12 May 2014

Defending Mrs. Bennet

Seeing Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice on the top-five list of worst mothers in fiction over on my sister’s blog gave me a bit of a brainstorm today. No, I wouldn’t like to be around Mrs. Bennet. I’ve been around many such mothers in my day, and none of them are pleasant. However, I think sometimes we simply judge the woman we see in front of us without inquiring as to why she is the way she is. So here we go. I’m going to briefly go to the plate and defend Mrs. Bennet.

As readers of Austen’s novel know, Mrs. B was hysterical, loud, lacked discernment in young men, and had no sense of distinction between public and private matters. However, I want to argue that she wasn’t always that way. If she had been, why did Mr. Bennet marry her to begin with?

Oftentimes when we see a woman like Mrs. Bennet, we heap the blame on her shoulders alone, and sometimes this is right. But more often I find, and I think that this is the case in Mrs. Bennet’s situation, a fair share, if not most, of the blame can be laid at the feet of her husband.

Put quite simply, Mr. Bennet is an unfeeling, abdicating, lazy husband. This isn’t a popular opinion to hold because frankly Mr. Bennet is a lot more likeable than Mrs. Bennet. But that’s the way it always is. The lazy husband, provided he’s not abusive or ill-tempered, is tut-tutted and indulged. The wife he has driven to distraction by his abdication in leadership is excoriated by everyone. But let’s examine the nature of the situation a little more clearly.

Mr. Bennet is well-acquainted with Mrs. Bennet’s nerves. He has heard her “mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least,” as he affirms. All right then, what is she always worried about? She’s worried about the future of her family, the very thing Mr. Bennet should be taking pains to worry about for her rather than hiding in his library all day. It is well known that when Mr. Bennet dies, the estate will all go to Mr. Collins, and as far as we see he is taking no steps to marry off any of his daughters to ensure that they won’t be out on the street when he’s gone.


Years and years of this continual worry have told on Mrs. Bennet’s already nervous and excitable personality, and have made her the woman we see her in Pride and Prejudice. But rarely is the blame laid in the right place. When we do, we conclude that Mrs. Bennet is doing her best to think about the future of her children, and if that means that the daughters are too focused on snagging themselves a husband or that Mrs. Bennet is more loud and forward than women in those times were expected to be, then so be it. She has her children to think about. On the other hand, the likeable Mr. Bennet, who loathes his wife’s hysteria without doing anything to help it, who scoffs at the silliness of his younger daughters despite not having taken pains to raise them better, and who denies his wife and children a prospect of a secure future by not doing his best to find suitable husbands for his daughters, is really to blame for all the problems of his wife and daughters. Despite his geniality and, admittedly, clever wit, Mr. Bennet is the worse parent of the two, and Mrs. Bennet is merely the result of his abdication.

2 comments:

Erica said...

You make an excellent point about Mr. Bennett. He briefly acknowledges he wasn't responsible like he should be, then promptly went back to reading books and making snarky comments.

However, the problem with Mrs. Bennett is that she goes too far in her attempts to take the reins, and has the opposite effect she wants to have. I still think Jane and Elizabeth turned out as well as they did because they spent more time with Mrs. Gardiner than the other girls. One parent has sense with no feeling, and the other has feeling with no sense.

(Oh no, now I'm the one on the verge of writing a blog post! I'll stop here and add this one to my ideas list.)

Rick said...

I agree, and this is one of those things that show how brilliant Austen was. She was a keen observer of human nature and knew how things went. Usually when a wife, for one reason or another, takes the reins she does go too far. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet just need to be happy that they're living in Austen-land, because I think I know exactly what would happen if the two of them were in a Flannery O'Connor story. :)

Overall though I still think that Mr. Bennet, as the husband and father, bears the responsibility for his wife and younger daughters. After all, despite the fact that Eve ate the fruit first, Adam is the one responsible for the Fall.