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.