Let’s talk about Mrs. Bennet

Let’s talk about Mrs. Bennet

Mrs. Bennet is an interesting character. I have always found her annoying but not evil. Crass, vulgar, and even stupid, but not deliberately mean. She is simple-minded and lacking in intelligence. But she is also loyal, determined, and very pretty.

Of course this is all my own interpretation. And as most interpretations go, it changes with subsequent readings and differences in my own life.

I have often wondered if it would have done any good for anyone to sit her down and tell her how vulgar and crass her behavior was. There is a strong possibility it wouldn’t have helped at all, but the optimist in me always wants to at least try.

I’ve noticed a trend in polite company and polite novels. The annoying people are allowed to sit around and irritate everyone but no one says anything to them because it would be rude. So instead of inconveniencing one person and saying, “Hey, please stop doing that. It’s driving everyone crazy,” and dealing with the temporary embarrassment and awkwardness such a statement would incur, everyone just pretends it isn’t so bad or sniggers behind their hands. How is it fair to annoy and offend multiple people to spare one person embarrassment? And could the argument be made that it is actually an unkindness not to tell them because it is entirely possible they don’t know how awful they are?

Of course, Austen showed us in Emma what happens sometimes when you tell someone what a bore they are, and it ended with Miss Bates avoiding Emma for weeks. Though I think a tiny part of Emma felt relief alongside her guilt.

But I digress.

About Mrs. Bennet. I know some readers feel that she hates Elizabeth, and that is certainly a legitimate point of view, but I don’t think she really does. I think she doesn’t understand Elizabeth. I also think she doesn’t understand her husband or Mary, and possibly even Jane.

It’s clear she appreciates Jane’s beauty and the prestige it brings her, but does she really understand Jane’s temperament and feelings? If she did, surely she wouldn’t put her in such horrible situations – riding to Netherfield in the rain, incessantly whining about Bingley after he’d left Hertfordshire. Unless of course she understands and just doesn’t care, which puts her in the selfish cow category.

Does Elizabeth remind her of the husband she cannot comprehend and whom she has failed in myriad ways? Does Mary seem like a foreign creature to her and beyond reach? I have always wondered if she was jealous of Elizabeth. Her daughter was able to maintain a relationship with Mr. Bennet that Mrs. B was incapable of achieving. Did that bother her? I think it may have. Was each daughter she bore just another reminder of her failure to provide her husband with an heir at a time when that ability was a woman’s greatest asset?

The argument can also be made that she cares about her daughters deeply and that very care leads her to push them into awkward situations. She is older and knows older women and has probably heard horror stories of women who were unprovided for at a husband or father’s death. (We still talk about this. Who got what in the divorce; what she’s going to do now that she’s a single mother.)  There’s a good chance she’s witnessed it herself. Could that fear push her to act in ways she otherwise wouldn’t?

Was she always so difficult and self-absorbed? Surely when they were first together she was more pleasant to be around. Mr. Bennet must have thought she would be decent enough company or he wouldn’t have married her. Admittedly, he didn’t look very deeply, but I think it would take more than a pretty face and a small dowry to make a gentleman marry the daughter of a tradesman. He must have liked her at some point. (Or he got her pregnant, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish!)

So who is the real Mrs. Bennet? Is she frightened and exacerbated, living in a world she has no control over surrounded by situations and people she doesn’t understand? Or is she selfish and shallow, interested only in what will promote her own interests?

I recently had a rough week and was a little bit whiny and at one point my husband burst out laughing and made a joke at my expense. It really hurt my feelings. And made me feel sorry for Mrs. Bennet. I have the mental wherewithal (and live in a time and place where I have a voice) to tell my husband that it hurts when he makes fun of me, but that was not language commonly used then, nor was Mr. Bennet a receptive audience. Not to mention that showing vulnerability to a person who’s just hurt you doesn’t sound like a very good idea. In her own way, she was saying she was hurt, irritated, and annoyed – constantly calling for her salts and saying no one had compassion for her poor nerves.

I’m beginning to think Mr. Bennet didn’t have much compassion for her at all.


What do you think of Mrs. Bennet? Selfish or scared? A little bit of both? Something else entirely? Let’s discuss.

37 Responses to Let’s talk about Mrs. Bennet

  1. I enjoyed the post. While I think Mrs Bennet behaves very poorly, it is my impression that she does not know how to restrain her emotions when they happen. She married above her socital level, and I don’t believe Mr Bennet ever took the time to help her. I tend to feel sorry for her even though she drives me nuts at times. I also believe she is intimidated by the relationship Lizzy has with Mr Bennet and that sours her relationship with Lizzy though she does still love her daughter.

  2. I believe Mrs. Bennet is a nervous wreck and worried about her future. I can feel a little sympathy for her (but only a little) as she is rightly concerned about her future when Mr. Bennet dies. She is also selfish and such a gossip. Mr. Bennet doesn’t help matters by being unapproachable and constantly making fun of her.

