Mrs. Bennet and Her Nerves

Mrs. Bennet and Her Nerves

When I thought about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I realized it could have been named Flaws and Fripperies or Ignorance and Indolence almost as well as Pride and Prejudice. All the characters were shown to have major flaws: Elizabeth her pride/prejudice, Mr. Darcy his prejudice/pride, Mr. Bennet his indolence, Lydia and Kitty too involved with fripperies, and Jane withholding her feelings. I’ll refrain from mentioning Mr. Collins or Lady Catherine. And then we have Mrs. Bennet, a gentleman’s wife but with a background of trade. I wonder how much flack she got about that, and how much did it contribute to her problem with nerves?

Most of us, when we think of Mrs. Bennet, recall a loud-mouthed woman who spoke too much in too loud a voice and in the most inappropriate places to the embarrassment of her entire family. But she does have problems with her nerves that occasionally put her in bed with Hill bringing her salts and coddling the mistress of Longbourn until she feels better. That brings on the questions: why is she such a nervous woman and has she always been a walking case of nerves?

We have no background of the woman prior to her marriage to Mr. Bennet other than she and her siblings came from trade. Back in their day, having the stench of trade was a no-no. The upper crust would look down their noses at someone with a background that was despised, give them the cut direct or worse. Mrs. Bennet actually moved to a higher social status that would either cause her to be more esteemed, or an object of jealousy, or an object of scorn. And, apparently, at some point in time, Mr. Bennet ceased actively supporting his wife’s efforts to deal with her new position.

I actually feel sorry for Mrs. Bennet. Although she may be terrified for herself in being tossed into the hedgerows by Mr. Bennet’s heir to Longbourn, Mr. Collins, she frets about her daughters and their futures. Yes, she is noisy about it and very vocal to anyone who will listen or is trapped into hearing her speak of her many fears for the future, but she does worry about her family if something should happen to her husband.

Consider that she has more than just the stench of trade following in her wake. She has had the gall to give birth to five daughters instead of giving Mr. Bennet a son, one who would be heir to Longbourn and all that includes. Back then, nothing was known about genetics except the most basics of indulging in sex, getting pregnant, and then having a child. They didn’t know about the XY chromosomes and that the man’s sperm, or lack of same, could affect the sex of the child or even prevent pregnancy. So, as with many male-dominated societies, the woman got the blame for having nothing but girls. Now, Mrs. Bennet has two strikes against her. She’s incapable of producing a male heir or so society would conclude.

Probably Mr. Bennet had realized, shortly after his wedding day, that his bride was not as perfect as he had imagined. Mrs. Bennet apparently had beauty as her daughters were described as the prettiest in the county (if I’m remembering correctly), and, perhaps, even Mr. Bennet was a handsome man as well. However, looks don’t a marriage make. Bennet may have rued the day that he met and fell for his wife’s charms in spite of having feelings for his daughters, especially the two eldest. He may have been greatly disappointed that his wife didn’t share his love of reading and pursuit of knowledge. However, that didn’t excuse his indolence in not seeing to Longbourn’s potential and not caring for his daughters’ futures. This had to have been frustrating and worrisome to Mrs. Bennet. She is the one who carried each child in her womb for nine months, went through the birthing process, and cared for each daughter after they were born. I’m surprised she was not also enraged at the sheer neglect of her husband. She could have turned into a horrible shrew. Instead, she dealt with her nerves, and I can sympathize with her.

There was a scene in the 2005 version where Mrs. Bennet admonishes Elizabeth concerning if she had five daughters she would probably be immersed in working out their futures as well. It may not have been in the book, but it summed up Mrs. Bennet and her worries for her family.

When I think about her, I realize that Mrs. Bennet was a pretty tough lady. In spite of all she had against her, she was considered one of the best hostesses in the area and was known for setting a fine table. She apparently had a fair number of friends as well. And, although she may have been looked down upon by some, she still held her head high.

In spite of her flaws, she was a caring mother and was probably considered a good wife. And even Bennet did not eschew the intimate side of the marriage. After all, they had five children between the two of them.

Not blaming Mr. Bennet, but just consider. What if he had been a better husband and provider? What if he had been a better father? Would Mrs. Bennet have had a calmer demeanor? Would she have had less of a problem with her nerves? Too bad we will never know. At the very least, it did make Pride and Prejudice a much more interesting book with a flawed Bennet family than a perfect one with a bland plot.

What do you think?

19 Responses to Mrs. Bennet and Her Nerves

  1. I think Mr Bennet’s remark to Lizzy when he discusses her engagement to Darcy is telling. He says “My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life”. That sums up his marriage – he doesn’t respect his wife. This doesn’t excuse his behaviour: he has retreated over the years and treats the whole family badly. I suspect they are both unhappy and their unhappy marriage is the reason Lizzy can’t accept Collins, despite it potentially dooming her family to the hedgerow. She has seen what an unhappy marriage does to all involved, including the children.

    I also wonder if it is significant that as the Bennet children go down in age, they become ‘sillier’ for want of a better word. Jane and Lizzy, born in the early years of their parents’ marriage, are both sensible, Mary less so, Kitty and Lydia are the most silly because they are the youngest – both parents had given up by then!

