A closer look at Mr. Bennet

A closer look at Mr. Bennet

Thinking about Mr. Bennet a lot lately. You can join the conversation on Mrs. Bennet here.

I have very mixed feelings about Mr. Bennet. He is described as intelligent and witty in P&P but also indolent. We know he has a silly wife and silly daughters and that he enjoys teasing them and winding them up. He is the master of his country estate and one of the first families in the area. His home is large enough to have its own small village but not wealthy enough to have horses for both the carriage and the farm. The estate is entailed to heirs male.

There is a lot more we don’t know. Why was the estate entailed in the first place? How long will it last? Three generations? Five? Forever?

How did he come to marry Mrs. Bennet? She was not the daughter of a gentleman. Was that an early sign of his indolence: he couldn’t be bothered with going to London to meet suitable women or didn’t want to look for one at all and just went with the closest attractive woman? Did he ever love her?

Mr BennetThat is a question I would love to know the answer to. It seems that his lack of respect for her killed whatever affection he may have had. Did he simply not have the character to push through that kind of disappointment? Could he not try to make the best of things instead of hiding away and mocking when he came out of his cave? Or was he so disappointed that it jaded him and he became a shell of the man he’d been before?

Was he always the intended heir of Longbourn? It seems to me that if you grow up knowing something is going to be your responsibility that instills certain feelings in you about that place. Of course, we know many men squandered their fortunes and ruined their estates through gambling and carousing, but Bennet didn’t do that. But was his indolence his own form of rebellion? Was reading all day and ignoring the world to Mr. Bennet what staying out all night and coming home drunk was to other men?

It would almost make more sense if he was the younger brother who inherited unexpectedly. He didn’t know how to run an estate, didn’t want to run an estate, and couldn’t be bothered with learning. Or does he do alright with it and it’s his wife’s spending that’s the problem and he simply can’t rein her in?

These are all questions I would love to have the answers to. But the biggest for me is what kind of father he was.

P&P says that when he realized they would not have a son, he thought he should save for the girls but it was already too late. But didn’t he realize they were there? Shouldn’t he have started saving for Jane’s dowry as soon as he knew she was female? So that whole “I thought we’d have a son” line doesn’t really work. Regardless of whether he had a son late, he still had daughters that needed to be taken care of.

It sounds like he was planning all along to saddle his young son with the care of his elder daughters. When that son wasn’t born, Bennet simply gave up.

This reminds me of the movies that have a loser bad guy who’s actually good at heart but is acting out because of life and circumstances, etc. The character has one great moment to redeem himself and suddenly everyone knows that even though he’s led a life of crime, he’s actually a good guy with a pure heart.

mr bennet 3

So when he tells Elizabeth that she doesn’t have to marry Mr. Collins, when he backs her up and actually tells her he’s against it, not just not for it, in front of his wife, knowing full well that she will be impossible to live with after that and ruin any semblance of peace he has at home (and we know peace is one of the most valuable things to him), does he redeem himself? Is that his one great shining moment that wipes out his other wrongs? Does his indolence pale in comparison to his One Great Deed?

Mr. Collins was a buffoon, we can probably all agree on that, but there is no evidence that he was cruel or would mistreat his wife. Mr. Bennet had no moral reason not to agree to a marriage. In fact, letting his daughter clean up the mess made by his inaction sounds like just the sort of thing an indolent man would do. After all, was that not what he was planning to do with the son he never had?

So how much did he have to love Elizabeth for that to happen? I think a lot. A crazy lot. To give up his peace to his nerve-wracked wife when peace was so valuable to him, to forego the easy way out when that was his M.O., to act when he preferred to observe. That had to have taken a lot from him. Maybe it wasn’t half as much as it always should have been, but still, it was a lot from him.

So the question remains: Smart but bored or just plain lazy? Kind or unreliable? Good father or bad father?

Or just a human father? Chime in, please!

Mr Bennet 1995My next story has Mr. Bennet in an important role and he has a change of heart about certain things. Here’s a little excerpt.

Mrs. Bennet was sitting up in bed, her cap securely in place. She had been just about to turn down the lamp when she heard a knock. A knock from the inner door that led to the sitting room she shared with her husband. Startled, she called for her visitor to enter, surprised but not to see her husband coming into her room. For who else could it have been? But she had grown so used to his not coming, she was unprepared for his entrance.

“Mrs. Bennet, Agnes, may I come in?” he asked, feeling foolish over his own nervousness and oddly intimidated by the woman before him. She really was very beautiful. When had he stopped seeing her as such and begun viewing her as merely an amusement to be laughed at? His body deftly reminded him that there were much better things to do with such a woman than laugh at her.