  3. Bravo! A great look at Mrs. Bennet. She does provide the proper amount of conflict and yet evokes a certain amount of sympathy. A teensy amount. 🙂

    • Haha! Yes, a teensy amount. But I find that the older I get and the older my children get, the more I understand her. I don’t excuse her and she drives me nuts, but I understand her better. 🙂

  4. I agree that Mr. Bennet did not pay her enough attention and that meant when he paid attention to Lizzy, she was jealous IMHO. I also think she was spoiled and shallow and never went beyond what pleased herself. Then when she had no son, she panicked. Great look at Mrs. B.

    • Yeah, I’m with you. Panic is the right word. I often wonder why they didn’t have more. Did something happen with Lydia’s birth? Or were there stillbirths or miscarriages after and the doctor told her to stop trying or die? Or did they just give up before they had 7 daughters? (I can’t really see Mrs. B giving up. I think she would keep going till she got a boy.) Or was it as simple as she simply didn’t get pregnant?

  5. Mr Bennet’s treatment of Mrs Bennet is similar to Charlotte Lucas way of coping with being married to Mr Collins. Marriage was forever, and if the match turns out to be painful, you do the best you can to live with it. The book Pride and Prejudice is hard on Mrs Bennet, but she’s the only one in it who worries about her daughters’ future, and at that time that was not a silly thing to worry about. I’ve always thought that we rather see Mrs Bennet through Elizabeth’s eyes, and Elizabeth is not at an age that tends to forgive a parent’s frailties. How many of you can remember being embarrassed by one or other family member? Then in most cases a time comes when you stop being embarrassed and simply love and accept them or develop coping mechanisms of your own. Darcy also is none too tolerant of Mrs Bennet until the end of the book, when he accepts Elizabeth’s relatives as being human, rather than perfection personified, and recognizes he and his family are not perfect either. The thing about Jane Austen’s novels is that her characters are very human and we all know people who could well have been the model for one or other of her fictional characters. I bet if we met Mrs Bennet in real life we’d find virtues as well as weaknesses. Anyway, weaknesses are like weeds – anything can be a weed if it’s where it’s not wanted. Mrs Bennet’s weaknesses are exposed mercilessly, but without being balanced with accounts of her strengths. The book says the reason Elizabeth and Jane turned out so well was the influence of the Gardiners. It also says Mr Bennet fell for a pretty face. Maybe Mrs Bennet could have been different or Mr Bennet could have been different, but that would have totally changed the novel. I would not want that. I may enjoy the fan-fiction but I still need the original to stand as written.
    By the way, my husband and I both have mannerisms that some people find extremely annoying and other people find quite endearing. We tend to spend our time with the ones who find us endearing. Fortunately that group includes our offspring. Fortunately none of them have written a comedy-of-manners exposee of our family life, though my daughter does tend to keep a list of my “cute sayings” – as did my mother.

    • You make a great point about the parallel with Charlotte and Mr. B. I think the big difference for them is that Charlotte went into it knowing he was a buffoon and expected nothing but a home. Mr. B actually wanted to respect his wife and likely held affection for her that he hoped or assumed would grow if it hadn’t already. I think he was likely very disappointed when her true colors came out and just didn’t have the character to deal with it.

  6. Mrs. Bennet seems to have been the youngest child of her maiden household. I figure her parents doted on her elder brother and paid special care to his education; leaving very little attention for her. She probably made the most of things by acquiring their time in the form of negative reinforcement. A terrible means of personality development.

    • Was she? I had always figured Mr. Gardiner for being younger than Mrs. B, but that may just be in my head. Or his wife could be significantly younger than him, not an unusual situation.

  7. I agree about Mrs. Bennett…. My thoughts on the younger sisters is a little different. I think that as she was desperate to have a son she continued having children, and this is where Jane and Elizabeth get their maturity. I believe that it fell on The two oldest Bennett girls to be care givers of the younger siblings. Freeing their mother to “take care of the house.” I believe that Jane and Elizabeth did the best that they could but being children themselves it was difficult. You see it everyday children being “fresh” to their parents and they think it’s cute…until they are older and can not be taught right from wrong…parents say it’s too late and throw their hands in the air.

    • In big families like that, the older often parent the younger a bit. You’re probably right about that being part of why the two eldest were more mature. And of course their mother still had hope of having a son when they were young and wasn’t as crazy. 🙂

  8. I found your take on Mrs. Bennet really interesting. I had not taken the time to really understand her. In the making of her character, there sounds like there were a few disconnects. If someone would have said something to her as a child, teen, adult, wife, young mother, etc. I think she had some sense just people were blinded by her looks and gave her mind no thoughts. Does that sound like our culture today?

