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It is a sad fact of life that if a young woman is unlucky enough to come into the world without expectations, she had better do all she can to ensure she is born beautiful. To be poor and handsome is misfortune enough; but to be penniless and plain is a hard fate indeed.
Four of the five Bennet sisters of Meryton in Hertfordshire had sensibly provided themselves with good looks enough to be accounted beauties in the limited circles in which they moved. Jane, the eldest, was the most striking, the charms of her face and figure enhanced by the unassuming modesty of her character. Elizabeth, the second sister, made up in wit and liveliness for any small deficiencies in her appearance; whilst Catherine and Lydia, the two youngest, exhibited all the freshness of youth, accompanied by a taste for laughter and flirtation, which recommended them greatly to young men of equally loud and undiscriminating inclinations. Only Mary, the middle daughter, possessed neither beauty, wit, nor charm; but her sisters shone so brightly that they seemed to cancel out her failure and, indeed, eclipse her presence altogether, so that by the time they were grown, the Bennet family was regarded as one of the most pleasing in the neighbourhood.
It was common knowledge, however, that the Bennet girls’ prospects were to be envied a great deal less than their beauty. At first sight, the family appeared prosperous enough. They were the principal inhabitants of the village of Longbourn; and their house, solid and unremarkable as it was, made up in comfort what it lacked in pretension. There were servants to wait at table, a cook in the kitchen, and a man to tend the gardens; and though Mr. Bennet’s possessions were not extensive, they were quite enough to sustain his credit as a private gentleman. Few of the families with whom they were intimate were sufficiently rich or genteel to condescend to them with confidence, and the Bennets were regarded, in public at least, as eminently respectable ornaments to Hertfordshire society.
But in the country, no family’s business is ever truly its own, and everyone knew that the outward prosperity of the Bennets rested on very uncertain foundations. Their property was subject to an entail which restricted inheritance to male heirs; if no Bennet son was produced, the estate would pass eventually into the hands of Mr. Bennet’s cousin. At first, this had seemed of little significance. As baby after baby arrived at Longbourn with promising regularity, surely, it was only a matter of time before the much-anticipated Bennet boy put in his overdue appearance. But when the tally of girls reached five, and it was clear no more children could be expected, the entail cast a deepening shadow over the family’s happiness. On Mr. Bennet’s death, his widow and daughters would be left with nothing but five thousand pounds in the four per cents, and a humiliating dependence on the uncertain charity of a distant and unknown relative. Their friends were not without sympathy for the Bennets’ plight, but that did nothing to dampen their curiosity about what was to come, for what could be more compelling than to watch at first hand the probable wreck and dissolution of an entire family’s fortune?
Mr. Bennet refused to gratify his neighbours by displaying any obvious disappointment at the cruel trick of fate which had deprived his dependants of the security he had once so confidently expected them to enjoy. To the world at large, he remained what he had always been: detached, amused, and apparently resigned to an outcome it was not in his power to change. To his family themselves, he seemed barely more concerned. Perhaps in the long hours he spent in his library, he wrestled with himself to find an answer to their plight. If so, he shared neither his anxieties nor his conclusions with them.
His wife, however, had none of his restraint. Mrs. Bennet thought of little else but the hardships which lay in store for herself and her daughters when Mr. Bennet was dead, and she was often to be heard lamenting the wickedness of the entail, both at home and abroad. Her nerves, she declared, were not equal to the strain placed upon them by such an unfortunate business. How anyone could have had the conscience to entail away an estate from their daughters she did not profess to understand; but unless something was done about it, ruin must engulf them all. She was a woman of no great intelligence and small imagination, but she possessed considerable powers of energy and application, which she devoted with all the tenacity at her command to finding a solution to their predicament. She was soon persuaded that there was only one answer to the miserable situation in which her girls were placed: they must marry, as quickly and as advantageously as possible. If their father could not secure his daughters’ futures, they must look to a husband to do so.
