Saturday, March 05, 2016


I've just been re-reading Pride and Prejudice, and I found myself wondering what, if anything, could be said in Mrs Bennet's favour.

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.

Elizabeth Hawksley


Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Very well argued, Elizabeth! Mrs B loves her daughters very much and want the best for them, which is why she wants them all to make good matches. At the start of the book Mr Bennet and Mr Collins are not on good terms, so she has little hopes of them living on his charity. Yes she is silly but she is pretty single minded when it comes to her goal in life, to see her girls comfortably established.

So I think, in the end, I agree with you!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comment, Melinda/Sarah. When I came to think about it, the only really sensible mother of a Jane Austen heroine is Mrs Morland in 'Northanger Abbey- - and she's off-stage for most of the book!

Sophie Weston said...

I completely agree with you, Elizabeth. I'd even go so far as to say that Mrs Bennet is a better mother than Mr Bennet is a father. Even Lizzie, with whom he has a rapport and shares a sense of the ridiculous, can't count on his deeper understanding of her feelings. And his conduct, while not putting his daughters to the blush, is neglectful to the point of irresponsibility and sometimes downright unkind. (Poor Mary!)

I still love him. I think he is a disappointed man, repressing anger by withdrawal and, in public, wit. But he is absolutely an absentee parent, his deficiencies supplied by Mr Gardiner (Mrs Bennet's brother, after all) and, eventually, Darcy.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

You are so right, Sophie. Mr Bennet is very passive; his failings are the things he doesn't do. For example, he should have done as he ought and saved some of his income for his daughters' futures. If he'd put aside only 10% p.a., it would have become £4000 at least within twenty years.

And I also agree about Mary. He is the parent with brains; and Mary is interested in things of the mind. Why on earth didn't he see to it that her mind was properly trained?

Jo Beverley said...

I've always though Mrs. Bennet got a bad rap. It was essential that her daughters marry well, for her and for them, for where is she to live as a widow? Their predicament is entirely Mr. Bennet's fault, but he's still careless and clueless when their plight is obvious. The only count against Lizzie is that she doesn't seem to see what a selfish failure he is and support her mother more.

But then, I suppose she'd have had to accept Mr. Collins.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

I think sensible mothers don't make for good fiction! And as for Mr Bennet, if he had done as he ought and provided for his children, there would have been no romance between Darcy and Elizabeth! (vbg)

I feel Jane Austen loved all her characters, even when she could see their failings. It's what makes her books so readable.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Jo. I think Lizzy does see her father's failings - even if only partially. In Chapter 42, we hear that: 'Elizabeth, however, has never been blind to the impropriety of her father's behaviour as a husband.' But she is a pragmatist and she 'endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook.' But I agree with you that she could, perhaps, have supported her mother more. But, as you say, she'd have had to accept Mr Collins, not to mention machinate for Jane to stay longer at Netherfield.

Still, after coping with such parental failings, she emerged fully equipped to stand up to Lady Catherine!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I absolutely agree with you, Melinda/Sarah. Somehow, novelists have got to get the heroine's mother off stage; either that or give the her a mother who is a complete pain - like Mrs Bennet. Jane Austen sensibly kills off Emma and Anne's mothers; Mrs Price, who is a hopeless mother, is safely left in Portsmouth for much of the book, and Mrs Dashwood has her own failings which impact on Marianne in particular.

And, you are so right, the realism of her characterisation makes her books both compulsively readable, and loved.

Fenella J Miller said...

I think you are correct in your assumptions - Mrs Bennet did what all mothers aspired to - married two of her daughters to rich men. Couldn't remain in same room with though.

Jane Odiwe said...

I totally agree, Elizabeth, and I wonder if it's because as I've grown older myself it's easier to be more sympathetic to some of Jane's less sympathetic characters. It can't have been easy having so many children, one after the other, constantly being a disappointment to Mr Bennet, and the rest of society who only value a son and heir. It's no wonder someone so desperate to make sure her daughters have not only a roof over their heads once their parents are gone, but also the very best in life, betrays her feelings from time to time. I loved your thought-provoking post, and the gorgeous images!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comment, Fenella. I agree that Mrs Bennet did all she could to marry her daughters off, but she was less than scrupulous about how she did it. She was remarkably unfazed about Lydia living with Wickham before marrying him - something most respectable mothers of the time would have been horrified by.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I agree with you, Jane, that perhaps we view Mrs Bennet differently as we grow older. I can now understand why Charlotte married Mr Collins. She gains in status as a married woman, she has her own house, she knows that she will be financially provided for, and she's even expecting a 'young olive branch'! What more could most women of the time ask?

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Well this discussion has engendered a rather outrageous idea -

Elizabeth, as you say Mrs B is unfazed by Lydia living with Wickham. We can guess from snippets of dialogue that Mrs B was a bit of a flirt when she was younger, what if she and Mr Bennet went (ahem) a bit too far when he was courting her, and they had to get married in a rush?

Have I gone to far? Should I retire, blushing, to the window with my tambour frame?

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Shock! Horror! Melinda/Sarah. Would she? She married up, remember, and I'm not sure she'd risk it. She had a sensible brother in Mr Gardiner to keep an eye on her.

But now you've started me thinking...

Anonymous said...

Lovely, lovely way to start a Saturday! Thank you all. I suspect that Mrs. Bennett did "catch" Mr. Bennett with some sort of compromising situation because while he found her lovely and 'good humored' he surely knew that her "understanding" was not superior? Perhaps not...young men in particular I think, imbue girls they find beautiful with the attributes they want them to have, all evidence aside.

Sort of thinking more about the night than conversation at breakfast the next day, and the next day, and the next...

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your kind compliment, Anonymous. Much appreciated. I'm quite sure you are right about the one-track direction of young men's thoughts! And not just young men. What about Marianne's obsession with Willoughby in 'Sense and Sensibility'? Not much holding back there.

Elizabeth Bailey said...

What a great post and fascinating discussion in the comments. I do think Mrs Bennet has redeeming features. She's not to be envied with five daughters to dispose of, each having very little fortune and little hope of finding husbands in the restricted district. Small wonder she jumps at the chance to grab Mr Bingley if she can for her lovely Jane.

I thought Brenda Blethyn gave a wonderful rendering of Mrs Bennet. She played her as a harrassed mother, out of her depth in the presence of Darcy and Bingley and trying too hard to please. She was making the best of whatever came her way - and I think that's very much Mrs Bennet in the book. Her origins don't help her cope with the mores of the class she's now in and she's frivolous at heart - like Lydia, who probably resembles her most in character. I think she's greatly to be pitied.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I love your kind and sympathetic angle on Mrs Bennet, Elizabeth. I can see why she is to be pitied but I rather doubt whether she'd view herself that way. Just think how thrilled she is to have married off her 'two most deserving daughters' on the same day. Meryton will be talking about it for months!