So the nerdy sister from Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein’s monster walk into a bar...
That is more or less the premise of John Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus, which sees Mary Bennet, the dourest of Jane Austen’s Bennet sisters, become enmeshed in the plot of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Frankenstein’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, gives Kessel the second half of his title.)
But astonishingly, Pride and Prometheus is not just a single joke repeated for 200 pages, as 2009’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was. It’s a carefully thought-out crossover that shines with affection for both its sources, one that never goes for the cheap joke when it can go for the gut punch.
Mary Bennet is a Jane Austen character with no subjectivity
Mary Bennet is one of Austen’s most pathetically comic creations, a self-absorbed bookworm with “neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached.”
She preaches humorlessly to her sisters that it’s better to read than to go to a ball; then once she’s at the ball, she plays the pianoforte for three songs in a row even when it’s clear that no one wants to listen. She’s also the little sister of the brilliantly charming Elizabeth, who will marry Mr. Darcy, and her dullness and plainness — Mary is, Austen informs us ruthlessly, the only plain one among the Bennet sisters — is what sets off Elizabeth’s sparkle to its best effect. Essentially, Mary’s unlikability makes Elizabeth all the more likable.
Perhaps that’s why Mary is at the center of a cottage industry of sorts among Austen aficionados. There is a veritable glut of Austen fanfiction, published or otherwise, devoted to rehabilitating Mary and granting her the agency and subjectivity Austen denied her. “The books mingle across the literary spectrum to insist on Mary as a subject rather than an object, as a person rather than a mere foil,” wrote Megan Garber at the Atlantic in 2016:
They assume something that Pride and Prejudice, via its narrator, refused to believe: that someone like Mary could have a rich interior life. In that, they form a sub-genre for a literary moment that emphasizes the “vision” in “revisionist history.” These new works, 200 years after the fact, are finally giving her the simple gift Mary so desperately craves: to be noticed.
In Pride and Prometheus, Mary is noticed by Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature.
Pride and Prometheus grants Mary subjectivity in spades. Mostly.
Mary is 32 as Pride and Prometheus begins, 12 years after the events of Pride and Prejudice. She still lives with her parents, accompanied by her sister Kitty, and while she is less given to preaching than she was when she was younger, she is still bookish. She has begun to take an interest in natural philosophy, particularly fossils. When Victor Frankenstein meets her at a ball, he cannot help but be taken with her artless intellectualism and single-minded drive; Mary, in turn, cannot help but thrill at receiving attention from someone outside of her family, and positive attention at that.
But Frankenstein has a secret: He is already toward the end of Shelley’s Frankenstein, traveling to Scotland to build a mate for the Creature. (In Frankenstein, he travels to Ireland; Kessel seems to have made this change for ease of logistics.) And everywhere Frankenstein goes, the Creature follows him, ready to kill again should Frankenstein fail to keep his promise.
Mary and the Creature eventually meet, and that’s where Pride and Prometheus really begins to sing: It’s surprisingly touching to witness two of the loneliest and most solipsistic people in literature meet and see their own dark reflections in one another. Mary informs the Creature that even if Frankenstein builds him a female counterpart, there is no guarantee that she will love him. As she explains with the bitterness of experience, one can very easily be rejected by one’s own species. The Creature, in his turn, informs Mary that society’s ill treatment of her only proves what he has long believed: that humans are wicked and merciless.
Kessel’s Mary is a thoughtful introvert who sparks to life when she’s ruminating on her beloved fossils, and while she’s nearly as socially awkward as Austen’s Mary was, she’s grown more aware of her failings in her adulthood. Kessel is also more on the Creature’s side of things than on that of his creator — Frankenstein tends to come off as a self-absorbed prig — but Kessel doesn’t fall into the trap of making the Creature so sympathetic as to become unthreatening. This Creature stays balanced on the knife’s edge between man and monster, which is what made him so compelling in Shelley’s original work.
Wisely, Kessel never attempts to reproduce Austen’s sparkling sentences, but they would sound out of place in Mary’s mouth anyway. And his grave, thoughtful prose is an elegant match for Shelley’s gothic Victorian raptures.
It’s in the novel’s final third, as Frankenstein, Mary, and the Creature all come together to try to build the Creature his mate, that things start to sag. Frankenstein and the Creature are both single-minded in the pursuit of their own goals — to prevent the creation of more Creatures and to find love, respectively — but Mary’s dogged sense of purpose seems to vanish, and she ultimately becomes an accessory to their respective stories. As Kessel’s attention to Mary’s perspective wanes, Pride and Prometheus also stops insisting firmly on the idea that the Creature’s mate might have an agenda and a sense of self outside of the Creature’s, making the novel’s climax a lot less interesting than it might have been.
But the closing pages, and the ending they suggest for Mary, are nearly satisfying enough to make up for that. They offer the possibility of a life of fulfillment and respect for Mary — a life worthy of the reader’s notice — without the necessity of male approval. Or the approval of a Creature.