    Finally, and I believe importantly, Mrs Bennet had 5 children in the space of 6 years – Lydia and Jane are just 6 years apart. This would take its toll on any woman, both physically and mentally. Added to this is the crushing disappointment of not ‘doing her duty’ (in her eyes and maybe in her husband’s?) of giving birth to an heir.

  2. JA makes both Bennet parents rather unsympathetic creatures. The 1995 film, while fun to watch Alison Steadman, turned Mrs Bennet into a cartoon. I much prefer the Mrs Bennet of the 1980 and 2005 films, and the portrayal in Lost in Austen — all of which show her as flawed but not cartoonish, and as a loving and caring mother. While I adored Benjamin Whitrow, his portrayal accented the contrast between the manic/depressive natures of the two Bennet parents, neither of whom should have married the other and neither of whom should have had children until they were mature enough to raise them properly. Well they did and that’s the story, which features two rather weak human beings coping with the realities of their disappointing lives in the only ways they know how. Not uncommon unfortunately. Interesting analysis, Gianna.

  3. I had never felt sorry for Mrs. Bennet before but now I do. She and her husband could have both done a better job with the younger girls. Great post. Thank you for giving me food for thought.

    • Yes. It would be difficult, and probably no matter what she would do, it would always be considered wrong or looked down upon. Bennet put his wife in a bad situation and then laughed about it. Maybe, a bit of petty revenge on his part? Badly done toward a woman who was trying to protect her daughters.

  4. I have always been more a Mrs Bennet person than a Mr Bennet. I really never liked Mr Bennet, never respected him and I think most of the problems the Bennets face is because of his negligence and lack of interest in his family. Even Elizabeth, who is told to be his favorite, he credits with a bit more sense than her silly sisters, which in my opinion, is hardly a compliment. His actions, or lack of actions, were very cruel to his family because he pretty much would leave six women with very little once he was gone. Despite that, while he was still alive, he didn’t care to check their education or minds. He let things go and didn’t care a bit. I actually feel sorry for Mrs Bennet and can understand her “nerves”. Her and her daughters’ situation was very delicate indeed and she was right to be concerned, someone had to! She was just not very intelligent and her way to achieve things was wrong and misguided but her intentions were good. I think she loved her daughters, all of them. She had a preference for Jane and Lydia but she wanted the best for all of them and within her means, she tried to do what she thought best to guarantee their future.

    • I’m with you, Daniela. Although, I’ve liked the actors who played Mr. Bennet (especially Donald Southerland) I don’t particularly like Mr. Bennet. I too feel for Mrs. Bennet because Mr. Bennet has put her in a bad position in not caring for his responsibilities. If I were Mrs. Bennet, my nerves would be in a mess too. Thank you for your thoughts. 🙂

  5. I always thought Mrs. Bennet was doing her best. She was ignorant but not stupid. She was well aware of Mr. Bennet’s opinion of her and since she was powerless to object and demand more respect, she retreated to her room with “nerves”. It was her way of recharging, I believe. She wasn’t able to improve without assistance from Mr. Bennet. I always admired how she spoke out when everyone else was too in awe to say anything. Mrs. Bennet basically called out Darcy for the very things Elizabeth said she disliked about him during the first proposal.

    • I agree with you, Suzanne. Yes, Mrs. Bennet did have the nerve to speak out. I wonder, though, if her nerves got the best of her, at times, when she might have regretted being so outspoken. Unfortunately, Mr. Bennet didn’t support her when he should have. I wonder how ‘Pride and Prejudice’ would have been written if Jane Austen had resolved some of the issues in the Bennet household? Austen had the entire family behind the eight ball and never really corrected that situation. She did a tad with Jane and Elizabeth but never with the parents who were the root of the problems. But, then again, maybe that’s why we have ‘Pride and Prejudice variations.’ 🙂

  6. We all live according to our values and we will do whatever it takes to achieve them. Our values can change with time, and at the point of P&P each character had developed together to create a “perfect storm” of behaviors to push the story.

    Mr. Bennet valued peace/quiet, books/reading and making sport of others, especially those he perceived as stupid.
    Mrs. Bennet valued the life she had become accustomed, being the center of attention, and proving she was just as good, if not better, than her friends.

    If you look at each of the girls, they were also living by their highest values. Especially Lydia (fun, being the first to marry/leader, and being the center of attention). Or Elizabeth, (being the smartest in the room, proud of her first impressions, making sport of others, especially those she perceived as stupid). Note how both Lydia and Elizabeth picked up some of the behaviors of the parent that “preferred” them.

    If Mr. Bennet had valued money or his family, he would have made more of an effort to save, expand, invest or curtail Mrs. Bennet’s spending. Like Renata said, he could ignore his finances because it wasn’t a problem as long as he was alive, and it just wasn’t high on his priority list. But, I bet he always had money for books. And he always had money for Mrs. Bennet in order to keep her quiet so he had peace to read. Just look at his reason for allowing Lydia to go to Brighton. He wanted peace and quiet.

