Living Stones Academy

Educating by atmosphere, discipline, and life

Analyzing Mrs. Bennet

on August 1, 2011

This is an essay I wrote after reading Pride and Prejudice for my book club. No, we were not required to do that; I was just inspired. Smile WARNING: There be spoilers ahead! So if you’ve never read it, or seen any film you may want to consider doing so first. (I highly recommend the 1995 BBC version; it’s 6 hours long but well worth it; I do NOT recommend the most recent version with Keira Knightley as it doesn’t cover the book half so well) This has nothing to do with how I’m homeschooling right now, since my children are obviously too young for something like Jane Austen. But it is about what I am reading, which I consider Mother Culture, and so it fits. Another note: there are no page numbers to reference. I apologize for that, but I was reading it on my Kindle (it was free and I couldn’t find my hard copy) and am so new to that technology that I don’t know how to get page numbers to work, or even if that function was available on this text. I will attest that all quotes are directly from the text, with obvious additions or explanations in brackets or with dots. None are of my interpretation, and I believe I have been faithful to the text in that no quotes were taken out of context merely to prove my point, but definitely in  context support my conclusions.

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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.

Thus we are introduced to the mother of Elizabeth Bennet, heroine of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. From the beginning we are instructed to expect no greatness of person from Mrs. Bennet. To us the wording may not be crystal clear but it is understandable. The word “mean” does not indicate cruelty; it takes on the other definition: inferior or poor. Or perhaps, another definition which is “of low birth or social class”. Certainly Austen likes words and uses them fully. But either way, we have her a woman who is simple, selfish, and a busybody. Her selfishness and ignorance is what I plan to examine.

She is selfish because her business in life is get her daughters married—not ensure their happiness, or raise good women, or find husbands for them, but to “get” them married.

Perhaps we could argue her desire to marry them off is not from selfish ambition but love. After all, in that day women really had no other career to aim for. Sometimes they could hire themselves as governesses, nurses, servants, etc. But really the aim was for marriage. So it could be believed that it was only their welfare that she thought of. However, I don’t think Austen leaves us that option.

If I can but see one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield . . .and all the others equally well married, I shall have nothing to wish for.”

Oh, is that all? Not “happily married”. It is where that daughter would be mistress of that matters. It means her own status in the community. We find in the story that she is in competition to marry off one of her daughters before her neighbor can. So she does not think of her daughters being happy in their marriage, unless she thinks their own happiness is the same as hers—wrapped up in wealth and status. When Elizabeth refuses her cousin’s hand on principle, her mother says she will not forgive her, because it’s all about her:

. . . .for nobody is on my side, nobody takes part with me. I am cruelly used, nobody feels for my poor nerves”

Her ensuing schemes to secure Netherfield for her eldest daughter show great want of feeling. Jane has been invited to dine with the sisters of Mr. Bingley, new resident at Netherfield. He is not supposed to be dining with them, so Mrs. Bennet insists that Jane travel the three miles by horse expressly because it looks like rain and she will therefore have to stay the night. She doesn’t care how obvious the ploy is—her simple mind tells her she is more than clever so she probably cannot fathom that anyone would guess. She also completely ignores her daughter’s chagrin and desire to not follow through. Jane rides, and is caught in the rain, not by it, and so catches a cold. The next morning Elizabeth receives a letter from Jane. She writes to assure her younger sister—not her mother or father—that she need not be upset when she hears rumor that the doctor has been. It is telling when a child is so aware of her mother’s indifferent feelings towards her that she doesn’t bother to assure her mother that she is all right.

Jane’s instincts are correct, because when her father is made aware of it, and drily congratulates his wife on Jane’s cold, she brushes away the comment that Jane could die by saying no one dies of a cold. The thing is, though, in those days people could and did die from colds, or at least from what the cold left the person vulnerable to.

Had she found Jane in any apparent danger, Mrs. Bennet would have been very miserable . . .