    • That’s a great point, Patty. We do do that today and always have. I always used to say I would never date good looking men (or TOO good looking) because they had no personalities. This is not across the board of course, but plenty of people get by on their looks alone and never push themselves or are pushed by others to do or be better because they simply don’t have to. The exception to this would be those who don’t realize how attractive they are or those, like Elizabeth Bennet, had someone even MORE attractive in close proximity. And of course people with no vanity and lots of drive.

      But I do think beauty plays into how women are raised, especially back then. Mary was encouraged to play the piano but Lydia wasn’t because she was so cute and lively. She didn’t need talent – she had giggles and a figure. Value systems play a role, too.

      OK, I’m stopping now before I write another blog post in the comments!

      • Lydia must have reminded Mrs. Bennett of what she herself looked and acted like; therefore, the close connection of these two. They could truly understand because they thought and acted so much like the other.

        • I’ve always thought that’s why Mrs. B let Lydia get away with anything. Lydia was her mini-me. She saw herself in her daughter and relived her youth through her. Obviously she thought fairly highly of herself or she wouldn’t have been so enamored of the child just like her.

          To be fair, though, Mrs. B was the daughter of a tradesman or country attorney. She did very well in terms of marrying up, which was pretty much the only way a woman could legitimately advance in that society. It would be like a girl from a trailer park going to law school today in terms of prestige within her own neighborhood (and backbiting and jealousy from her peers).

      • This reminds me of something in my own life: When I was young my mother encouraged me to read and work hard in school and would not accept any lower grades from me because I was going to have to get through life using my brain, meanwhile my younger sister was beautiful and could get through life on her looks. :-p Did not foster sisterly affection at the time, but as adults we are very close. It did establish and develop our personalities though. I’m a book geek perfectionist who does financial budgeting and continue to work on degrees, she is a stay at home mom with two gorgeous children and she never went to college because she wasn’t “smart enough”. Wonder where that came from?

        • Exactly, Stephanie! I don’t know you in person, but you are adorable in your picture here so I don’t know what your mother was talking about. 🙂 But that aside, aren’t you glad you fed your mind? Beauty fades but talent, intelligence, and experience just get better with time.

          I was the only girl growing up (I now have a half-sister 18 yrs younger than me) and I was taught both. My grandmothers and mother had worked, all blue collar, and 2 of the three were divorced and had to support themselves and their children for a time, so there was a definite push toward being able to support myself because a man could always go dig a ditch, but a woman had to use her mind if she wanted a good job.

          I think because there were no other girls in the family looks didn’t play into it too much, but I was pushed harder than my brothers because I was female and because my mother knew I had the brains for it. (so did they, but they had aforementioned ditch-digging abilities) Out of the original six children, I am the only one to have gone to college at all, let alone graduate. The boys are successful, 2 extremely so, but they weren’t as into education as I was. They were influenced more by a need to provide, regardless of the method, while I was taught to survive without a man and home-make and mother once I got one.

          Made for some interesting dynamics. Still does, actually. 😉

  9. I have little compassion for Mrs. Bennet, as any reader of my books so far can tell. I think she does understand proper behavior and does not care. She is the mother, she will behave as she wishes, and there’s an end to it. And, she will do anything required to get her children married off. I also think that a large part of her behavior stems from being the matriarch of one of the prominent families in the area…big fish in a little pond. I will agree that her husband should have done something about her, as well as the younger girls. Lizzy and Jane could not…it was totally against the rules and very disrespectful to be harsh with one’s parents at that time (not that we should be disrespectful now). I think I’m probably too harsh on her, but I’m big on self-reflection and correcting your own behavior and that is clearly a foreign concept to that woman!

    • I agree about the self-reflection. I’m a big fan, too. But for some people, it’s a really foreign concept.

      I’ve always thought that Mrs. B didn’t know the proper way to behave and neither does her sister. She thinks her looks got her married well and that’s all she needs. She definitely get a black mark for not trying to improve herself, but I do think a lot of her vulgarity comes from ignorance and simply never being corrected or never being corrected by someone with influence.

      After marrying so well, she could have continued to learn and improve herself and her situation, but she didn’t. She got set in her ways and never bothered to do more. Maybe she and her husband have indolence in common. 🙂

  10. I loved your assessment of Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth, probably because I see her exactly in the same light. A middle-aged Lydia. An embarrassment to her well-behaved daughters (HOW did they get to be so well-behaved BTW?) but not evil. With modern-day mentality, we find it difficult to understand how a mother could urge her daughter to marry someone as reprehensible as Mr Collins, but to her, and to many of her contemporaries, being a Mrs Collins was far preferable to being a Mrs. Bates.

