It is unlikely that either Mr. or Mrs. Bennet would win any parenting awards. Nor are they they a role model of a happy marriage.
Mr. Bennet is the easier to take of the two. Perhaps because Austen herself liked a witty conversationalist, she gives Mr. Bennet plenty of ironic banter. Sure, he’s got a quip for every idiotic thing that comes out of Mrs. Bennet’s mouth, and he puts down his daughters with unsettling regularity, but he’s on our girl Lizzie side of things. And when he does come out with a snarky remark it isn’t said in a shrill scream. He’s calm — to the point of being detached. And if things get too hectic he just shuts the door to his man cave, er, I mean LIBRARY and lets the others put out the fire.Mrs. Bennet on the other hand is constantly in emergency mode. She’s over excited about everything… from the arrival of the militia in Meryton to Jane’s budding romance. Her mood swings are so intense that she’s either quite shallow or bipolar. If Mr. Bennet is disengaged from his daughter’s lives (specifically the part of his daughter’s lives that involves them getting a husband) she is hyper involved. And while Mr. Bennet hides in his library, Mrs. Bennet prefers to take center stage. In case of emergency she succumbs to her palpitations and flutterings and retires to her lounge to be waited on hand and foot.
Both of them play favorites while neglecting to educate their daughters and have chosen an economic course that requires the girls to marry well or face lives of genteel poverty which their upbringings have made them entirely unprepared for.” [ Story and History; A guide to Everything Jane Austen ]
Mr. Bennet favor’s Lizzie with her sharp tongue and sense of irony. He has a soft spot for Jane who is so sweet he has a hard time finding anything negative about her. But by the time we get to Mary his patience wears thin. He makes fun of her zealous nature and doesn’t support her earnest attempts to exhibit. He has all but given up on Kitty and Lydia and calls them the two silliest girls in the country.Mrs. Bennet admires Jane’s beauty and good nature, but she really dotes on Lydia (her twin in temperament and love of all things in a Red Coat.) Her second daughter is a source of anxiety for her– especially when she refuse a perfectly good offer of marriage from Mr. Collins.
Austen describes the couple at the end of the first chapter…
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
They married young. Mr. Bennet…
captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had, very early in their marriage, put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. … To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement.
The novel is almost as much about economics as it is about love. Longbourn, the Bennet’s family estate is entailed away to the nearest male heir upon the untimely demise of Mr. Bennet.
When first Mr. Bennet had married, economy was held to be perfectly useless; for, of course, they were to have a son. This son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age, and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for.
But they didn’t have a son, so Mr. Collins is set to inherit the estate.
Even if they HAD had a son there’s no guarantee that Junior would have agreed to end the entail. He could have wound up like John Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility and turned his back on his family financially. Given the hands off attitude the Bennets employed with their children’s education Junior could have been as feckless and week minded as Lydia. I doubt that the estate could have survived long in that case. A son would not have necessarily solved the problem. Better if the Bennets had economized through the years.
Better yet if the girls were better educated. If the girls were really to be “marriage market” ready they should have had a governess or some one who insisted they learn to drawl (one of Caroline/Darcy’s requirements for a refined lady) read the classics, learn foreign languages, dance and play an instrument. Only two of them can play an instrument, and they don’t play all that well.
Given the economic uncertainty for the girls Mrs. Bennet should have at least prepared them with a more domestic education. At dinner when Mr. Collins wants to compliment which ever of his fair cousins has prepared the meal, Mrs. Bennet informs him that they keep a cook, “and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen.” But maybe the girls should learn a little about cooking. Not to go into service but to be able to run their own kitchen as Lydia certainly will have to. Lady Catherine brags at finding a governess position for some young ladies she knows. That’s another profession the girls could be readying for.
But neither parent seems at all interested in pushing them toward preparing for the future beyond winning the husband lottery.
Still, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet add a lot of humor to the novel (even if it is self/co inflicted.) And, given that I’ve been known to be sarcastic and I’m a lot closer to their age then Lizzie or Jane’s age I’ve got a soft spot for them. Perhaps they wont win Parent of the Year, 1813, but the novel just wouldn’t be the same with out them.
- Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, read by Emilia Fox (Naxos Audiobooks) – A Review & Giveaway (austenprose.com)
- “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (2005) Review (rosiepowell2000.typepad.com)