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?