To have seen her daughters married to men of merely respectable means would have soothed away many of Mrs. Bennet’s anxieties; but to imagine them united to husbands of ample income and substantial property was for her a joy undimmed by frequent contemplation. Nothing made her happier than to think of them in possession of elegant houses and rolling parkland, certain of never hearing the dreaded word entail again. She was aware, of course, that wealthy men in want of wives were not easy to find and harder still to catch, especially by girls without large dowries. But she was undaunted. Her daughters, she believed, possessed an advantage that would enable them to triumph over all difficulties: other girls might be rich, but her daughters were beautiful. This, she was sure, was the blessing that would deliver them into wealth. Their looks would attract men of the first eligibility, dazzling their eyes, winning their hearts, and persuading them to ignore the promptings of cold, mercenary common sense. It was for Mrs. Bennet an article of faith that, in the absence of ten thousand pounds in the hand, a pretty face was the single most valuable asset a young woman could possess.
Her own experience confirmed her opinion, for, some twenty-five years before, it had been Mrs. Bennet’s youthful beauty which had swept a besotted Mr. Bennet to the altar, overcoming all obstacles that appeared to stand in the way of their union. As he gazed on her handsome face, it had meant nothing to him that her father was merely a country attorney who kept an office in Meryton, or that her brother lived within sight of his own warehouses in Cheapside. He had been determined to marry her, and against all advice to the contrary, he had done so. On the whole, Mrs. Bennet considered herself well satisfied with the outcome. It was true that Mr. Bennet was a whimsical man who teased her more than she thought proper. But as mistress of Longbourn, she presided over a property large enough to gratify her vanity, whilst her husband’s rank assured her the pleasure of patronising her less-fortunate acquaintances on every possible occasion. For Mr. Bennet, however, the benefits of his marriage were far less apparent. His failure to consider whether his spouse’s character was likely to bring him as much pleasure as her appearance had more serious and lasting consequences. The shallowness of Mrs. Bennet’s mind, and the limited nature of her interests, meant theirs could never be a partnership of equals. She could be neither his companion nor his friend. Her beauty had been enough to win him, but, as Mr. Bennet soon understood, it was not enough to make him happy.
Fortunately for Mrs. Bennet, she was not a reflective woman, and if her husband now regretted the principles on which he had made his choice of a wife, she remained oblivious of this fact. As a result, her prejudices survived unchallenged. She esteemed no qualities of female character other than beauty. Wit and intellect, kindness, and good humour mattered not at all to her. Good looks trumped every other attribute. In her daughters, she valued nothing so much as their power to please.
With four of her girls, Mrs. Bennet had, in this respect, every reason to be satisfied. Of Jane she entertained the highest possible hopes, for, as she frequently observed to Mr. Bennet, she was sure she could not have been born so beautiful for nothing. Three further sisters, if not quite as generously blessed as Jane, were still, in Mrs. Bennet’s opinion, sufficiently distinguished to attract notice wherever they went. Only one of her daughters had failed her. Mary had made the mistake of inheriting neither the looks nor the charm shared by all other female members of the Bennet family. This was a sin for which, in Mrs. Bennet’s eyes, there could be no forgiveness, as Mary herself had quickly discovered.
Mary could not remember exactly when she had discovered she was plain. She did not think she had known it when, as a very little girl, she had played happily with Jane and Elizabeth, running round the garden with grass stains on her dress; or when they had huddled together before the nursery fire, warming their feet on the fender. She did not think she had known it when Mrs. Hill, her mother’s housekeeper, had washed her face every morning and tied a clean pinafore over her dress. She had certainly not known it when she and her elder sisters had rushed into the kitchen on baking days, begging for a crust of warm bread which they would carry away and eat together behind the shrubbery, laughing as if they would never stop. Then, she thought, she had been happy. But by the time she was seven or eight years old, she had begun to suspect something was not quite right. She saw that her mother often looked at her with an expression she did not direct at Jane or Lizzy. It was something between irritation and puzzlement, Mary was not quite sure which, but she came to recognise it very well. A summons always followed.
“Come here, child, and let me look at you.”
Mary would get down from her chair and walk across the drawing room to where Mrs. Bennet sat, uneasy under her mother’s scrutiny. Her hair ribbons would be tweaked, her sash re-tied, her dress pulled this way and that. But whatever it was that bothered Mrs. Bennet, none of her attempts to correct it ever satisfied. She pursed her lips and looked away, frustrated, speechlessly waving her daughter back to her place. Mary knew she had disappointed her mother, even if she did not yet know in what way she had failed.
