If you wanted a laugh in the 18th century you could buy a ticket to Bedlam to watch the lunatics.
Nowadays we just watch X-Factor or Britain/America’s Got Talent.
OK sure, partly we’re watching it for the sudden pockets of brilliance, for the hook of seeing ‘ordinary’ people – people like us – randomly achieving stardom, but let’s be honest: mostly it’s for the rather nasty pleasure of those train-wreck auditions. I’m talking about the desperate ones, the ones who’ve been singing in the bathroom, or dancing in the living room, and someone’s told them, or they’ve told themselves, hey you should be on the telly! and it’s clear when you’re watching them, that they have no idea how dreadful they are. Why not remind yourself and have a guilty laugh by clicking here?
It is a kind of madness – like 18th-century Bedlamites, these folk don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t know what they look like to others. We pity, sneer, and laugh at them simultaneously.
Of course those X-Factor contestants aren’t truly properly mad: what they’re doing is living in a sort of dream world: it’s a bit like when children play – they are the queen, or the sorcerer, they just inhabit the role, and when you watch them, you see how they are turned inwards on themselves as they live their game. In kids, this is fine, most children go in and out of this, it’s creative play which doesn’t affect their ability to be in reality as they grow; but for some people, for whatever reason, this deluded state hangs around, and in a sense, they are still caught up in the pretend game in which they are a hero or a star.
To my mind, the Mary Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is very much like one of these contestants. If she were alive in our times, she might well find herself queuing for an audition on X-Factor, and being stared at in disbelief by the mocking judges as she strutted her stuff. She has no idea how she comes across, she has delusions of grandeur completely at odds with what she’s actually like. And she was created for us to laugh at and despise.
Now Jane Austen was deliberately writing a caricature for comic, satiric purposes – just as the producers and editors of these talent shows are setting up the terrible performers for the same thing. There’s no interest in the inner world of these characters – they are there purely for entertainment.
But I became interested in the possibility of Mary being more than a caricature – what makes somebody behave like that? What makes her spout moralising nonsense that she’s read in books? What makes her continue to play and sing in public when she is so excruciatingly bad? What is she thinking about and feeling? How did she get like this?
These are some of the questions I was seeking to explore as I wrote the novel. And the answer to these questions – well, it’s in the novel, but I will also be writing some more on the topic soon.