I always thought of Mrs Bennet as a terrible parent in Pride and Prejudice. However, as I am re-reading bits of it I am coming to realise Mr Bennet was by far the worse of the two.
I looked at Mr Bennet through tolerant eyes – intelligent and well-read, amiable and easygoing, humorous too. A man, difficult to dislike. And yet, I have reason to change my mind.
Let’s talk of Mrs Bennet first
She is not a woman of great intelligence. She is loud and insensitive. She thinks finding a rich husband is the path to happiness for her daughters. Not the smartest of thoughts but, in hindsight there was much sense in it, specially in those times when ‘respectable’ women couldn’t work and were completely dependent on their fathers or their husbands.
So then, if they didn’t find rich husbands what were their chances of happiness, survival even? We can laugh at her now, label her ignorant and crass but to her credit, she spared no effort in doing her utmost for what she thought best for her daughters.
On the other hand we have Mr Bennet.
He despises not just Mrs Bennet but all his daughters and yet does nothing to improve them. ‘They are all silly and ignorant like other girls;’ he says at the very beginning of the book.
He says that with the detachment of a stranger. As if he isn’t related to them, has no responsibility towards them, nor any love for them; with the exception of Elizabeth.
He is well-read, has a well-stocked library yet does not introduce his daughters to the wonder of books. When he talks to Mary, the one daughter (apart from Elizabeth) who likes to read, there’s an underlying sarcasm in his tone.
‘What say you, Mary? For you are a young lady of deep reflection I know, and read great books, and make extracts.’
Here is a daughter inclined towards cerebral pursuits and yet he doesn’t think to guide her. Had he made the effort to see her, to look for her strengths he could have built a relationship that would have proved rewarding both for her and for him.
He prefers to shut everyone and everything out and lock himself up in his library. That is a luxury he could ill-afford knowing full well the kind of influence Mrs Bennet had on the girls.
Later in the book Elizabeth voices her fears to him regarding Lydia’s flirtatious ways and he chooses to treat her with the same mocking tone he uses earlier for Mary. He plays down her anxieties saying, ‘What, has she frightened away some of your lovers? Poor little Lizzy.’
That made me go Arrrrrgh! in my head.
When she persists with her fears imploring him to stop Lydia from going to Brighton with Mrs Forster (from where she elopes with Wickham) he says, ‘We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Lydia does not go to Brighton.’
Having ‘peace’ being his sole concern in life.
He knows after his death Longbourn would pass on to Mr Collins yet does nothing to secure his daughters’ futures, choosing instead to ridicule Mrs Bennet’s rants. She complains constantly at the unfairness of the system that goes against her daughters. He prefers to bury his head in the sand (or in his books!) and forget about it.
Austen remarks upon his shortcomings. She also mentions that Elizabeth was not blind to them. Perhaps it was the unsuitable marriage of her parents that convinced her so strongly against a marriage of convenience, which was the norm back then.
Mr Bennet finally sees the folly of his ways only when Lydia elopes and then it’s a case of too-little-too-late.
There is also his open preference for Elizabeth. I don’t even want to begin to comment on that. I’ll just leave it out here for you to think about.
He is perhaps the result of a patriarchal mindset that made it okay for men to not participate in ‘household’ affairs even if it lead to the detriment of his own children. Then, they could get away with laying the blame on the woman of the house. Such men exist still, I know.
Tell me, am I judging him too harshly? Is he simply a product of his times? Did men back then have no part in their daughters’ upbringing? Would he have had the same attitude towards a son?
I have been reading The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow (a spin-off of Pride and Prejudice) and the book is making me see all the characters through whole new eyes.
I shall be putting up the review soon. Do look out for it.