Just How Old Are Mr and Mrs Bennet?

Have you ever noticed that in movies or miniseries based on Jane Austen’s work, or any other period pieces, usually show the parents much older than they would likely have been?  Mr and Mrs Bennet are typically portrayed as if they were in their late fifties or older, when, in fact, they were much closer to being in their late thirties to early forties.

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It was a time when people married younger, had children younger, and died younger.  Until the year 1800, the average life expectancy was between 37 to 40 years. Look at Jane Austen, who was 41 years old, was portrayed as much older at the end of the movie Becoming Jane.  I’m 53, and would be most likely deceased by now or one of the unusual “old folk”.  Does it make us feel better to think of the parents as much older?  Do we allow our modern day notions of life expectancy to influence what we accept on screen?       becoming-jane-becoming-jane-1803155-1024-576

In Jane Austen’s time, there were many reasons for the life expectancy to be so low, in comparison to modern days.  Prior to early 1800’s, there were many things that have been improved upon to aid people living longer.  Sanitation is one of those issues.  With sanitation, there is a reduction of bacteria building up, and lower levels of pests, such as rats, mice, and bugs, that spread diseases. London’s sewer system was not made until 1844.  Before that, the wealthy paid someone to come in the middle of the night to remove the human waste.  They were called night soilmen, and their service was expensive, so only the wealthy could afford them. In areas where they could not afford someone to remove the waste, there would be a common cesspool near a grouping of houses, or the waste was deposited out a window, into the street below.  Waste and deceased animal carcasses would end up in the rivers, making water unsafe. So many people in the poor section of London, with no sanitation, could only lead to epidemics when illness came to Town.  And it was those in the poor section who were service to the wealthy, spreading disease further.


Another issue for the time was the personal hygiene.  Baths were not common, as we portray in many of our books.  A basin of water and a cloth were the usual part of a woman’s toilette.  Depending the wealth of the family, there might not even be soap.  With those who were poor, they would not take an actual bath, as we know it. Depending on the weather, some would make their way to a nearby river or other bodies of water.  The only problem with this was, again, the water was not safe from contamination.

What was truly frightening was that physicians and surgeons did not wash their hands prior to treating a patient.  Germ theory was not embraced with open arms.  So there was the potential for cross contamination with germs from one patient to another.  And remember, this was also a time that bloodletting was used frequently.  There were no medications to fight infections such as we have today, leaving survival purely on the person’s body ability to heal.

During this time, it was estimated that one in every 10 babies died shortly after birth.  Again, this can be related to lack of cleanliness.  Babies and mothers were easy targets for infections to take hold, especially in the overcrowded areas of the poor in like London.

Now, back to the original thoughts, why is it we cast the roles of Mr Bennet and Lady Catherine as being much older that they were?  I noted that, watching show Game of Thrones, most of the characters in it were older than was described in the books.  In this day and age, it is hard to think of someone becoming a wife at the ripe old age of 12, as some of the characters were in the books.  And we even have an unease with Lydia Bennet marrying when she was 15, or Georgiana considering to elope at such a tender age.  For us, when a juvenile is under the age of 14, they lack the mental ability to commit crimes, so how can they be able to know how to be married, care for a home, birth babies?  Yet, this was not unheard of in the early 1800’s.  Babies having babies, as my grandmother would say.

Even in my lifetime, as a child, we look at our grandparents and parents, and think them ancient.  My mother became a grandmother at the age of thirty-eight.  Now that I am 53, it is easier to see that such an age is not ancient, and perhaps that is why we don’t feel comfortable seeing a child married and birthing babes before they are even a teenager.  My ex’s mom married at the age of 14, and had her first child at age 15, and many people find that hard to grasp.

Do you think the characters appear older in modern day movies and TV shows, older than they would have been in the stories?  What do you think leads to such changes on screen?

Here’s to you all having long and happy lives, so you can read more and more JAFF stories.  I know I have many books yet to read, so I will need at least another 40 or 50 years to get through them all.

31 Responses to Just How Old Are Mr and Mrs Bennet?

  1. In ‘Darcy Chooses,’ Mrs. Bennet was late thirties and Mr. Bennet mid forties. It does make one wonder why they are portrayed so much older in the movies. But, then again, they’ve always done what they wanted to when putting a movie together. 🙂

  2. My paternal great-grandmother married, at 14, my great-grandfather, who was 20. There are others in my family tree who married young, as well, and the majority of couples had a 12+ year age difference, which is another thing people don’t like to read about nowadays.

    When I was a teen, I remember hearing about couples around me that married at 16. To me, it’s no big deal, though I think that there are few teens today who are mature enough to handle marriage at that age. There are some, but not many.