This might be construed as an indication of affection, but it is doubtful whether this misery would be for her daughter and not for what it would cost her. The next line certainly brings this into question:

. . .being satisfied on seeing her that her illness was not alarming, she had no wish of her recovering immediately, as her restoration to health would probably remove her from Netherfield. She would not listen, therefore, to her daughter’s proposal of being carried home.

That rather seals it. Her daughter’s wishes, comfort, well being, and feelings were inconsequential. What mother desires her child to remain miserable and ill?

It is therefore left to the sisters to support and look after each other; their mother never has. It is with amusement that Elizabeth answers the inquiry of Lady Catherine, when the latter states that it must have been tremendous of her mother to take on the whole of the education of five daughters herself. Elizabeth has to hide a smile at the thought, that her mother took such an interest (or could), and say that didn’t happen, and that they had to fend for themselves.

Back at Netherfield, Jane and Elizabeth make a pact to request the carriage; they are painfully aware of putting their hosts out and want to leave.

But Mrs. Bennet, who had calculated on her daughters remaining at Netherfield till the following Tuesday . . . could not bring herself to receive them with pleasure before.

Again her lack of propriety and regard for her daughters’ feelings makes itself plain. The girls therefore request use of Bingley’s carriage and go home early, as they preferred.

They were not welcomed home very cordially by their mother. Mrs. Bennet . . . thought them very wrong to give so much trouble, and was sure Jane would have caught cold again.

These are not of course her true concerns—if they had been she would have been anxious for her children to come home quickly, and would never have risked her daughter being caught in the rain to begin with (or at least would have shown some consternation on hearing she was sick). The only true concern is that what she thought best based on her designs was not adhered to.

Her lack of motherly attention is also evident in that she neither understands nor has ever shown attention to the character of her children. She insists that Lydia would never have run off with a man given proper attention. Her exact words are, “She is not the kind of girl to do such a thing.” But really, she’s the only one in the family claiming something so ludicrous. For everyone else, the only shock is that they had no idea of Lydia and Wickham forming an attachment. But to actually be so stupid? Yes, believable, completely.

Her lack of understanding when it comes to her children can be put down to only one of two things: true ignorance, or dishonesty. Parents who close their eyes to the defects in their children do them no favors, and are just as bad as parents who insist on not only seeing defects in their children but in declaring their children to have worse defects than any others.

. . .Mr. Bennet coolly observed: “From all that I can collect by your manner of talking, you must be two of the silliest girls in the country. . . .”

I am astonished, my dear,” said Mrs. Bennet, “that you should be so ready to think your own children silly. If I wished to think slightingly of anybody’s children, it should not be of my own, however.”

If my children are silly, I must hope to be always sensible of it.”

Yes—but as it happens, they are all of them very clever.”

Perhaps, though, Austen means for us to realize this is not willful blindness in Mrs. Bennet’s case, but true ignorance. She herself is not much better. In speaking to Mr. Bingley she over praises her eldest daughter, Jane, by saying she often tells her other daughters “they are nothing to HER.” Whether she actually says such a thing to her own children—for what mother does or thinks that but the poorest kind—is debatable. Any mother that tells her children that one sibling is better than them, or constantly tells one child about the defects of his or her siblings, certainly is not interested in promoting affection. The Bible actually calls it something God HATES (Proverbs 6:19, “one who sows discord among brothers”). Beyond that, in this scene, it is certainly a lack of decorum: she says this to the man she hopes will marry Jane, while Elizabeth is in the room. It certainly does not raise the bar where she herself is concerned, and how embarrassing for Elizabeth. But she doesn’t care.

In the same scene she displays her completely lack of understanding, both of the character of others and Elizabeth’s. The latter begins a playful banter with Bingley, whom she has become close to, but her mother, being of “mean understanding”, doesn’t . . .well, get it.