    Mrs. Bennet was afraid she would lose the life she had become accustomed to, but her need to be the center of attention and prove herself as good as her friends kept her spending money instead of focusing on saving it. She always had money for lace and food so she could set a good table. And she could be the center of attention by bemoaning the fact she could lose it all when Mr. Bennet died. But, instead of saving money, she spent more in the hope that one of her daughters would marry well and keep her in the life she was accustomed, as well as being “proud” that her daughters married better than others in the neighborhood.

    Every time I look closer at the characters, I can see: Jane Austen was a genius.

    • Austen definitely was a genius. And I appreciate your comments about Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. It seems the only priority on Mr. Bennet’s list is to buy and read books. (Yes, I imagine he always had money for books.) And Mrs. Bennet always had money for fripperies. Neither one was diligent in the area of saving money for practical reasons. Bennet vexing his wife for sport, and Mrs. Bennet constantly mentioning her nerves does show Austen’s tongue in cheek attitude toward her characters that definitely help drive the story. It does make me wonder what Austen thought about their own neighbors in Chawton and elsewhere and how many were depicted, all or in part, in her books. She definitely had a biting wit that showed up in her letters to Cassandra as well. Thank you for your comments, Linda.

  7. Mr. Bennet can ignore his responsibilities, because as long as he is alive, the problem doesn’t exist. If he outlived his daughters, he could support them for their entire lives. This does not excuse Mr. Bennet’s neglecting his daughters’ futures, but it might explain it.

    Mrs. Bennet is likely younger than Mr. Bennet, possibly by as much as a decade or more. Since she apparently can’t have any more children with her husband, she has no danger of dying in childbirth. She is very likely to live for many years as a widow. She is likely concerned about her own future. If all her daughters were married, but to men who could not or would not help support their mother-in-law, she would have an income similar to what Jane Austen and her mother and sister lived on after Jane Austen’s father died.

    The Austens had a free house, but if Mrs. Bennet contributed some of her income to the household, she could probably live with either her brother or sister. The addition of one paying person is not as a big imposition as having a poor relative.

    • True, but the best laid plans. If Bennet died, it all hits the fan. And I agree that she is worried about her own future as well. Just Mr. Bennet being more responsible would give Mrs. Bennet some peace of mind about herself and her daughters. But Bennet’s indolence kept the whole household in a kind of suspension that his death would drastically change. Relying on Mr. Collins beneficence would not be the best route to go especially if he did not marry one of the Bennet girls. And, of course, in Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ he marries Charlotte Lucas instead.

  8. I think Mrs. Bennett just wants to see her daughter’s happy. She seems like a woman who plans ahead.lol Mr Bennett should have been more attentive ,he always seems hidden behind a book or something. I do think they make a funny couple though.

    • I think she does too, but there is also some fear about herself which is very understandable. Going from being a member of a thriving household to having little to nothing because of the entail would be enough to frighten most people. And to possibly find oneself in the Poorhouse or a Workhouse could be daunting. Bennet should have done more. Then again, did Jane Austen have a sense of humor with a barb in it? The Bennets are definitely an odd couple.

  9. Initially I blamed Mrs. Bennet for being so ridiculous and not seeing to their daughter’s education etc. And as the abilities of each daughter gets worse with each one it rather appears to me that the parenting gets more relaxed perhaps due to fatigue/stress? I thought she was a terrible parent. She is superficial and allows the younger ones to act inappropriately. In fact she seems to act like the younger daughters do instead of a mother trying to raise daughters with potential for betterment through marriage as she did herself. But in recent years I have looked more closely at Mr. Bennet. He is an amusing character and makes it easy to cast the blame on his wife. But seriously, he should have been more responsible to see to the future of his daughters. Instead his wife becomes the social embarrassment she is as the only way she can try to control the situation. Even if her attempts make things worse by scaring off Darcy and in turn Bingley by default, at least she is trying to do something. That is more than Mr. Bennet seems to do so I began to blame him more than his wife. Most recently I’ve decided that they play off each other and should probably divide the fault between them which makes me feel more forgiving toward both of them. Had either of them made alterations in their own behavior it would likely effect the behavior of the spouse and in turn have made changes in the girls and improved their chances of a good marriage. However, as you point out the current reading is far more fun than this scenario would have been.

    • I agree that both parents should have done better than they did. Mrs. Bennet may be overreacting, but at least she is concerned about her daughters and what will happen to her and them when Mr. Bennet dies. He doesn’t seem to care much either way. Unfortunately, neither parent seems to be effective. And the only solution if Bennet dies before any of the girls are married, is to throw themselves on Mr. Collins’ mercy. Not the type of solution one would feel sanguine about. The whole household, for the most part, is a mess because the parents are not doing their job. Alterations in either one’s behavior would have affected the other because they couldn’t react the same as the other one’s behavior is different. Too few people realize that we can’t control other people, but we can control our own reactions which in turn affect an alternate reaction from the other person. So, in a way, we can control another person…indirectly. Interesting isn’t it. 🙂

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