Just How Old Are Mr and Mrs Bennet?

Just How Old Are Mr and Mrs Bennet?

Have you ever noticed that in movies or miniseries based on Jane Austen’s work, or any other period pieces, usually show the parents much older than they would likely have been?  Mr and Mrs Bennet are typically portrayed as if they were in their late fifties or older, when, in fact, they were much closer to being in their late thirties to early forties.

It was a time when people married younger, had children younger, and died younger.  Until the year 1800, the average life expectancy was between 37 to 40 years. Look at Jane Austen, who was 41 years old, was portrayed as much older at the end of the movie Becoming Jane.  I’m 53, and would be most likely deceased by now or one of the unusual “old folk”.  Does it make us feel better to think of the parents as much older?  Do we allow our modern day notions of life expectancy to influence what we accept on screen?

In Jane Austen’s time, there were many reasons for the life expectancy to be so low, in comparison to modern days.  Prior to early 1800’s, there were many things that have been improved upon to aid people living longer.  Sanitation is one of those issues.  With sanitation, there is a reduction of bacteria building up, and lower levels of pests, such as rats, mice, and bugs, that spread diseases. London’s sewer system was not made until 1844.  Before that, the wealthy paid someone to come in the middle of the night to remove the human waste.  They were called night soilmen, and their service was expensive, so only the wealthy could afford them. In areas where they could not afford someone to remove the waste, there would be a common cesspool near a grouping of houses, or the waste was deposited out a window, into the street below.  Waste and deceased animal carcasses would end up in the rivers, making water unsafe. So many people in the poor section of London, with no sanitation, could only lead to epidemics when illness came to Town.  And it was those in the poor section who were service to the wealthy, spreading disease further.

Another issue for the time was the personal hygiene.  Baths were not common, as we portray in many of our books.  A basin of water and a cloth were the usual part of a woman’s toilette.  Depending the wealth of the family, there might not even be soap.  With those who were poor, they would not take an actual bath, as we know it. Depending on the weather, some would make their way to a nearby river or other bodies of water.  The only problem with this was, again, the water was not safe from contamination.

What was truly frightening was that physicians and surgeons did not wash their hands prior to treating a patient.  Germ theory was not embraced with open arms.  So there was the potential for cross contamination with germs from one patient to another.  And remember, this was also a time that bloodletting was used frequently.  There were no medications to fight infections such as we have today, leaving survival purely on the person’s body ability to heal.

During this time, it was estimated that one in every 10 babies died shortly after birth.  Again, this can be related to lack of cleanliness.  Babies and mothers were easy targets for infections to take hold, especially in the overcrowded areas of the poor in like London.

Now, back to the original thoughts, why is it we cast the roles of Mr Bennet and Lady Catherine as being much older that they were?  I noted that, watching show Game of Thrones, most of the characters in it were older than was described in the books.  In this day and age, it is hard to think of someone becoming a wife at the ripe old age of 12, as some of the characters were in the books.  And we even have an unease with Lydia Bennet marrying when she was 15, or Georgiana considering to elope at such a tender age.  For us, when a juvenile is under the age of 14, they lack the mental ability to commit crimes, so how can they be able to know how to be married, care for a home, birth babies?  Yet, this was not unheard of in the early 1800’s.  Babies having babies, as my grandmother would say.

Even in my lifetime, as a child, we look at our grandparents and parents, and think them ancient.  My mother became a grandmother at the age of thirty-eight.  Now that I am 53, it is easier to see that such an age is not ancient, and perhaps that is why we don’t feel comfortable seeing a child married and birthing babes before they are even a teenager.  My ex’s mom married at the age of 14, and had her first child at age 15, and many people find that hard to grasp.

Do you think the characters appear older in modern day movies and TV shows, older than they would have been in the stories?  What do you think leads to such changes on screen?

Here’s to you all having long and happy lives, so you can read more and more JAFF stories.  I know I have many books yet to read, so I will need at least another 40 or 50 years to get through them all.

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John Smith
John Smith
February 11, 2018 9:57 AM

Of course, in the United States life expectancy rates are declining, thanks to so many Americans believing that medical treatment and other benefits should only go to the “deserving.”

March 16, 2017 9:45 PM

It isn’t only in movies. Parents in advertisements and in stories were always depicted as old. That silver haired Mother of Mine sort of thing. They were shown and described as being white haired and suffering from various ills. Mothers were often described as being to frail to do anything when not even 65. IT was partially our mental attitude towards older adults.
We have developed ways of treating or immunizing against so many things that used to kill every one. The people who pushed having doctors wash their hands and wear clear clothes when operating helped push life expectancy back closer to what we now have. Several regency people lived well into the Victorian age– as Darcy and Elizabeth would have if all went well. quite a few people celebrated their 100th birthday.
The children who married before age 12 weren’t Quite often a couple really expected to have marital relations. In law the child had a right to get out of the marriage at age 12. Of course what 12 year old would know that? Quite often a couple was married at 12 but continued to live at home with parents or to finish education. One famous couple she went to learn how to manage his house and he went on a grand tour. Sometimes when a couple married at 15, the mother asked that the marriage not be consummated until the girl was at least 16.
On a personal note. One day my daughter came home from school ( youngest of 3 children) anxious to tell me something. “Mother, do you know that you are older than BVBVBVB’s grandmother?” I was probably around 5r1 at the time.

November 2, 2016 9:33 AM

This is all very interesting, Regina and commenters.