46 Responses to A closer look at Mr. Bennet

  1. Late to the Conversation…
    The English Laws regarding Inheritance were forever changing, but since the Bennets were of the Landed Gentry [not the aristocracy], the laws regarding property inheritance were quite different than those who were born into ‘nobility’. At certain points in time, women were strictly forbidden from inheriting land, because they were not allowed to work and earn money, nor sell the land to make money. That isn’t necessarily true for the aristocracy, because the land didn’t just belong to the family, the family belonged WITH the land… a package deal.

    Nobility- being wealthy Men who sided with a king in the Dark/Middle ages, and was given land and a Title in return… along with… a yearly salary for being ‘On Call’ to serve the King in battle.

    The Landed Gentry actually had to buy the land they owned; from money that someone in the family had to ‘earn’ with a job or profession, so this made them more ‘upper middle class.’ [Baron Elliot’s disgust of raising persons of lower birth to undue distinction.]

    I suspect, that Austen’s various Inheritance Devices throughout her stories, were attempts to avoid the pit falls of the changing laws; as well as, the reversal of fortunes of the Nobility who relied on the treasury for their living and that living shrank and shrank with inflation, while the Middle Class had increasing fortunes from their own labors.

    I personally, see Mr. Bennet as almost worn down by his wife’s over bearing nature. I see in him, the weariness of someone who has had to capitulate on a daily basis, just to maintain some sense of peace.
    His playing wry tricks on his wife, is his only sense of authority.. or equality… in his marriage. His indolence towards his youngest daughters, is a part of that exhaustion of having 6 Women to feed and support, and with his wife being one to “keep up with the Joneses;” I doubt he had much energy or money left.

    Mr. Bennet agreeing with Lizzie in refusing Mr. Colins… self serving manipulation. He would say almost anything to keep his one true ally in the family, on his side, while again, an effort to maintain some authority over his wife. The machination of giving Lizzie the Choice… brilliant. He gets to keep his favorite and She gets to carry the brunt of the alienation of Mrs. Bennet.

    Relying on His Son to take care of the daughters… absolutely. The son would inherit the land, and the business, and he must support his sisters until they married… or the rare occasion when a sister didn’t find a husband ‘before she lost her bloom’ she would become the nanny/governess of another sister’s children. Yes, that was the expectation of Sons, because women from families of means, were strictly forbidden from making money.

  2. Coming to this discussion late. But even if we are looking at Mr. Bennet through 20th or 21st century eyes, let’s admit one thing – There were many fathers in Mr. Bennet’s time who were better parents. That’s even with most men not participating in the parenting process. One had to have been aware of what acceptable behavior was in society any place you might live…unless you lived in the slums of London. For Mr. Bennet to admittedly have a favorite and to then ignore the consequences of his younger daughters’ behavior is, for me, not only lazy (indolent) but sinful! He cares not for their futures and as a parent this is wrong. I asked my oldest a few years back “who is my favorite?” during discussion of how her sister was my husband’s favorite. Her reply was that I had none so I am aware some parents do that but tried to abstain from that behavior. Even with all that said there was NO excuse for not providing for a dowry, son or no son. I may understand not wanting to enrich the hated cousin’s son. And what a buffoon he turned out to be! But dowries are the bottom line in his responsibilities. His wife may have had the job of rearing the daughters but he could not have been ignorant of the way she carried out that responsibility. Mr. Bennet has never been one of my favorites. I do like when an author has him “WAKE UP” in a story or has him secretly saving money for his girls or even when he allows Darcy to send the two younger ones off to a boarding school with strict rules.

    • Better late than never! I have a problem with him not providing dowries. Even if he thought he’d have a son, the second Jane was born, he knew she’d need a dowry. It wasn’t a surprise. He may not have planned on saving for so many dowries, but that burden could be eased by spacing out the girls’ coming outs. He definitely needs a wake-up call.

  3. Great analysis, Elizabeth, I greatly enjoyed reading this post!

    I have mixed feelings about Mr Bennet too. He’s very likable in so many ways, yet there’s always the feeling that he’s a bit of a ‘fair weather father’. In for the teasing and the jokes, not so much for the nitty-gritty reality. Still lovable though 🙂

    • I agree that he’s lovable. Exasperating, too! So many sides to such a complicated man. sigh I wish I could really know what’s going through characters’ minds sometimes. Just sometimes, though. 😉

  4. I agree with all the different views of Mr. Bennet, for they could all have been possible. I like to think he ‘gave up’ at some point and is depressed. That is why he does not ‘try’ to do what he knows he should. Having been depressed in my life, I can look back and see that, at the time, I could not have changed things that bothered me had I wanted to. I agree, too, that he had a special connection with Lizzy or else he would not have taken on Mrs. Bennet in that argument. I am glad for that at least.

