Thinking about Mr. Bennet a lot lately. You can join the conversation on Mrs. Bennet here.
I have very mixed feelings about Mr. Bennet. He is described as intelligent and witty in P&P but also indolent. We know he has a silly wife and silly daughters and that he enjoys teasing them and winding them up. He is the master of his country estate and one of the first families in the area. His home is large enough to have its own small village but not wealthy enough to have horses for both the carriage and the farm. The estate is entailed to heirs male.
There is a lot more we don’t know. Why was the estate entailed in the first place? How long will it last? Three generations? Five? Forever?
How did he come to marry Mrs. Bennet? She was not the daughter of a gentleman. Was that an early sign of his indolence: he couldn’t be bothered with going to London to meet suitable women or didn’t want to look for one at all and just went with the closest attractive woman? Did he ever love her?
That is a question I would love to know the answer to. It seems that his lack of respect for her killed whatever affection he may have had. Did he simply not have the character to push through that kind of disappointment? Could he not try to make the best of things instead of hiding away and mocking when he came out of his cave? Or was he so disappointed that it jaded him and he became a shell of the man he’d been before?
Was he always the intended heir of Longbourn? It seems to me that if you grow up knowing something is going to be your responsibility that instills certain feelings in you about that place. Of course, we know many men squandered their fortunes and ruined their estates through gambling and carousing, but Bennet didn’t do that. But was his indolence his own form of rebellion? Was reading all day and ignoring the world to Mr. Bennet what staying out all night and coming home drunk was to other men?
It would almost make more sense if he was the younger brother who inherited unexpectedly. He didn’t know how to run an estate, didn’t want to run an estate, and couldn’t be bothered with learning. Or does he do alright with it and it’s his wife’s spending that’s the problem and he simply can’t rein her in?
These are all questions I would love to have the answers to. But the biggest for me is what kind of father he was.
P&P says that when he realized they would not have a son, he thought he should save for the girls but it was already too late. But didn’t he realize they were there? Shouldn’t he have started saving for Jane’s dowry as soon as he knew she was female? So that whole “I thought we’d have a son” line doesn’t really work. Regardless of whether he had a son late, he still had daughters that needed to be taken care of.
It sounds like he was planning all along to saddle his young son with the care of his elder daughters. When that son wasn’t born, Bennet simply gave up.
This reminds me of the movies that have a loser bad guy who’s actually good at heart but is acting out because of life and circumstances, etc. The character has one great moment to redeem himself and suddenly everyone knows that even though he’s led a life of crime, he’s actually a good guy with a pure heart.
So when he tells Elizabeth that she doesn’t have to marry Mr. Collins, when he backs her up and actually tells her he’s against it, not just not for it, in front of his wife, knowing full well that she will be impossible to live with after that and ruin any semblance of peace he has at home (and we know peace is one of the most valuable things to him), does he redeem himself? Is that his one great shining moment that wipes out his other wrongs? Does his indolence pale in comparison to his One Great Deed?
Mr. Collins was a buffoon, we can probably all agree on that, but there is no evidence that he was cruel or would mistreat his wife. Mr. Bennet had no moral reason not to agree to a marriage. In fact, letting his daughter clean up the mess made by his inaction sounds like just the sort of thing an indolent man would do. After all, was that not what he was planning to do with the son he never had?
So how much did he have to love Elizabeth for that to happen? I think a lot. A crazy lot. To give up his peace to his nerve-wracked wife when peace was so valuable to him, to forego the easy way out when that was his M.O., to act when he preferred to observe. That had to have taken a lot from him. Maybe it wasn’t half as much as it always should have been, but still, it was a lot from him.
So the question remains: Smart but bored or just plain lazy? Kind or unreliable? Good father or bad father?
Or just a human father? Chime in, please!
My next story has Mr. Bennet in an important role and he has a change of heart about certain things. Here’s a little excerpt.
Mrs. Bennet was sitting up in bed, her cap securely in place. She had been just about to turn down the lamp when she heard a knock. A knock from the inner door that led to the sitting room she shared with her husband. Startled, she called for her visitor to enter, surprised but not to see her husband coming into her room. For who else could it have been? But she had grown so used to his not coming, she was unprepared for his entrance.
“Mrs. Bennet, Agnes, may I come in?” he asked, feeling foolish over his own nervousness and oddly intimidated by the woman before him. She really was very beautiful. When had he stopped seeing her as such and begun viewing her as merely an amusement to be laughed at? His body deftly reminded him that there were much better things to do with such a woman than laugh at her.