Lizzy,” cried her mother, “remember where you are, and do not run on in the wild manner that you are suffered to do at home.”

I did not know before,” continued Bingley immediately [to Elizabeth, ignoring her mother], “that you were a studier of character. . . .”

We can see that, not being possessed of cleverness or wit, Mrs. Bennet believes others are exactly as she is and if she does not like it, get it, or appreciate it, surely no one else can. If she cannot imagine a reason for it, then there is no reason for it.

Mr. Bingley was obliged to be in town the following day, and, consequently, unable to accept the honour of their invitation, etc. Mrs. Bennet was quite disconcerted. She could not imagine what business he could have in town so soon after his arrival in Hertfordshire. . . .

She is also unfortunately the victim of her own bad behavior towards others. She imagines sins in them that, if were she, would not be a sin, but would be perfectly acceptable. Almost subconsciously, though, she admits to the wrongness of it, and so imagines everyone is judging her the way she would judge them. Judgmental people are often the most insecure and fearful of anyone.

. . .I suppose they often talk of having Longbourn when your father is dead. . . .”

It was a subject which they could not mention before me.”

No; it would have been strange if they had; but I make no doubt they often talk of it between themselves. Well, if they can be easy with an estate that is not lawfully their own, so much the better. I should be ashamed of having one that was only entailed on me.”

This full statement not only demonstrates her habit of imputing bad character in others, but also her ignorance of law, and her duplicity. It is lawfully theirs (the Collins’), and she would be anything but ashamed if the entail was towards any offspring, not just male (meaning her daughters would have the inheritance).

Her selfish ignorance is further painted in the continuing conversation regarding the study of persons, while at Netherfield, when Mr. Darcy joins in.

[Elizabeth] “Yes, but intricate characters are the MOST amusing. They have at least that advantage.”

The country,” said Darcy, “can in general supply but a few subjects for such a study. In a country neighborhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society.”

But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.”

Yes, indeed,” cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighborhood. “I assure you there is quite as much of THAT going on in the country as in town.”

Everybody was surprised, and Darcy, after looking at her for a moment, turned silently away.

Latching on to the one statement she understood, Mrs. Bennet showed she understood nothing.

In regards to Lydia’s elopement, Mrs. Bennet’s consternation is for herself only. Not for her daughter’s safety or wisdom or morality or future, but only how it reflects on her. Austen leaves us no room to give her any good excuse:

. . .with tears and lamentations of regret, invectives against the villainous conduct of Wickham, and complaints of her own sufferings and ill-usage; blaming everybody but the person to whose ill-judging indulgence the errors of her daughter must principally be owing [herself].

She continues to blame everyone, including her husband, who didn’t allow the whole family to go to Brighton. In her eyes she is never at fault—nothing she does is wrong—and that when bad things happen it is everyone elses fault and is deliberately calculated against her. Only a mentally ill person believes everyone to be in conspiracy against him or her. She blames the Forsters for not having kept a better eye on Lydia,

I always thought they were very unfit to have the charge of her.”

There is no honest recollection or self-realization. She completely supported the Forsters before. But it can be imagined, that if she would be reminded of this, or confronted, she would at first categorically deny it, insisting that it is made up to make her sound like the one at fault. Then in nearly the same breath, she would half admit it by saying her true feelings were secret, and that she only went along with everyone else for fear of censure. (This is conjecture of course, but it fits with the character as painted.)

It is all a conspiracy, and the fault of everyone else. She blames her husband for the entail. In the law it means “to settle the inheritance of (property) over a number of generations so that ownership remains within a particular group, usually one family.” In the case of Mr. Bennet, the entail meant their home would go to the next male in line. Since he had all daughters, when Mr. Bennet died the property would go to his cousin, Mr. Collins. But because of her “mean understanding”, she just decided it was all her husband’s fault.

They had often attempted [to explain to her the nature of an entail] before, but it was a subject on which Mrs. Bennet was beyond the reach of reason . . .