    • I think we’ve all been there, Brenda, at one point or another and you’re right – you don’t care about anything and can’t do much to change things when you’re in that hole. I like to think he wasn’t always like that – that it was a product of giving up, like you said, and not a personality trait. Maybe his connection to Lizzy saves him in the end – it certainly gets him out of the house!

  5. Mr. Bennet always gave me the impression he was a man who had given up on his youth due to his disappointment in marriage. He lived through the energy of Lizzy. I did bring the Bennets together (spoiler) in Mister Darcy’s Templars. I thought it was about time they kissed and made up. I think I noticed a twinkle in his eye. Might be wrong. 🙂

  6. A big study was published yesterday which concludes that birth-order has little bearing on a child’s personality. I disagree with that. I think the effects are closer to what this commentary says about it: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/personality-traits-linked-to-birth-order/. It says that the last born in a family ‘are the most financially irresponsible of all birth orders. They just want to have a good time…. While lastborns may be charming, they also have the potential to be manipulative, spoiled or babied to the point of helplessness.’ So I’ve always thought that Mr. Bennet must have had a lot of older sisters, and he just behaves like most lastborns do. If there was an older brother perhaps he died early on as someone else suggested.

    I was the last of 4 children (a surprise baby) so I share some of Mr Bennet’s key traits, fortunately and unfortunately .Also, I have the same sort of relationship with my daughter that he has with Lizzy. So he’s the Austen character I identify with most.

    When someone asks why did Mr Bennet retreat to his man-cave (library) so much, I think they should simultaneously ask the same question about Charlotte. Why did she retreat to a back room away from Mr. Collins?

    • I completely agree on birth order having an affect on personalities. I see it with my own 3 children and with my family of origin. I have 5 brothers and I’m #3 and the only girl. It definitely impacted me and if you look down the line of my brothers, they start at hyper responsible and just get less and less so until the youngest who still lives at home at 25. So yeah, I think there’s definitely a connection.

      I can relate to Mr. Bennet retreating from the noise and the chaos. He sounds like a classic introvert and it was probably all just too much. You draw an interesting parallel with him and Charlotte. I’ve often wondered along similar lines. They both marry for reasons besides companionship and both are a higher caliber than their spouse, for lack of better term.

      • I don’t agree on birth order if we’re going by anecdotal evidence. My two families don’t reflect that. My oldest two siblings (out of six of us) were incredibly bad at money management. The fifth child was pretty bad but she eventually smartened up, though it was late in the game and I don’t agree with her choices. Once when I was little, my mother asked who she could get to babysit us all. I (the youngest) volunteered, and she looked at me and said, “Yes, you ARE the most sensible one!” Of my children, the oldest had the most trouble with finances but at age 44 has finally gotten them under control, with great help from her husband, who was also the oldest in his family. My husband was also the youngest of his family; he was the third child, and he is very cautious with money, unlike his older brother, who was hopeless (the first born in the family passed away at age one). There are so many more factors at play than simply birth order!
        And I liked Mr Bennet. Like most parents he did his best – sometimes that’s good enough and sometimes it isn’t. So few of us parents are perfect, and a parent who is perfect for one child’s development may not be the best parent for another child’s upbringing and temperment.

        • I totally agree that there are no perfect solutions in rearing a child, as birth order is not the Golden Rule. Dr. Spock emphasizes using common sense. I truly believe children are born with their own personalities and while one child may relate to a particular parent another child may be a mystery. A successful parenting style for one may be totally wrong for another and in today’s society peer pressure can derail the best of parents. I speak as the parent of three, a teacher and a caseworker (part of the time that I did work) for Children, Youth & Families. My mother related that she only had to threaten me with a spanking and I fell into line whereas she had to use manipulations to get my younger sister to obey. Descriptions of the eldest seeking to please parents as part of the birth order traits fall far short with my children. My second fits that description perfectly whereas the oldest was and is an admitted nerd. She was in her own world and was not a behavior problem but, on the other hand, she was not seeking to please us by particular hobbies or friends or even in her clothing choices. I could go on but enough said.

      • I wonder what would have happened if Mrs Bennet pre-deceased her husband, and Charlotte was still single. She would be young enough to have the son Mr. Bennet needed. Also, she would be a sensible mate for him.

