressed flowers. And yet, she had been proposed to twice! And by such men as to make even Mary a little jealous.
Mary could see, in an abstract sense, that Darcy was the more handsome of the two, and certainly he was very rich. But Mary preferred the more sensible and learned Mr Collins, and had entertained some hopes in that direction. She certainly had not been in love with her cousin, but had started to think warmly of his potential as a future companion. He had stated a desire to marry one of the Bennet sisters: why not Mary? But not only did he choose Elizabeth, on her rejection of his suit he had abandoned their family entirely and engaged himself to Charlotte Lucas, a woman who not only lacked Mary's accomplishments, but was also even more plain. Surely this was not fair! And if even Charlotte Lucas was more desirable than Mary, what hope had she of finding a match?
There were some consolations for the marriages of her sisters.
The library at Netherfield was most satisfactory, and Jane and Bingley encouraged her to make use of it frequently. She did not often see Lydia or Wickham, but that was as it should be, and with Lydia gone and Kitty so often visiting her elder sisters, the Bennet house had become a much quieter place.
Unfortunately, this did not mean that Mary had more opportunity for study and reflection. Having no other companion, Mrs Bennet drew entirely upon Mary to keep her entertained. In vain did Mary attempt to impress upon her mother the joys of reading and self improvement. Instead, her days were spent mostly mired in gossip and the discussion of bonnets. She did manage to persuade Mrs Bennet to allow Mary to sometimes read to her aloud, but the subject matter never rose above the level of newspaper reports and low romance.
A visit to Mr Darcy's estate at Pemberley had thus sounded like a blessed reprieve. And well it might be, if she could survive the journey.
Mary was faced with a familiar decision: talk to her mother, talk to her father, or sit in silence. She had nearly settled on the final option when Mr Bennet, having evidently made a similar calculation, took the choice away.
"Mary," he said, smiling, "what book has so captured your fancy? Something worthy, no doubt?" Mary was not adept at reading the subtext to people's words, but felt quite certain that he did not mean this as a compliment.
"'Instructive and Entertaining Exercises With the Rules of the French Syntax'," replied Mary.
"French entertainment?!" responded her father in surprise. "Surely Mrs Murray would not approve!"
"Oh!" Mary began, in a reassuring tone. "Do not worry. The text is not intended as literal entertainment. In fact it is quite dry. And in the latest Mentoria, Mrs Murray said that..." Mary trailed off when she realised that her father was wearing his familiar teasing expression. Ah. He had been joking.
She frowned and returned to her book.
A few minutes passed. She decided that, being a mature and dutiful daughter, she would try to make proper conversation even if he would not. "And what are you reading, father?"
"Oh," said Mr Bennet. "Nothing very interesting. Some new techniques for crop rotation. Bingley is thinking of using them at Netherfield and asked me to look into it for him."
"Ah," said Mary. She was not sure even Elizabeth could find anything interesting to say about crop rotation.
This conversation, their longest in several days, now concluded, and Mrs Bennet having fallen into a slumber after a large lunch, they spent the rest of the day's journey in silence.
The trip was not without its amusements. The country they passed through was varied and often quite pretty, and after much persuasion Mrs Bennet was prevailed upon to allow a brief stop over in Nottingham. Here Mary and Mr Bennet whiled away an afternoon in companionable silence in a well stocked bookshop. They then reluctantly rejoined their less literary companion for dinner, and Mrs Bennet spent the whole of the next morning complaining about being left to fend for herself in an unfamiliar city. Strange men! Cut-purse filled slums! Threatening looking ducks! Mary had a feeling there would be no such diversions on the way back.
As they reached the end of a week spent in alternating periods of silence and unsatisfying conversation, Mary couldn't help but wish she felt some of that apparently natural familial bond with her father. Or her mother. Or any of her sisters.
But perhaps this was just the way families were. Certainly there seemed to be no special closeness between Bingley and his sisters, or Mrs Bennet and hers. Even Mr Bennet seemed to prefer the company of Mr and Mrs Gardiner to his own, rarely visited sister.
Perhaps this was only normal, and the purpose of marriage was to allow her to choose a new, better suited companion. One who would think French grammar an entirely reasonable topic for reading.
She was distracted from these philosophical thoughts by a sudden jerk, as the carriage finally reached its destination. As the doors of the grand house opened and her father rushed out to embrace his favourite daughter, Mary wondered if perhaps she wasn't so normal after all.