Held 14th March 2012, the second meeting of the Hunter Branch was dedicated to the defence of Mr and Mrs Bennet. Pamela Whelan spoke in defence of Mrs Bennet and Ken Longworth barracked for Mr Bennet.
Most people first meet Mrs Bennet in a film, television or stage adaptation. Often she is depicted as a one-dimensional character played for comic relief.
Jane Austen described her thus, ‘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.’ Austen chose her words with great care and precision. We tend to concentrate on ‘mean’ while overlooking ‘woman’, ‘discontented’, ‘business’ and ‘solace’. Mrs Bennet is a woman with her limitations doing the best she can.
For middle class women in the late eighteenth century, marriage was the only respectable occupation. Less desirable alternatives were that of governess (£20 p.a, on call 24/7 and no holidays) or the paid companion to a crotchety old woman (for less pay and worse conditions). The alternative was to live as a poor relation in the house of a brother or cousin.
The pretty Miss Gardiner did no more than her duty in marrying Mr Bennet. Marriage was concerned with property, money and social status. Miss Gardiner’s dowry consisted of £5000 which generated an income of £250 which was quite a significant amount when compared to the dowries of other Austen characters e.g Mansfield Park’s Maria Ward £7000 (£3,000 short of a baronet). Miss Gardiner, (daughter of a country solicitor) with her youth, beauty and good humour had no influential connections and is considered ‘common’. But who is she considered ‘common’ by? Lady Catherine deBourgh, Mr Darcy and Miss Bingley. Characters consumed by family pride.
By the end of the eighteenth century, younger sons of noble families went into law. John Knightley, younger brother to George Knightly is a lawyer. Much higher up the social ladder in Persuasion, Mr Elliot heir presumptive to Kellynch Hall is a lawyer also. Mrs Phillips, Mrs Bennet’s sister, marries her father’s clerk. This is significant that the clerk assumes the partnership rather than the son.
Mr Gardiner, we know is a man of intellect and probity who would have been a good lawyer but has pursued a more lucrative and challenging career in trade. The industrial revolution afforded new opportunities. No longer was the merchant class seen as a barrier to entering the nobility as witnessed by the proposed match between Mr Bingley and Georgiana. (Akin to the sons and daughters of today’s doctors and lawyers pursuing careers in IT and communications). By the eighteenth century, trade was seen as an equally acceptable profession as church, law or army. The marriage between Lizzy and Darcy is seen as unequal due to Mrs Bennet’s silliness and lack of decorum.
Returning to the adjective ‘mean’, Mrs Bennet and Mrs Phillips have no education or elegance of mind. It was not unusual for the son to receive a good education whereas for the daughter education was seen as a waste. As a woman, Mrs Bennet would have been able to read but not write. She would be able to sew but have no idea of economy. Her arithmetic ability would be confined to counting. Multiplication and division were outside her sphere let alone balancing the books. There is no encouragement to broaden her mind by reading books.
Lack of care to education is also apparent in the aristocracy as well. Lady Catherine deBourgh cannot play an instrument, does not appear to read and only seems content in interfering in the lives of others.
It is Mr Bennet’s fault that there was no governess. For £20 p.a. it is something the Bennet household could have afforded. The Bennet girls can read and at least two of the girls can play an instrument. This has being achieved out of a sense of duty rather than from zeal. With imparting social graces, Mrs Bennet has been far more successful. The girls can play cards, converse and dance. The girls are ‘reputed beauties’. They live in a small country town, so if they were deficient it would be known and reported. The girls are socially acceptable. Something is being done right.
Mrs Bennet takes pride in running her household. She knows that Purvis Lodge’s ‘attics are dreadful’, her dinner parties ‘do credit to her housekeeping’ as is seen when she entertains the two Netherfield gentlemen, ‘The dinner was as well dressed as any I saw. The venison was roasted to a turn-and everybody said, they never saw so fat a haunch. The soup was fifty times better than what we had at the Lucas’s last week; and even Mr Darcy acknowledged, that the partridges were remarkably well done; and I suppose he has two or three French cooks at least.’
The business of Mrs Bennet’s life is the marriage market. She has five daughters whose security depends upon making a suitable marriage. With an entailed property and small dowries this is not an easy proposition.