  7. Very interesting. I hadn’t really considered all this but I am so glad he at least stood up for Elizabeth – I hate to think what her life would have been with him. Mind you I could never see her with anyone else but Darcy. I did think he should do more to control the younger girls but as is mentioned most Fathers in those days would not have much to do with raising their daughters although he should certainly have tried to provide for their futures.

    • Yes, he should definitely have been up on the dowry portion of things. And he could have hired a governess if he didn’t like the way his wife was doing things – plenty of people did it! But I am so glad he stood up for E when it counted. That goes a long way!

  8. He’s such an interesting and somewhat complex character. The moment he refuses to accept his wife’s pleas that Elizabeth marry his cousin definitely redeems him as a caring father, but otherwise you just want to yell at him to rein in his wife and the younger daughters for their behavior.

  9. Our thoughts are nearly identical. Although, I do sometimes like to indulge in mean Mr. Bennet stories where it’s just that he hates Collins (more specifically his father) and that’s why he said no to Elizabeth marrying him. Have you seen Lizzie Bennet Diaries? I was re-watching a few episodes the other week and when Lizzie talked about her father she said that there was nothing he loved to do more than rile Mrs. Bennet up…which seems spot on from the original. The older I get the more compassion I have for Mrs. Bennet. Lord knows I’ve thought of shouting “You delight in vexing me” and “You have no compassion on my poor nerves” to my husband and children.

    • Oh, Rose, I know exactly what you mean! I tell my husband all the time to stop pissing me off just because he thinks I’m cute when I’m angry. NOT. FUNNY!!! To me, anyway. 😉

  10. I think he was intelligent and possibly stuck with his wife through trickery of one sort or another, ie, compromise, untruths or paid money to be taken off their hands. He valued a smart mind and used it to his benefit but outsmarted himself when stuck with Mrs. Bennet. Looks fade, bedroom activities fade and since there might not have been a love match, he gave up. When a son wasn’t born, he possibly stopped caring about the homestead and willed the way of his life to his beloved bookroom.
    However, he saw the truth of each one of his daughters and I think he loved each one of them in their own way but payed much attention to Lizzy for her love of learning. She was so much like him so more ways than one!
    After so many years of trying, I think he just gave up. After awhile he figured out he couldn’t win a loosing battle so thus the bookroom became his priority.

  11. I think he saw Lizzy almost as a version of himself. And she was his favorite, we know. He and she both saw that Mr. Collins was an idiot, and I believe Mr. Bennet realized that he, himself, would never have been able to be saddled with one such as Mr. Collins, so therefore, Lizzy (his extension) couldn’t have done so, either.

    In addition, I think expecting Mr. Bennet to have had any influence on the raising of his daughters is our modern opinions slipping in. At the time, a lot of parents of the Bennet’s class had hardly anything to do with their offspring, so I don’t think we can think less of him for not taking a hand in improving the behavior of Lydia, for example. Now today, his sort of attitude and reactions would result in a serious discussion, if not an out and out argument.

  12. Consider this, during the Regency Era women merely had very little if any rights at all. They were not allowed to show any emotion towards the opposite gender for chance of their reputation being put at stake. They were pursued by the male solely. Women lost all of their money except a small amount to their husbands and prior to 1846 I believe they lost everything…. Their husbands took all their property and money on marriage. So it is established that men who had a reasonable amount of money did very little unless they really wanted to. The running of the household and chores etc was done by women. Many women who had absolutely nothing to do gossiped and chatted much of the time. Most men cannot deal with that nowadays never mind back then…I have always suspected that Jane Austin along with many women of that era were the secret emancipators of the time. They made their points in their novels. I suspect, Jane thought that women who were gossips were silly herself, because she wrote about a women Elizabeth Bennett who was not like that and I think more like herself… In fact, all of her strong females were quiet, did not gossip and rose to the top, whereas the gossipy women had their comeupunce! I suspect that Mr Bennett was written as a father who was very much the lazy man of the day but who had very gentle qualities about him. Trustworthy and solid but yet typical man that disliked gossip, noise and work! I think Fanny is loved in her own way by him just as perhaps Jane Austen saw her mother and father’s relationship. Jane certainly felt the clergymen she had obviously met through her father were silly men much like Mr Colins and the Mr Elton. I know how strong the British value tradition and class being a Brit. I went to private school in Cirencester and Cheltenham and have many friends who’s brothers are the apple of their parents eye and must attain entrance to Oxford or Cambridge whereas we women are not even looked at as contenders ( I did go to Oxford btw lol). It is a completely different world than for the do haves and the haves not…. I myself am one who has fought against it and in my own way, I don’t miss it one iota! Mr. Bennett reminds me of my friends father who has an estate in Gloucestershire. There were seven children and the oldest a boy, and all expectations were upon him! He was to be the next esquire of course therefore a plethora of responsibility! Glad I was born a female! I better stop otherwise all my 1960’s girl power will start to bubble out as I write lol! Great discussion btw!

