The things that make Pride and Prejudice’s middle sister so unappealing as a supporting character are precisely what make her compelling as a star.
.. In a fantastic essay for The Guardian, Charlotte Jones describes the current attempt to reimagine and reanimate Mary as largely missing the point of her creator’s novel. Austen is not George Eliot, after all; she is neither copious nor comprehensive in her empathies. She is Jane Austen, OG Gossip Girl. Her narrator, in Pride and Prejudice, is judgy. She plays favorites. She mocks. She deploys her wit with surgical strikes.
.. Mary is “the forgotten sister” because Austen chose, on behalf of her readers, not to remember her.
.. How many times have you wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how?
.. And “with nearly all of her sisters married and gone from the household,” The Pursuit of Mary Bennet announces, “the unrefined Mary has transformed into an attractive and eligible young woman in her own right.”
.. The character who once informed her youngest sister that she would not be dancing at the ball, for “I should infinitely prefer a book,” is now an author herself.
That serves as a mild rebuke not only to Lydia—it is hard to imagine such self-fulfillment materializing for Wickham’s wife—but also to Pride and Prejudice’s Mary-mocking narrator.
.. And to all of Jane Austen’s narrators, really, who—being judgmental and cruel and kind and omnipotent and arbitrary—mimic history’s own ruthless whims. They decide, as the victors in battles of everyday banality, who will be acknowledged, and who will not. They take it for granted that some people (the people, often, with the “fine eyes” and the “light and pleasing”figures) deserve attention, while others (the “plain” ones) do not.
.. the current renaissance of Mary Bennet is literary revisionism that suggests a more sweeping ethical project—one that celebrates the dignity of the marginalized.
So while Sittenfeld’s Mrs. Bennet retains the original’s misplaced snobbery and self-pity, she is in this version also a lover of trash television. Her current preoccupations include an addiction to a “Bachelor”-like reality show called “Eligible,” which does double duty as the novel’s title.
.. Meanwhile, Mr. Bingley, the good-natured landowner of “Pride and Prejudice,” is here awarded a new first name, Chip, and makes his initial appearance wearing a pair of doofy seersucker shorts. Chip, an emergency-room doctor, has recently appeared on “Eligible” as the resident bachelor — whether freely or under coercion from his ambitious sister/manager is an open question. He has exited the series still unattached, which makes him, conveniently, a single man in want of a wife.
.. Mr. Darcy is also a doctor, a snooty neurosurgeon from San Francisco wondering why he has pitched up in a place as provincial as Cincinnati. Called Darcy, because “Fitzwilliam” is such a mouthful, he keeps fit by running, a pastime that allows him plenty of opportunities to encounter Liz Bennet so they can flirt, insult, and have satisfyingly explosive “hate sex” with each other.
.. The book begins when Liz and her older sister, Jane, a nearly 40 yoga instructor, return temporarily to Cincinnati after their father’s heart surgery. They find a nest of troubles: The family is heavily in debt; no one is paying attention to their father’s health; the house is sliding into ruin; and their birdbrained younger sisters are unemployed and living at home. Mary is pursuing her third online master’s degree; Kitty and Lydia spend a lot of their time at the CrossFit gym. (“Another source of irritation,” Liz notes, “was that her sisters looked fantastic.”)
.. She’s the one you want to leave the party with, so she can explain what really happened.
.. Austen divided “Pride and Prejudice” into many short chapters, some just a few pages long, and Sittenfeld has followed that format in her much longer book, so that “Eligible” has a full 181 chapters.
.. In one of the classic scenes in “Pride and Prejudice,” Mr. Darcy tells Elizabeth that he loves her while also delineating the reasons he shouldn’t marry her. In “Eligible,” Darcy is even more blunt. “You’re not beautiful, and you’re not nearly as funny as you think you are,” he proclaims. “You’re a gossip fiend who tries to pass off your nosiness as anthropological interest in the human condition.” (“Sorry,” Liz replies, “but I still consider you a jackass.”)