I am sure, if I had been [Mr. Bennet], I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.”

Especially interesting—it is all his fault, and she would have done better. So why did she never press the subject before? It is explained later that they both expected to have at least one son, and so both were unwise in their finances. But for all her railing against her husband, she never once shows scruples with money, never cleverness when it comes to law . . .yet had it been just she, none of this would have happened. But she seems to think money is in endless supply when it is something she has designed to acquire.

Returning to the subject of her daughter’s elopement, Austen continues to leave us no doubt that there is not the least concern for her daughter’s personal honor and well-being.

And as for wedding clothes, do not let them wait for that, but tell Lydia she shall have as much money as she chooses to buy them, after they are married. . . .And tell my dear Lydia not to give any directions about her clothes till she has seen me, for she does not know which are the best warehouses.”

This, then is her chief concern: clothes. When her husband refuses to advance the funds for the wonderful wedding she envisions, that is her one concern.

She was more alive to the disgrace which her want of new clothes must reflect on her daughter’s nuptials, than to any sense of shame at her eloping and living with Wickham a fortnight before they took place.

Her lack of true love and affection is not only towards her children, but her husband. She claims to fear for her husband’s life—that he will fight the scoundrel that stole their daughter and will not win and so will die (which doesn’t say much for her confidence in her husband’s ability either)—but when she hears he is coming home, she’s not pleased in the least, “considering what her anxiety for his life had been before.”

What, is he coming home, and without poor Lydia?” she cried. “Sure he will not leave London before he has found them. Who is to fight Wickham, and make him marry her, if he comes away?”

She is never to be pleased.

Well, that is not entirely true. She is pleased when she hears that Wickham and Lydia are to be married.

The marriage of a daughter, which had been the first object of her wishes since Jane was sixteen, was now on the point of accomplishment. . . .She was busily searching through the neighborhood for a proper situation for her daughter . . .without knowing or considering what their income might be . . .

Also, unlike the rest of the family, who feel a very proper indebtedness to her brother (who it appears has put up a great deal of money to buy this marriage; this is before Elizabeth discovers Mr. Darcy’s hand in it), she feels it is her absolute entitlement, and doesn’t in the least believe he is owed a “Thank you”.

Well,” cried her mother, “it is all very right; who should do it but her own uncle? If he had not had a family of his own, I and my children must have had all his money, you know; and it is the first time we ever had anything from him, except a few presents.”

Everyone owes her and she owes no one anything.

She is manipulative to the extreme, attempting to use falsely laid guilt and obligation at the feet of her husband and daughters to make them do what she wishes. Though fortunately for them they are immune to such tactics. When Elizabeth refuses Mr. Collins’ hand:

Aye, there she comes. . .looking as unconcerned as may be, and caring no more for us than if we were at York, provided she can have her own way. . . .I told you in the library, you know, that I should never speak to you again, and you will find me as good as my word. I have no pleasure in talking to undutiful children.”