  13. I’ve always seen Mr. Bennet has a victim of his own circumstances. I never have thought of him as particularly stupid, just as a man not given to caring about much. Perhaps more lazy and disinterested in the cards he’s been dealt than anything else. The concept of his being the second son is actually really good. But even if he KNEW he would inherit, it doesn’t give that he particularly wanted to and he saw Mrs. Bennet as a means to an end. She was pretty enough to tempt him and that was important in the making of heirs. Once he got her there, he realized she was silly and flighty and he just stopped trying (which adds to Mrs. B’s silliness). He knows the estate is entailed, and since he has no sons, it’s a given that the estate is going to someone else so it does not behoove him to make it profitable. Would it have been smart to store away some money for the girls dowry and such? Definitely, but did he want to bother with it? Not particularly, they would marry somebody and that was enough. When it comes to Collins and Lizzy, I think it started much the same. He wasn’t really giving a fig about the man or his plans except to find amusement but when he offers for Lizzy, Mr. B would rather not see his favorite tied to such a mule so he acts out of character. I always enjoy when JAFF authors take him out of character a bit. What a difference it makes in the story. I adore my father and fight like cats with my mother so a loving father that provides for his girls is my favorite.

  14. Elizabeth you have raised some very thought provoking questions! Mr. Bennet is a complex man. Maybe he is being shrewd in his affairs. You have given us a lot to chew on in this post.

  15. Well I like the thought that he tried to redeem himself a little when he supported Lizzy’s decision not to marry Collins, but why didn’t he bite the bullet and turn over a new leaf where the rest of the family was concerned. Then when he was upset with GW and said that he would not be allowed in the house…. again he caved and welcomed him in the end. Product of the times or not, I think that I’ll look forward to your Bennet having a change of heart in your next book. ~Jen Red~

    • I’ve wondered about the caving on GW. I think he ma have done it more for Jane and Elizabeth, and I wondered why, but then found out that not receiving them would look like the family was against the marriage (which most of them were) and would add further scandal, so I don’t know that it’s caving so much as seeing reason. But I still don’t like it! Now why E is nice to him in the end I’ve always wondered about, but that’s another post…

      Bennet is very different in my next book, and I’m enjoying seeing what happens when he’s really the only thing that’s changed. So far I’m having a grand time!

  16. One of thing we all have to do is to stop looking at him through a 20th-21st Century lens. In the time of P&P, men, particularly gentlemen, left the daughters to the mothers to care for and raise. They essentially stood back. This is likely how he was raised if he had any sisters. That Jane and Lizzy, and even Mary, gave him no real cause for concern in what was happening in his home probably lulled him into indifference. I wonder if he even realized that Kitty and Lydia were no longer silly little girls but blooming with bouncing bosoms and full of thoughts of men. A giggly 10- or 11-year-old is not a worry, but older, you see what I mean. Fathers can be terribly blind when it comes to their daughters. Also, could his retreat have been a form of depression? I always thought so. When overwhelmed with a situation you cannot change, it can happen and his situation was not going to change until he died. Would Jane Austen have recognized depression (or even melancholia) as an illness instead of a personality trait? I am not certain she would have. There was no psychology as a profession in her time.
    Should he have done more for his family? Certainly. He also abrogated the responsibility completely to Mrs. Bennet and she had only one solution available to put into play: marriage for the girls would save them all.

    • You make excellent points and are totally right about him not having much to do with the actual raising. Many men today still don’t! And with kids, it’s so easy to think they’ll grow out of something, then look up one day and see they haven’t and are in fact childish adults. It’s a little disturbing, but not uncommon.

  17. If it was any other daughter but Elizabeth I feel he wouldn’t care that they married Collins, and it would save him from worrying about his family if he ever did. Smart means he would have looked after his family. I would doubt that he is aware that hardworking men like Darcy and Gardiner would look at him with disdain.

  18. I thin it is circumstance. My dad, when he wasn’t driving my mom wherever she wanted to go, after he worked all day, went to the bedroom, lay in bed and read. He never did anything to the expectations of my mother so why bother? My parents are now in their 80’s. Since retirement dad sits in bed and reads when he doesn’t have to take her anywhere, still. He has always had a weak heart and the fight has never been worth the effort. Now, he seems to be ready to tell her what’s, what and I hope he can convince her that they need a will, without detrimental damage to his health. I guess after a time you give up and save the effort for when you feel it is an absolute necessity.

Your thoughts are precious!