    This was a really interesting post! Thanks for sharing it with us! 🙂

  3. Melanie, I am currently doing a series on my blog on Queen Victoria’s early years on the throne. I just did a piece on Princess Alice Maude Mary, Victoria’s second daughter and third child, which will appear in November. Alice tended her father Prince Albert during his illness. Typhoid fever claimed him in 1861 (long after our period). All the sources I used spoke of the lack of sanitation at Windsor leading to Albert’s taking ill.

  4. My parents married late in life so when my Dad turned 50 I remember thinking he was ancient. He always looked kinda old. He was very old fashioned and acted that way and I think that’s what made him seem old. In past times that’s probably what happened to people. Through hardship and the times they lived in, once they had their families they just acted this way, if I’m making any sense. I’m 53 and I have a 33 year old daughter. The kids keep me up to date. They wouldn’t let me be old. But when I had her I was definitely too young and should have been out enjoying myself. I’m glad to see the three of them, 33, 28 and 26 are in no rush to settle down.

    • Looking back on my childhood, I can remember my grandparents and thinking they were old, and my great grandma was ancient. But my mom was 22 when she had me, and my great grandma was in her early sixties. She died when I was about four or five. Now that I’m 53, I think, that isn’t that old.

  5. When I look at photos of my parents and grandparents compared to my photos of the same age, they just seemed older. And looking at photos of my niece and nephew at those same ages THEY seem younger. Some of the sayings now make sense: they get younger every year. Or: 50 is the new 40. And: 60 is the new 50. Maybe it is fashion, healthcare, hygiene, or even technology, but although Mr and Mrs Bennet, Lady Catherine, et al, may have only been around 40, it was a “rough” 40 years compared to what we go through now in that same span of time. I don’t think movies should make the older generations quite so old looking, I mean, Mrs. Gardiner had young children, should she be so matronly looking? But then, an actor who is “our 40” may seem way too young to have a 22 year old daughter. It is definitely a fine line they walk.

  6. I have often thought and even spoken out loud that it is so unrealistic to expect brides to wear white and that practice to reflect the old view that it meant “she is a virgin”. Our bodies may not be hormonally urging us to have sex at age 12 but at age 14 (as a parent and teacher) the hormones sure do kick in. So many couples live together before marriage. A grandmother at age 38…I had my last child at 37 but that was due to infertility issues. Yes, I realize that if Mrs. Bennet married at 17 or 18 and had a child 9 months later then in this story she is 39 or so. She could actually still be having children of her own and i have read several stories in which she does just that. So TV and movies present much older couples and that practice is a reflection of our times and cultures. BUT then the couples themselves are presented as much older many times. Then there are the men who portray Mr. Knightley in Emma. Only one version has it right – he is 16 years older than Emma so if she is 20 he should look 36. Does he? Sometimes but most of the movies show a couple who look close in age. But I still love the movies.

    • My ex’s sister had both of her children when she was in her early 40’s. I am so glad I was only 27 when I had my daughter, cause she is now 26, not still in grade school. I don’t think my body could take a little child at this stage of life..

  7. Many characters appear older on screen, not only Mrs Bennet or Mr Bennet (although we have no indication of his age, he could be many years older than his wife), but also Elizabeth and Jane for example (who appear older than they are in the BBC series or the 2005 adaptation), or Elinor and Marianne who are not 20 in the novel. I would say that the directors/producers sometimes do not find the right actors in the right age range.

    As for the average age for marriage, men would not marry until they could support a family, i.e. in their late twenties or later, and women in the lower classes would very often not marry before their mid-twenties, in the hope of not having too many children. I am no specialist but they are certainly exceptions of course.

  8. I think the main problem with actors being older than mentioned in the books etc, is finding the right actor, of the right age to lay the part. Probably less of a problem now than say 30 years ago.

    • It is hard to find the correct people to play the role. It is sort of interesting that Donald Sutherland was in his 70’s when the 2005 was being filmed. But I will say, he wears his age well, and he doesn’t look 81 right now

  9. I would be interested in seeing your sources for stating these ages and reasons for early death. Some of your statements are true: germ theory was not present. But cleanliness was present. Cleanliness was not the present concept of immersion bathing, but that lack of immersion did not contribute to early death. Soap was commonly available and made at home. People generally did not marry until they knew how to keep a home and support a family- generally in their twenties. Child brides? Yes there were some, but look at the ages in the marriage registers, the older age of the bride and grooms would surprise you. Yes, there were childbirth deaths and mortality in children, but women generally had many children and enough of those survived to continue to increase the population. There were older people around-many people lived into their 60s and older-just look at the age of Austen ‘s contemporaries. Have you heard of privies? They were present for years and dug out annually. Yes, the rivers were polluted but people knew enough to not bathe in pollution nor drink the water from them-they had the common sense to not drink bad water. Let’s not perpetuate myths except in fiction.