Discontented. Marriage to Mr Bennet is no bed of roses. Mr Bennet chose no more wisely than she did, ‘that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character’. He delights in teasing her. He is an unsocial man. A man who shows no courtesy towards his wife. We see how thoughtless he is when disclosing intelligence of Mr Collins arrival. Mr Bennet received correspondence from Mr Collins a month prior. Replied a fortnight later but only disclosed to his wife on the day of Mr Collins expected arrival. We must consider in those days the time required to prepare the guest chamber and the social reorganization this entailed. He leaves his wife potential exposed.
Most condemning is how exposed the family is due to Lydia’s elopement. Mr Bennet chose the path of least resistance. He failed to improve the estate. He failed to set aside money for his five daughters. He is a man without connections. During the crisis, it is Mrs Bennet’s brother who looked towards for help, it is Mrs Bennet’s sister turned to for comfort. Lydia’s elopement condemns Mr Bennet as an unsocial, lazy, careless and imprudent man.
The marriage vows of the Common Prayer Book would have had the parties promise in sickness and health to love, honour and obey. Mr Bennet has been less than conscientious in this. He may not indulge in the usual vices of infidelity, gambling and drinking but he by abiding by her ignorance has contributed to her folly and exposed her to the contempt of her children. Mrs Bennet has been a better wife to him, she has never defined his word, bourn him five children in a time where death in childbirth was common. Provided him with a well-run home.
Mrs Bennet’s fault is being too obvious in her quest. Her indecorum merely a manifestation of her conscientious endeavour to secure her daughters’ future.
‘Mr Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had not been insufficient to make his wife understand his character’. This humour is seen when the topic of Mr Bingley’s arrival is first canvassed between Mr and Mrs Bennet, ‘They have nothing to recommend them,’ replied he; ‘they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more quickness than her sisters.’
Mr Bennet is seen as an uncaring husband and father who locks himself away in the library, has done nothing to end the entail, and is unable to exert any control over the household as seen by the inability to procure the horses from the farm.
Mr Bennet can be seen as a caring father when he steps in to protect Mary from becoming a laughing stock, ‘That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.’ Or when he thwarts Mr Collins’ marriage proposal to Lizzy, ‘An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents.-Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, I will never see you again if you do.’
He is capable of regret, ‘Mr Bennet had very often wished, before this period of his life, that, instead of spending his whole income, he had laid by an annual sum, for the better provision of his children, and of his wife, is she survived him. He now wished it more than ever. Had he done his duty in that respect, Lydia need not have been indebted to her uncle, for whatever of honour or credit could now be purchased of her.’
Nor was he neglectful of his children’s education as Elizabeth testifies under cross-examination of Lady Catherine deBourgh, ‘Then, who taught you? Who attended to you? Without a governess you must have been neglected,’
‘Compared to some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters necessary. Those chose to be idle, certainly might.’
Mr Bennet does make an effort to recover Lydia, for we are told, ‘Mr Bennet seemed wholly disinclined at present, to leave London.’
Perhaps Mr Bennet’s greatest fault is the cocooned nature of his existence that he should have gone out with the boys more. He does want the best for his daughters.
Compared to Pamela Whelan’s opening, Ken Longworth’s counter argument was weak with a successive quotes pasted together to form his narrative. Selective quoting which does nothing to enhance his argument when placed back into their context. Mary is disconcerted and embarrassed by her father’s correction. Mr Bennet does nothing towards tending Mr Collins’ affections towards Mary, the only daughter that would be prepared to marry him. By his own admission, his guilt, it will pass away soon enough.’
Such discussions are generally opened to the floor with one suspects pre-arranged Dorothy Dixer questions.
Is the Bennet relationship based on Austen’s owned parents? The Morland marriage in Northanger Abbey is generally assumed to be the closest reflection of the Austen marriage.
Could the entail have been cut off? No, it generally took three generations (father, son, and grandson) to sign the document simultaneously to cut the entail. The property could not be mortgaged but had to be maintained. The reason being that it prevented land from being divided up to the point it became unproductive. Furnishing could be sold.
In view of this it is highly irresponsible that Mr Bennet did little to secure the economic future of his family. Once he died, the family would have been left homeless and destitute.
How could Elizabeth and Jane emerged from such a dysfunctional family? Argument often articulated is that when Lizzy and Jane were born, Mr Bennet was actively involved in their upbringing. By the birth of the third daughter his interest had waned. Kitty is seen not to be a lost cause by the end of the novel. Counter argument to this, the implication of father influence is overdrawn and is perhaps a fault with the construction of the book and its overuse of coincidence. Pride and Prejudice is an extensive rewrite of a juvenile work.