In which I get ridiculously defensive of Mrs. Bennet, part 2.

11 Sep

So I will begin this post with a second anecdote, because who doesn’t love anecdotes. This past spring, the tubes were all abuzz with excitement over Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I was cautiously excited, until I found out that it was written by a man, and then the excitement level lowered a little, for reasons I had trouble articulating. Fortunately, my friend Judith managed to use words moar gooder than me on this subject, so rather than potentially drag this out for a whole other post I will instead just point you to hers. Anyhoo, the book was released, and I was curious, so I flipped through it at Barnes and Noble. In the back there was a “readers’ discussion guide”, and it was there that I hit the one that made me close the book, put it down, and never look back: “Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?”

Basically what this said to me was that the douche writing this had no understanding whatsoever of

  1. Early nineteenth-century England
  2. What life was like for women in early nineteenth-century England
  3. Austen

Here is the thing: what made Mrs. Bennet ridiculous was not that she wanted her daughters to all get married. What made her ridiculous was that she was overexciteable and overemotional for a woman of her age and station, and that she was bad at judging what it was appropriate to say in front of company and what was best left to the family. Wanting to marry off her daughters, and marry them off well, did not make her a bad mother for the time.

Here is the next thing: the Bennets are at the very bottom of the upper class. In Chapter Seven, it’s noted that Mrs. Bennet’s father “had been an attorney”, that her brother-in-law was a clerk for her father, “and succeeded him in the business”, and that her brother “settled in London in a respectable line of trade”—all fine lines of work, but all lines of work nonetheless, meaning she was middle-class and married up into the gentry. She wants her daughters to do at least as well as she did, first and foremost because the only way any of them are guaranteed security is if they married men with secure incomes. Remember Mr. Collins: because of the legal system in place, since the Bennets had no heirs (you’ll note I don’t say “male heirs”, because at the time, that would’ve been a redundancy, since only men could inherit) the Bennets’ estate would go to him when Mr. Bennet died. They would just have to depend on his not turning them out if they wanted to, you know, continue having a roof over their heads.

It sucks by our standards. It sucked by their standards, too, in a lot of people’s eyes; there’s a lot to suggest that Austen was one of these people herself. But it was a fact of life. Again, we get into “the past is another country” territory here. Reading Pride and Prejudice with the knowledge that good marriages were the only chance the Bennet girls had at stable, secure lives independent of their parents, I like to think that Mrs. Bennet becomes a little more sympathetic, her motives little more understandable. Make no mistake, she’s still there in part as a comic foil to Lizzie and Mr. Bennet, but the fact that she wants her daughters to marry well isn’t what establishes her thusly; how she deals with this fact, as I said earlier, is.

In conclusion, I think the main problem with Mrs. Bennet is that she is not a character who aged well as times have changed and women’s options have increased. No longer is marriage the primary goal for most young women, if it’s even a goal, period; women from rich families can inherit and stay rich; women who aren’t going to have inheritances to make them rich have plenty of options besides getting married or being passed from relative to relative for support. It can be hard, therefore, to understand why this is so important to her.

(Also, I kind of think Mr. Bennet is a bit of a dick, and I like the 2005 version for drawing a direct line between his benevolent neglect and Lydia’s behavior, as well as Mrs. Bennet’s dramatics and Lydia’s behavior, but I think I have lectured you guys enough for now. But one day, when you least suspect it, you will look at this blog and BOOM.)

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3 Responses to “In which I get ridiculously defensive of Mrs. Bennet, part 2.”

  1. Madeleine Robins September 11, 2009 at 14:55 #

    One of the things I really liked about the recent film of Pride and Prejudice was that you could see, in rare moments, that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had a relationship–not just him sniping at her and she being blithely clueless. There was even the suggestion (as if having five daughters wasn’t its own suggestion) that they had a sexual relationship, and that whatever Mr. Bennet’s disappointment in his wife’s intellectual attainments might have been, that he still found her attractive. He married the pretty girl for her looks, and even Austen makes it fairly clear that it’s unfair of him to be disappointed that she didn’t turn out to be a bluestocking as well.

  2. Victoria Martin September 12, 2009 at 02:31 #

    (you’ll note I don’t say “male heirs”, because at the time, that would’ve been a redundancy, since only men could inherit)

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I agree with you that wanting her daughters to marry is not per se what makes Mrs Bennet ridiculous (and Fay Weldon has a spirited defence of her in “Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen”, in which she argues that she is the heroine of the book), but I have to say that I find it hard to see many redeeming qualities in the way she handles the admittedly dire situation in which she finds herself. Mr Bennet handles it badly as well, and gets a rapping from the author for doing so, but unlike his wife he has a degree of self-insight and is therefore capable of realising his mistakes. Mrs Bennet, like Mr Collins, it utterly unaware of her own ridiculousness and therefore cannot change. (I’m inclined to think that lack of self-insight is the worst character flaw of all in Austen’s eyes (actual villains like Mr Elliott aside)).

    That’s not strictly true – the inheritance laws in those days were complex but women could, and did, inherit under certain circumstances (Mary Crawford as twenty thousand pounds, though it is her bother who got the property) The problem the Bennets face is that the estate is entailed, meaning Mr Bennet only inherited under the condition that it pass in its entirety to the nearest male relative. His plan – which wasn’t a bad one – was to have a son, who would “join with him in cutting off the entail” thus enabling Mr B to leave at least some of the estate to his daughters, but because he doesn’t have a son, he can’t put his plan into effect.

  3. Judith Proctor September 12, 2009 at 03:46 #

    One of the reasons I liked the recent ‘Lost in Austen’ was becasue it gave you more of an insight into Mrs Bennet. She was still comic/annoying, but one also saw the steel inside and the reasons why it was so important for her to get her daughters married.

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