I met Mary Bennet today. I kid you not!

Lucy Briers as Mary Bennet, Pride and Prejudice (1995)Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.  

By tea-time, however, the dose had been enough, and Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library) he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels. Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed. Other books were produced, and after some deliberation he chose Fordyce’s Sermons. Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him with —  

“Do you know, mama, that my uncle Philips talks of turning away Richard; and if he does, Colonel Forster will hire him. My aunt told me so herself on Saturday. I shall walk to Meryton to-morrow to hear more about it, and to ask when Mr. Denny comes back from town.”  

Lydia was bid by her two eldest sisters to hold her tongue; but Mr. Collins, much offended, laid aside his book, and said — 

“I have often observed how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for their benefit. It amazes me, I confess; for, certainly, there can be nothing so advantageous to them as instruction. But I will no longer importune my young cousin.” The Narrator, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 14 

If anyone doesn’t know, I am a bookseller at Barnes and Noble, and we get asked the most amazing questions. There is never a dull moment. One of my managers wants to write a book about it. I can add a few stories of my own. Here’s one for Janeites! 

I met Mary Bennet today! 

My coworkers all know I am a Jane Austen enthusiast. I wear it as a badge of honor. Some of them track me down when customers have Jane Austen questions. So today amongst the bustle of a Saturday, I hear an overhead page for me and head over to the information desk. There, I was introduced to a serious looking young woman with glasses who needed help finding Fordyces Sermons. I kid you not! She had read about them in Pride and Prejudice and wanted to read them herself! 

As I stifled a giggle and looked at her with a straight face, I told her what little I knew of them, and that I was doubtful that they were still in print, but I would do my best to search them out in my database (BookMaster, which is like a book geeks playground of every book being published in the US). No luck. She looked at me in total dejection! To buoy her spirits, I told her that she may have more luck at her local library since they were written over 200 years ago, and I would do my best to discover more online (thank goodness for the Internet) and if successful, I would  write a post about them on my blog. So here goes. 

Sermons to Young Woman (1760), or Fordyce’s Sermons as they were informally called, are a two-volume compendium of sermons written and compiled by Dr. James Fordyce (1720-1796) a Scottish clergyman, and were quite popular among clergy and personal libraries in the late 18th-century. The sermons, “which seem to encourage female subjugation to male preferences and emphasize a feminine mannerliness of speech, action, and appearance over substantive development of ideas, seem hopelessly outdated and chauvinistic.” The reference seems even more absurd fifty years later when Jane Austen chose to have her character the Reverend Mr. Collins read them to his young cousins instead of a more entertaining novel.  In the eyes of his cousins and the reader, his selection confirms him as a total buffoon, his lopsided judgment and outmoded opinions are totally disagreeable to anyone with an ounce of sensitivity. It is interesting to note that Dr. Fordyce did not marry until eleven years after its publication. It obviously took him many years to find a woman to meet his standards, or one that would overlook his opinions. You can actually read volume one and two online in an 1809 edition through Google Books. The sermons expound on womanly virtue, meekness and servitude. Here is an excerpt from the preface for your amusement. It was as far as I dare venture, hearing Mr. Collins in every sentence! 

The preacher is willing to hope, that women of most conditions, and at all ages, may meet with some useful counsels, or some salutary hint, should curiosity incite them to look into these discourses. Should any of those young persons in genteel life, to whom they are chiefly addressed, deem the reprehensions they contain too severe, or too indiscriminate ; he can only say, that as all are dictated by friendship no less than by conviction, so he wishes it to be understood, that many were occasioned by a particular observation of those characters and manners which are esteemed fashionable amongst the young and the gay of this metropolis. 

In the country (a denomination which, as matters are commonly conducted, he can by no means allow to the neighbourhood of London) the contagion of vice and folly, it may be presumed, is not so epidemical. In short, he is persuaded, that women of worth and sense are to be found every where, but most frequently in the calm of retreat, and amidst the coolness of recollection. pp iv 

David Bramber as Mr. Collins, Pride and Prejudice (1995)There can be nothing so advantageous as instruction. Yes, thank you very much Mr. Collins!

12 thoughts on “I met Mary Bennet today. I kid you not!

  1. oh this was fascinating. thank you – how amusing to have had Mary B come to you and ask you for the sermons. You couldn’t make that stuff up.

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  2. Thanks for sharing this Laurel Ann- there are great stories out there of the book-searching public – so we await your book!… [I always thought Mr. Collins and Mary would have made a perfect couple – and kept the property in the family!] – I wonder if your post will incite a run on Fordyce’s sermons on Google?!

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  3. At our last celebration of Jane Austen’s birthday , we chose entertainments that might have been enjoyed by a family. We listened to the music of a beautiful young harpist, played games of vingt et un, and just to ensure sufficient sobre thought, had three members read extracts from Fordyce’s sermons. Mr. Collins would have been so proud! They actually were quite amusing and prompted many a giggle! They were of course made more palatable when accompanied by a glass of wine.

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  4. What a fabulous post! I could certainly imagine Jane Austen smirking as she used this book to mock fun of stuffyfuffy opinions about women!

    I am wondering if you’ve reviewed the British tv series ‘Lost in Austen’ ? I’m quite sure you would have…but I only got to watch it this weekend, and I adored it. I’m wondering if you did too.

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  5. Fantastic post. And Mary Bennet is such a favorite among us. Last week my sister was at church before the service started, listening to the prelude music, when the organist began playing a familiar tune… The song that begins..”Slumber Dear Maid…” from the P & P miniseries. She got excited and began to giggle and then realized no one around her would know why that was funny.
    She couldn’t wait to tell me later that evening. If we would have been there together I would have been laughing. Perhapse she should have interupted him so that others “Could have a chance to exhibit”!

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  6. Pingback: From “Sermons to Young Women” « The Boy’s Own Paper

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