Tuesday, 28 February 2017
JANE AUSTEN'S MR. AND MRS. BENNET
Mr. And Mrs. Bennet are amongst the most famous parents in all literature.
Jane Austen tended to keep her heroines' families smaller than the average of her day and manageable. Even the largest - the Bennets - has only five children. The financial security of the Bennet family is precarious: Mr. Bennet's property consists almost entirely of an estate of two thousand a year. However, it will not pass to his daughters. It is entailed in default of a male heir on Mr. Collins – a distant relation. At the start of the marriage, it was assumed that a son would arrive, cut off the entail, and provide for his mother and any sisters if Bennet should die. Some years after the birth of the fifth daughter, such hopes were given up. By then, it was too late for Bennet to begin making extra provision for his ladies. And his wife had 'no turn for economy’.
The first chapter of Pride and Prejudice ends with a paragraph giving two of those thumbnail character sketches which are a feature of Jane Austen's novels - precise, penetrative and peremptory, confirming what we infer from the dialogue.
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 develop. 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.
What a superbly-crafted paragraph that is! And how interesting it is to reflect that in writing it Jane Austen is being an 'Elizabeth Bennet', making a hobby of such character study. Earlier, in Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen similarly analyses the Palmers:
It was impossible for anyone to be more thoroughly good-natured or more determined to be happy than Mrs. Palmer. The studied indifference, insolence, and discontent of her husband gave her no pain; and when he scolded or abused her, she was highly diverted'.
The Bennets have been married for twenty-three years. Within the first few lines of the novel, we have a clear picture of the 'tiresome' teasing husband and the garrulous, excited wife who misunderstands all his little jokes. Jane Austen makes the dialogue do the work, adding only such minimal narrative as: 'Mr. Bennet made no answer' and 'That was invitation enough'. So we become acquainted with Mr. Bennet, a man who escapes to his library from the silliness of his wife and daughters. His pleasure is to reply with teasing irony to his wife, a rich pleasure because she takes him literally.
Mrs. Bennet is the kind that does not take hints, and Mr. Bennet’s criticising her forcefully would be more of a breach of family peace. He probably gave up years ago asking her to moderate her opinions in public.
The beginning of Chapter 42 reviews the Bennets' marriage. As a young man, Mr. Bennet had been captivated by the 'youth and beauty' of his wife but, better acquainted with her 'illiberal mind', he soon lost 'all real affection for her'. At least he did not turn to other women: he sought solace in the countryside and books, and in amusement at his wife's ignorance. Strangely, as often happens with ill-matched couples, he found an odd contentment in the relationship.
At the end of the novel, Jane Austen wishes she could say that the settling of three daughters made Mrs. Bennet 'sensible, amiable, well-informed', but it did not. She adds astutely that this was perhaps lucky for her husband 'who might not have relished domestic felicity in so unusual a form'. His marriage had become a habit.
The Bennets are an effective team. Though he feigns indifference to the arrival of Bingley, Mr. Bennet 'had always intended to visit him' and is among the first to do so. Mr. Bennet does visit Bingley, despite making no promise to do so. Bingley returns the visit, hoping to see the daughters, 'of whose beauty he had heard much'; but Bennet entertains him alone in the library for just ten minutes, not introducing the girls. When Mrs. Bennet is eventually informed, she says, 'I was sure you loved your girls too well to neglect such an acquaintance'; and no doubt she is right. And although Mr. Bennet refuses to accompany his ladies to the first ball at which Mr. Bingley is present, he stays up late to see them return, because 'he had a good deal of curiosity as to the event of an evening which had raised such splendid expectations’.
For her part, Mrs. Bennet succeeds in getting all she could wish for, however crude her tactics. Sending Jane to Netherfield on horseback in the rain certainly does the trick. When news comes that Jane has caught a cold en route to Netherfield and must stay in Bingley's house, Bennet typically tells his wife: '...if she should die – it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders.’
Bennet has a cavalier approach to the probable loss of the family property. He behaves as if he knows fate will be so kind to his daughters that there is really nothing to worry about. When Charlotte becomes engaged to Collins, his only comment is that it proves Charlotte, whom he had always thought sensible, to be 'as foolish as his wife, and more foolish than his daughter'!
Mrs. Bennet - right for once - seriously dreads the day when she and her daughters may be cast out and reduced to relative poverty. He makes a joke of it: 'My dear, do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor.' It is a good joke but a callous sentiment.
Mr. Bennet even jokes about his daughters' suffering. When Jane is miserable because Bingley has deserted her, he says: 'Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then.' He advises Lizzy to get involved with Wickham: 'He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably.' Elizabeth has the wit to reply in kind. 'We must not all expect Jane's good fortune.' No wonder he admires her 'quickness’.