A Defence of Mrs Bennet, written by Jean Main-Reade
In Pride and Prejudice
, and in every stage, screen and fanfic adaptation, Mrs Bennet is a comic character. She was made to be mocked, first by her husband and then by millions of readers. Indeed, we see an empty-headed, uneducated woman. “The business of her life was to get her daughters married. It’s solace was visiting and news’. Look at the first half of that in isolation. In working to get husbands for her daughters, I contend that Mrs Bennet was a caring, conscientious mother.
The Longbourn property was entailed, and in default of heirs male would revert to Mr Collins. Mrs Bennet was not clever enough to understand the workings of an entail, but she certainly understood what would be her daughters’ fate if their father died before they had acquired husbands to support them.
Jane Austen’s novels drive this point home. In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood family were forced into reduced circumstances by Mr Dashwood’s death. In Emma, Mrs and Miss Bates would have starved but for the generosity of their neighbours. In Mansfield Park, Mrs Price did marry, but her poor choice of husband meant that she, and her children, had to live in poverty.
When Charlotte Lucas announced her engagement, Elizabeth was horrified and did not withhold her disapproval. I feel this was unfair. Charlotte was ‘around twenty-seven’, and plain. Elizabeth was twenty, and pretty. Charlotte had faced the possibility of being dependent on her brothers in the future. Her single state delayed her sisters’ coming out. The younger Bennet girls were not affected in this way as Mrs Bennet defied convention and brought all her daughters out early. When we realise that Charlotte preferred life with Mr Collins to spinsterhood, I think that illustrates what Cecily Hamilton spoke of as ‘the fate of every woman not born an heiress’.
We should give Mrs Bennet her due. Was she not more on the side of the angels than her husband? When faced with the possibility of pre-deceasing his wife all he said was “My dear…let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor”. To put it another way “I’m all right, Jack”.
About the author:
Jean lives in Truro and, in between writing articles for the local press and volunteering as a presenter on the community and hospital radio, she is working on an exciting writing project about the life of former resident of Falmouth who lived in the 1800s.