But she was a clever girl, and she soon understood what the sighs and frowns and dismissals meant. She could not help but notice that Mrs. Bennet never talked about her appearance with the pleasure with which she described her elder sisters.
“Jane is as lovely as an angel,” her mother often declared, regarding her eldest daughter with transparent pride. “It is a pleasure just to gaze at her.”
Jane would hang her head, for she was a modest girl, and compliments made her blush. She would not look at Elizabeth, who, when Mrs. Bennet’s preening grew excessive, would catch her sister’s eye and try to make her laugh. Elizabeth’s own appearance was not quite so much to her mother’s taste as Jane’s. Her dark eyes and sparkling smile were too suggestive of her lively character to win Mrs. Bennet’s wholehearted approval. She was too amused with the world to qualify as a true beauty; but for all her misgivings, Mrs. Bennet’s appraising eye acknowledged there was something about Lizzy that appealed. Whilst she often scolded her second daughter for the pertness of her remarks and the independence of her spirit, she did not complain of her looks.
As she grew older, Mary waited hopefully for Mrs. Bennet to bestow similar words of appreciation upon her. At first, she imagined her mother’s approval would come naturally with time, that she would reach an age when she too would bask in her admiration. But even when she paid extra attention to herself, making sure that her stockings were straight, her face was clean, and her hair well brushed, still her mother had no kind word to offer her. Month after month, she waited, anxiously anticipating the moment when Mrs. Bennet would find something about her to praise. Perhaps her eyes might be considered fine, or her figure graceful. Perhaps her hair might be her best feature. She did not mind which part of her Mrs. Bennet thought worthy of notice; anything would do, as long as it allowed her the chance to take her place amongst her sisters in the glow of their mother’s approval.
Mary was ten when she understood this would never happen. It was a warm afternoon. Mrs. Bennet was taking tea with her sister, Mrs. Phillips. Jane and Lizzy had vanished at the sound of their aunt’s arrival, leaving Mary alone, perched on the sofa, twisting the ends of her hair in her hands, wishing desperately to be somewhere else. Neither her mother nor her aunt paid her any attention. Their conversation rambled on, ranging from the likelihood of Lady Lucas’s cook leaving her—“and just before the bottling season too”—to the probability of the vicar’s wife being brought to bed this very week; but when Mrs. Phillips dropped her voice to a whisper and leant forward to impart a particularly choice piece of gossip, Mrs. Bennet was suddenly alert to her daughter’s presence.
“Mary, go down to the kitchen and bring up some more sugar. Take the bowl. Now, please.”
Delighted to be released, Mary lingered as long as she could on her errand, dawdling back along the hall, kicking her shoes against the flagstones to see how much dust she could raise. At the door to the morning room, she stopped to smooth down her dress when, emerging from the low murmur of conversation, she heard her own name pronounced. She knew she should declare herself—Mrs. Hill had often told her that listeners never heard good about themselves—but she found it impossible to draw away.
“I think Mary is in better looks today,” remarked Mrs. Phillips. “A little less pale than usual.”
Mrs. Bennet sniffed. “It’s kind of you to say so, sister, but I’m afraid I can’t agree. For so young a girl, she has no bloom at all. Not like Jane and Lizzy. Their bloom is always very much remarked upon.”
“Indeed, they are very pleasing,” agreed Mrs. Phillips obligingly. “And I doubt that Mary will ever be admired as they are. But, sister, I wonder if you aren’t rather harsh in judging her as you do? Perhaps she suffers by comparisons. If Jane and Lizzy were a little less handsome, then might she seem prettier in your eyes?”
“I wish with all my heart you were right, but I’m afraid comparisons don’t come into it. Mary is simply very plain, and that’s that. I blame Mr. Bennet’s side of the family. We Gardiners have always been remarkable for our appearance.”
Mrs. Phillips topped up her tea and looked for the sugar bowl.
“Well, I’m very sorry for the girl. It cannot be easy to be the only ugly duckling amongst so many swans.”
“Yes, it is a great disappointment to me, and excessively bad for my nerves. But I find that once I look at my other daughters, I soon feel better. Where has she got to with the sugar?”
Copyright © 2020 by Janice Hadlow