Some professing Christian parents use “honor your father and mother” in this way, trying to manipulate children, especially grown children, into doing only what they wish with no consideration for that other mandate—“A man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”; in other words, they are now the family unit, and neither husband nor wife is under the authority of their parents any longer—or any thought to what might actually be best for a grown child and his/her family. This can come out in various circumstances: “that job is such a secular profession, what will I tell people?” “You’re moving so far away means I can’t see my grandchildren, that’s dishonoring to me.” “You are commanded to listen to my wisdom, and I think you should buy that house and stop being so stubborn.” But it’s still manipulation and not at all based on godly instruction. It is an abuse of what God gave as an instruction to children. It does not mean “every word that proceeds from your mother’s mouth is the pinnacle of godly wisdom”, as if simply being a mother makes one wise. It is quite obvious that maturity of character does not automatically develop in a person because of motherhood—every one of us, if we are honest people, can know this by simply looking at ourselves; I have no illusions of being absolutely wise and knowing all simply because I have children. But there are those that consider the absolute duty of children to override any duty they themselves also have (namely, “do not frustrate your children”, an instruction that is prefaced by “fathers”, but could easily apply to both parents). Yes, we should all “honor” our parents regardless of imperfection, but it is debatable whether “honor” in this sense means to put aside all wisdom and personal understanding by simply doing anything they say (once we are grown and have decisions to make which affect us and our families) simply because it is they that say it. If our parents have shown by their own choices and lives to have possession of great wisdom, or have demonstrated that they have learned from wrong choices, then it would be foolish not to heed them. Austen actually makes that point—Mr. Bennet threatens never to speak to Elizabeth if she does marry Mr. Collins, most likely because of the silliness of Mr. Collins that he enjoys from a distance. But as he says to her later when he can’t understand why Elizabeth would marry Mr. Darcy, not knowing about what has passed between them, “My child, let me not have the grief of seeing YOU unable to respect your partner in life.” We know from a previous narration that he speaks of his own relationship with his wife, and Elizabeth is pained to notice this, but assures him through fact and reason that this will not be the case for her. She knows which parent’s advice to heed, and which not.

[The defects of her family] were hopeless of remedy. . . .and her mother, with manners so far from right herself, was entirely insensible of the evil [of her younger daughters’ wild giddiness].

There is no room in Austen’s narration for empathy, sympathy, or excuse for Mrs. Bennet, Maybe—a very weak, maybe—we can allow for those in a flesh and blood person. But a character created by an author is exactly what he or she represents that character to be, without room for indulgence. Austen has let us know clearly, throughout the story, that this is a vain, silly, empty headed, woman, who has no motherly, selfless affection for her daughters or spouse. It says plainly that Elizabeth was the least dear of her children, and could care less who she married, and that on Lydia’s marriage she “was disturbed by no fear for her felicity” (happiness in marriage). The end of the story leaves no doubt and no room: this is not a woman we should feel sympathy for, except for what it has cost her that she’ll never even be aware of.

I wish I could say, for the sake of her family, that the accomplishment of her earnest desire in the establishment of so many of her children produced so happy an effect as to make her a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life. . .

She goes on to say, “But that didn’t happen”. I believe this is Austen saying, “Perhaps you feel that Mrs. Bennet was right when she said that if her dearest wish was granted—her children married—she would be happy and different. That it is not her fault she is the way she is, but her children, husband, and circumstance have made her this way. But I’m sorry to say that is not the case. Even having her desire granted did not change her behavior or outlook on life.” In fact, we know from further narration that even the long-suffering, “everyone is good” Jane finally has enough, now that she is married, and she and her husband move away from Netherfield so that her mother’s visits must be infrequent. Is this dishonoring? Not at all. I don’t think the mandate to honor means “allow for abuse and irritation”. You can love without subjecting yourself to misery. You can honor without allowing constant interference. You CAN and SHOULD set up boundaries to maintain a healthy honor and love. In fact, I think when we have children we have an especial duty to our own family to do so—none of us want ill effects on our children.

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2 responses to “Analyzing Mrs. Bennet

  1. Becky says:

    You said “This has nothing to do with how I’m homeschooling right now, since my children are obviously too young for something like Jane Austen.”

    Oh, but it does. Bravo for a mom who reads good literature and loves it and is inspired by it! How can we transfer values to our littles that we don’t hold, or habits that we don’t practice?

    P.S. I found your blog through AO, yay for long days outside! 🙂

    • sixsmoothstones says:

      Thanks. 🙂 It is true that by reading, engaging in “mother culture”, we will be able to teach our children in later years. I’m reading “Ben Hur” at the moment, and each chapter makes me think of a lesson plan, some way to delve more into history and culture and religion, that I can use to compliment it when they’re old enough to read it themselves, or hear it as a read-aloud.

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