    I also think you’re spot-on about her relationship with Elizabeth. She is mildly threatened by a daughter who is so much cleverer than herself, and able to form a bond with Mr Bennet, which she had never been able to forge, as whatever they might have shared in their wild youth, it wasn’t on an intellectual plane. I feel too, that Mr Bennet, likeable as he is for a variety of reasons, carries the greatest share of blame in the failure of his own marriage. He should have chosen better, and failing that he should have tried to educate his wife rather than mock her, and especially mock her in their daughters’ presence. Poor form, Sir!

    • I agree about Mr. Bennet having poor form. You don’t bad-mouth in front of the kids. Huge no-no. And I often think that the responsibility lies with the person who actually sees the problem and is most equipped to handle it. However, in many ways Mr. B was a victim, too, though perhaps one more of his own nature.

      He did not want to train or educate a wife, he just wanted to go about his business while she went about hers. Yes, he had more power and more options and therefore more blame, but he also got the short end of the stick. He would basically have to become a different kind of person in order to deal with her, and I don’t blame him for being daunted by that prospect. However, I can blame him for seeing the situation, placing the blame on one young woman’s shoulders when his were just as culpable, and not picking himself up and dealing with it even though it was difficult and trying.

  11. I have a relative who has many of the same behaviors and complaints as Mrs. Bennet. She also has an anxiety disorder that is much diminished with medication. Because of what I have seen in this relative, I tend to lean toward Mrs. Bennet being very pretty, mentally shallow and suffering from untreated anxiety.

    • You have a very good point there, Diana. She definitely acts like there’s something chemical going on. Or it could be brought on by her lazy husband. Or maybe she just isn’t having enough sex. Who knows? 😉

  12. I would have to lock myself in the book room also if I had to listen to her complain about her nerves and the gossiping. However, she did care a lot about her daughters with the exception of Elizabeth. Maybe, deep down inside she was jealous of Lizzy’s knowledge and closeness with her father. Just a thought!

    • I explored the jealousy idea a lot recently with my last book. And I don’t know that she doesn’t care about Elizabeth. We know E’s not the favorite, but Mrs. B does get angry on E’s behalf over Mr. Darcy’s insult. If she really hated her, she could have promoted Mary to Collins instead. Although that brings up more questions than it answers. Did she just see E as expendable? Or was she simply going in order of age? Was she just trying to get of what she saw a her most problematic daughter? I’d love to know what was really going through her head.

      • I DO think Mrs. Bennet SHOULD have promoted a marriage between Mary with Mr. Collins. Being that Mr. C was the heir apparent, Mary would be the lady of the house eventually, and Mrs. B’s work would have been done.

  13. I think she was a hodge podge. I have always seen her much as you do in essentials. Pretty and not overly deep which is not a deal breaker in itself. But she has been dealt some cards she is not equipped to play. 1. Her husband is always making fun of her, talking over her head or just ignoring her existence. 2. She has 5 daughters and NO sons 3. She has a daughter that is her husbands favorite and also very smart and independent. 4. She has a daughter who wants to do nothing but read and quote scripture. 5. She is terrified Mr. B will keel over and they will have nothing which will leave them with no prospect of attracting decent husbands. In that context, I don’t think she is pushing them into situations intentionally. I think that motivated by fear of the “what ifs” and the strictures of the day, she honestly thought she was doing the best she could to put her girls in the best light/opportunity/conversation possible. If Mr. B had pulled his nose out of a book and spent some time with her I think she might have been a different lady. I never saw her as hating Lizzy or Mary, I always saw it as my mother was with me: She had no earthly idea what to do with them and it frustrated the heck out of her. I also see post Bingley/Darcy Mrs B as a partially relieved light headed product of items 1-5. Suddenly there is hope, two girls will have money and husbands, she will not have to live in the hedgerows and thank heavens someone knows what to do with Lizzy! But she still has no respect and no attention from her husband so she flutters around in the only way she knows how which at least draws his eye part of the time.

      • I’m right there with you, Stephanie! I do the same thing! And I agree about Mrs. B. A lot of her problems could have been alleviated by having a better husband. But then we could also argue that he would have been a better husband with a less aggravating wife. We’ll have to discuss him another time. Basically, they brought out the worst in each other and potentially could have been much more peaceful and happy with someone else.

          • I think I’ll go ahead and write the next blog post about Mr. Bennet. He is the product of choices – his and his family’s (entail, anyone?) and I think a victim of his own nature, to a degree. If he had just picked a better wife, worked to educate the one he had, taken a stand with his daughters, etc. He’s almost a prisoner in a life of his own making – his bookroom being a very well-decorated cell.

  14. I kind of agree about the compassion. Had he taken more interest in his wife, in his entire family, in his estate, yada, yada, the whole family might have presented themselves differently. But then where would P&P be?

  15. Mrs. Bennett definitely has some issues. I believe she is doing the best she can with the cards she has been dealt.

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