At first glance, she seems to have nothing whatsoever to recommend her as a wife or mother. Jane Austen says of her, ‘She was a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper.’ Furthermore, her manners leave much to be desired; Mr Darcy, in his letter to Lizzy, writes about Mrs Bennet’s ‘total want of propriety’ and poor Lizzy herself, ‘blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation’ when her mother came to see Jane at Netherfield. Lizzy knows, all too well, that her mother's behaviour seriously lessens her chances of making a good marriage.
Jane Austen: National Portrait Gallery
However, whilst admitting that Mrs Bennet’s behaviour could be embarrassing, nevertheless, I came to the conclusion that Mrs Bennet had also given her daughters some very useful qualities.
Lovers: from The Lady’s Pocket Magazine
For her point of view, ‘The business of her life was to get her daughters married,’ and in this she is entirely single-minded. Far from being of ‘mean understanding’, Mrs Bennet is absolutely clued up here. Her daughters have got to marry; if they don’t, their financial situation will be perilous indeed. After Mr Bennet dies, Mr Collins will inherit his estate. Would he offer them a home at Longbourn? I can’t see any of the sisters wanting that. Their only work option is to be a governess; and we know how sketchy their education was. ‘We never had any governess’ Lizzy confesses to Lady Catherine.
From: Correspondence between a Mother and her Daughter by Ann Taylor, 1817
So what did Mrs Bennet give her daughters? I began to think about why Mr Bennet married her. Jane Austen tells us he was, ‘captured by (her) youth and beauty and that appearance of good-humour which youth and beauty generally give.’ And if Mr Bennet, a well-educated man, could be taken in by youth and beauty, why shouldn’t other eligible men fall for her beautiful, good-humoured daughters?
Genetically, Mrs Bennet has passed her beauty down to at least four of her daughters. When Mr Bingley first pays a call on Mr Bennet ‘he had entertained hopes of being admitted to a sight of the young ladies, of whose beauty he had heard much.’ Beauty and good-humour are very useful qualities for girls who are not rich.
Promenade Dress, 1809. Lydia in Brighton?
Furthermore, I would argue that she also handed down a sort of sexual self-confidence in relationships with men. Jane Austen mentions Lydia’s ‘high animal spirits and a sort of natural self-consequence’, and she means, surely, sex appeal. When Lydia returns to Longbourn after her shot gun marriage, she is described as: ‘untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy and fearless.’ How many of us have heroines with very similar qualities (except, perhaps, being noisy). None of the Bennet girls are shrinking violets - and their outgoing self-confidence certainly doesn't come from Mr Bennet who prefers to shut himself up in his study and read.
From: Costumes Parisiens, 1827
Lizzy, too, has inherited the magic ingredient of sex appeal. Consider how Darcy reacts to her at Netherfield, early on in the story: ‘There was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman and he was by her.’
She’s beautiful and she’s sexy; and for that she has Mrs Bennet to thank. Of course, she has other, more solid qualities, too, but it is these very basic ones which initially attract Darcy to her. I decided that you could do a lot worse than have Mrs Bennet as your mother.
I rest my case.