    • I’m sorry you disagree with what I wrote. I checked multiple sites when gathering info, including Wikipedia, health and hygiene in the 19th century, and more. Not trying to perpetrate myths in the blog.

    • The Marriage Act of 1753 tightened the existing ecclesiastical rules regarding marriage, providing that for a marriage to be valid it had to be performed in a church and after the publication of banns or the obtaining of a license. Those under the age of 21 had to have parental consent if they married by license; marriages by banns, by contrast, were valid as long as the parent of the minor did not actually forbid the banns.
      Although it was legal to marry in Scotland at 14 without permission. English children needed permission until they were 21. However, a child could be married off at age seven in England with parental permission. Supposedly this child had the right to deny the marriage at age 12. Any marriage after age 12 for girls and age 14 for boys was considered valid if done with parental permission. The number of marriages of infants decreased during the age of enlightenment until the 18th century when people started to think 16 was too young. Also, the trend was towards nuclear families instead of more communal living with many generations in the same house. Marriage statistics take in all classes of people. A peer of the realm or his wealthy heir could marry at any age. A man of lower status had to be established in his profession or job to be able to afford a wife. Quite often the would-be bride was also working in some way to acquire money for the new home.

      The fact that it was legal to marry at fourteen does not mean it was common. There are statistics that say during the early 19th Century the average age for women to marry in the British Isles was mid-twenties. As for the short life expectancy, one must look at how the statistics were developed. For example, many who passed early on did so in the first few years of infancy and childhood. If one had six children, and three passed before the age of one and the other three lived to be fifty, their average life expectancy was only twenty-five. We must remember that numbers can be manipulated to prove whatever we wish.

      • You are a fountain of fact Regina!! I look at my 14 year old granddaughter and then think of Austen’s characters. Georgiana being persuaded she was in love at 15, and Lydia marrying at that age, there is just no way my granddaughter is near old enough to be married or having kids. It puts it in perspective to have a child that age and realize just how young they are.

  10. I think Mrs. Bennet must have been between 39 and 42 at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, which would make it possible that she was attractive, in spite of her comment about not thinking about her own beauty in the first chapter. She was proud of Lydia being married at 16, suggesting she was probably not younger than Lydia when she married.

    What bothers me most is the portrayals of Mr. Collins. Movies often portray him as closer to Mr. Bennet’s generation than to being 25.

  11. I’ve always thought that the older generations in any period drama have been cast too old. Mr and Mrs. Bennet, the Gardiners, the Crofts (Mrs Croft’s age is actually given as 37, if memory serves), the Musgraves, the Bates, Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs Dashwood, the Middletons….I could go on and on. My main beef was with the casting of Donald Sutherland in P&P 2005. Fine actor though he is, he was just far too old. The vasting of the Bennet daughters was better in that though. A better choice was Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan in the recent Love and Friendship. She’s in her early 40s so that’s a lot closer to the age she would have been. Then there’s Lena Headey as Lady C. in P&P&Z who’s around the same age as Ms. Beckinsale.

    My first thought was “Is it because we’re marrying and having children (or the other way round!) later ourselves nowadays?” After all, I was 37 and hubby 45 when our one and only was born. But that doesn’t wash, because the casting was just the same for Persuasion in 1971 and P&P in 1980.

    There’s a telling point in Sense and Sensibilty which shows how younger people then thought of those who are older. Marianne regards Colonel Brandon as being ancient even though he’s still in his 30s, making him not that many years younger than her mother. That attitude may have changed somewhat in more recent times but not a great deal I believe. Ask any late teen what they think of someone 20 years their senior and I’m pretty sure they’s think they were almost “past it”!

    One thing for sure, I’m glad I live in the 21st century, with our indoor plumbing, modern sanitation and healthcare.

    • Donald Sutherland was early 70’s when 2005 version came out. I did like Lena in zombies, it was fun seeing her with her eye patch and black hair. And Beckinsale did a marvelous job with Lady Susan.

    • I am with you, Anji. I had my one and only child when I was 38 and my husband 39. We were always the oldest parents at the school functions.

      I could envision Mr. Bennet as 47 – 50 years of age, but I would expect Mrs. Bennet to be more in her early 40s.
      In one of my Regency books from the “Realm” series, I write of a couple forbidden to marry when young who reconnect when in their 50s. They are quite besotted with each other.

      • I got all of your Realm books, that I didn’t have already, last time you had a sale Regina. Haven’t got around to reading the one you mentioned yet.

        Know what you mean about being the oldest parents at school funtions. I was certainly the oldest first time Mum in the maternity unit when our son was born. There was one other lass the same age as me, but like Mrs. Bennet, she was on her fifth!

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