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In Defense of Mrs. Bennet

I find Mrs. Bennet to be one of the most disgusting characters created by Jane Austen in her marvelous novel Pride and Prejudice, although the outrageous Reverend Collins can give her a run for her money.  Nevertheless, something must be said in her defense.  Such a defense will necessarily entail a severe criticism of Mr. Bennet.

I have not always thought so ill of Mrs. Bennet.  Back in the 1980’s, when I watched the first BBC production of the novel, (wholly ruined by the atrocious performance of the actor playing Darcy), I found her a most enjoyable comic figure and delighted in Mr. Bennet’s satiric comments.  When I saw the 1995 BBC version, I was irritated by Mrs. Bennet.  The 2005 film, starring Keira Knightley, while markedly inferior, being more of a teen romance and downplaying Elizabeth Bennet’s maturing self-knowledge, did help me to see Mrs. Bennet as a grossly materialistic and terrible mother and wife.  However, recently reading the novel with my wife (Yes, I admit to never having read it before, although my wife had.) and viewing again the 1995 version led me to modify my opinion.

The tension in the plot revolves around the precarious financial future of the women in the family.  Since the Bennets have no sons, upon the death of Mr. Bennet the property goes to the nearest relative, leaving Mrs. Bennet and her five daughters at the mercy of the greedy Reverend Collins.  The only way to ensure that the daughters are provided in the long term is for them to marry well.  To this task Mrs. Bennet devotes all of her considerably ineffective efforts, and, while she is also concerned for her own future, she is right to see that a profitable marriage is their daughters’ only hope.

Unfortunately, all that Mr. Bennet does is to take the opportunity to mock the folly of his wife’s plots and ridiculous whining rather than address his wife’s and daughters’ legitimate concerns.  It is only the scandalous behavior of his youngest daughter Lydia that awakens him to the folly of his ways.

How should we understand Mr. Bennet?  He is a cultured man, intelligent and funny.  His fault is that his greatest desires in life seem to be for peace and quiet, to enjoy his books, and to observe others and their foibles from afar.  With this strain of cynicism he combines a considerable dose of the ancient philosopher Epicurus’s (341-270 BC) desire for tranquility.  As Epicurus sought to withdraw into his garden, so Mr. Bennet wishes to retreat into his study.

More fundamentally wrong than not providing for the financial future of his family, Mr. Bennet’s selfish desire to be left alone has led him to neglect his wife’s soul.   True, Mrs. Bennet was probably not an intelligent or mature young woman, but surely a firm and compassionate hand early in their marriage while they still had some affection for one another could have prevented her from becoming the grossly materialistic, unmannered and superficial person whom neither her husband nor anybody else can tolerate let alone respect.

If some of you accuse me of being too harsh on Mr. Bennet, I can only plead that I see too much of him in myself.  Those of us who enjoy being alone with a good book are easily tempted to abandon all too soon or never begin the demanding task of soulcraft.  Jane Austen saw this weakness in Mr. Bennet, although she handled it much more deftly than I and with her usual light touch of humor and wit.  If you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, I highly recommend it.  It is a wonderful romantic story, but Miss Austen also gives us much food for thought with her skillful character portrayals.  And, yes, be sure to enjoy the dramatic adaptations, but please, my younger friends, take the time to watch the 1995 BBC production.  It is by far the best.



2 thoughts on “In Defense of Mrs. Bennet

  1. I just recently read the book, and was struck by the same nuances about Mr. Bennet, which do not show up as clearly in the movies. I don’t think I had read the book all the way through before. Jane Austin was a sly and astute observer of people. Even Lydia’s headlong pursuit of male attention and lack of discernment is not unusual for girls with disengaged fathers. He had neglected the souls of his younger daughters as well, and his engagement with his older daughters seems conditional on his enjoyment of them being more like he is, rather than like his wife. Darcy’s criticism of Mr Bennet is spot on, and it surprised me, because I had sympathized with that character and despised Mrs. Bennet. I enjoyed seeing the greater depth and nuance in the book.

    On the other hand, the book depicts an appallingly unjust social structure that degrades the aristocracy as well. The lack of meaningful work seems dehumanizing, and seems to be the lot of both women and men alike while they fill their time with amusements of various kinds. I have been reading fiction from various eras in Britain, and am realizing how alien that hierarchical world is to me. The depth of divide can be traced through detective fiction, and the contemporary social legacy shows up in P.D. James’s books. Interesting food for thought. We have our own social legacy of injustice, and our own hierarchies and status structures, but they take different forms.

    Thanks for your insights. It makes me a little more sympathetic to Mrs. Bennet. I also find it interesting that this particular character, and those like it in Jane Austin’s books, are rather flat without redeeming characteristics, compared to other characters, although all the characters except for the main one/s are rather unambiguous. My first Jane Austin read was Emma, and I found it incredibly long and somewhat tedious at the time. It put me off reading anything else until I recently discovered I could get some of her other books on my Kindle for free.

    1. These are excellent comments, Barb, and I agree with what you say about the social structure of the day. Given that structure, however, Mr. Bennet’s failure to fulfill his obligations is even worse. By the way, I have read some P. D. James and like her work. I’m working on Dorothy Sayers right now, whom James admired. Thanks again for the comments.

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