I recently read something about how women handled menstruation in the 19th century and previously; it included the point that girls reached puberty and thus began menstruating at a much more advanced age than today’s 12 to 14-year olds. (Very sorry but I do not recall where I read it, but I am pretty certain that the research was done by a JAFF author.) So with all due respect, I’m not so sure about girls 14 and younger marrying in those times because they still had “child bodies” rather than “woman bodies,” which I suppose — and hope! — would be less appealing to a man, and the girl likely would not be able to bear children for some years anyway. (Mr Darcy aside, most men I suspect married to produce heirs or farm workers.)

My picture of Mrs Bennet is 40-ish (Jane is ~23 and I figure her mom was under 20 when her two eldest daughters were born), the age of Mr Bennet somewhat older — I’ve long believed that he married a much-younger woman. The portrayal of the Bennets seemed the most spot-on in “Lost in Austen” while the 2005 P&P gets my vote for worst portrayal of the Gardiners as being in their 50s or 60s. Mr Gardiner was the younger brother of Mrs Bennet, and the Gardiners had small children, so their ages would reflect this reality — yes, P&P 1995 would probably be the most accurate in this respect.

Re age portrayals, I agree that Elizabeth was sadly miscast in P&P 1995; Ehle, altho’ ~24 yrs old during filming, could never pass for “not one and twenty.” She looks so much older and more worldly than described by JA. Felicity Jones on the other hand, who was approaching 24 yrs old, was much more believable as a maidenly 17 or so in the 2007 Northanger Abbey. Susannah Harker and whoever portrayed Elinor Dashwood also looked too old for the ages they were portraying, but at least I could suspend disbelief because they did not look so jaded as Ehle.

My own mother was well into her 30s when she gave birth to me, so she was usually one of the oldest moms at PTA also, and it sometimes shocked me to see how young my friends’ parents were!

It seems to me that the parents in period pieces (and oftentimes in contemporary pieces) are portrayed as older to clarify family relationships, because most of their children are portrayed by actors rather older than the age they represent. When the “child” and “parent” actors are too close in age — as they surprisingly often are; check IMDB and see how many “children” are portrayed by actors of the same age or older than their “parents” — it can be difficult to believe, and keep track of, these relationships. It all comes down to visual cues IMNSHO: we expect parents to look significantly older than their offspring, just as we expect wealthier people to live a more lavish lifestyle than the less wealthy. When we see Lady Catherine, we understand immediately that she is far wealthier than Mrs Bennet. And when we look at these two women next to Anne or Kitty, we understand immediately that these are mothers and daughters.

Sorry for making this so long-winded, but once I started I could not stop!

November 2, 2016 1:31 AM

Interesting post. I do notice that the characters are always older in the film/mini series. I’m guessing that its base on our current culture & how we are not completely comfortable with the idea of having those in their late teens early twenties marry early as the maturity of most that age are not seen as those back then.

November 1, 2016 11:53 PM

Great post! This is something that drives me crazy when I watch the movies.

Gianna Thomas
October 23, 2016 4:24 AM

In ‘Darcy Chooses,’ Mrs. Bennet was late thirties and Mr. Bennet mid forties. It does make one wonder why they are portrayed so much older in the movies. But, then again, they’ve always done what they wanted to when putting a movie together. 🙂

Jennifer Redlarczyk
October 20, 2016 10:16 AM

Just saying, loved this discussion.

Zoe Burton
October 19, 2016 8:46 PM

My paternal great-grandmother married, at 14, my great-grandfather, who was 20. There are others in my family tree who married young, as well, and the majority of couples had a 12+ year age difference, which is another thing people don’t like to read about nowadays.

When I was a teen, I remember hearing about couples around me that married at 16. To me, it’s no big deal, though I think that there are few teens today who are mature enough to handle marriage at that age. There are some, but not many.

This was a really interesting post! Thanks for sharing it with us! 🙂

Regina Jeffers
October 19, 2016 5:40 PM

Melanie, I am currently doing a series on my blog on Queen Victoria’s early years on the throne. I just did a piece on Princess Alice Maude Mary, Victoria’s second daughter and third child, which will appear in November. Alice tended her father Prince Albert during his illness. Typhoid fever claimed him in 1861 (long after our period). All the sources I used spoke of the lack of sanitation at Windsor leading to Albert’s taking ill.

Teresa Broderick
Teresa Broderick
October 19, 2016 3:56 PM

My parents married late in life so when my Dad turned 50 I remember thinking he was ancient. He always looked kinda old. He was very old fashioned and acted that way and I think that’s what made him seem old. In past times that’s probably what happened to people. Through hardship and the times they lived in, once they had their families they just acted this way, if I’m making any sense. I’m 53 and I have a 33 year old daughter. The kids keep me up to date. They wouldn’t let me be old. But when I had her I was definitely too young and should have been out enjoying myself. I’m glad to see the three of them, 33, 28 and 26 are in no rush to settle down.

Linda A.
Linda A.
October 19, 2016 12:36 PM

When I look at photos of my parents and grandparents compared to my photos of the same age, they just seemed older. And looking at photos of my niece and nephew at those same ages THEY seem younger. Some of the sayings now make sense: they get younger every year. Or: 50 is the new 40. And: 60 is the new 50. Maybe it is fashion, healthcare, hygiene, or even technology, but although Mr and Mrs Bennet, Lady Catherine, et al, may have only been around 40, it was a “rough” 40 years compared to what we go through now in that same span of time. I don’t think movies should make the older generations quite so old looking, I mean, Mrs. Gardiner had young children, should she be so matronly looking? But then, an actor who is “our 40” may seem way too young to have a 22 year old daughter. It is definitely a fine line they walk.

Sheila Majczan
Sheila Majczan
October 19, 2016 12:03 PM

I have often thought and even spoken out loud that it is so unrealistic to expect brides to wear white and that practice to reflect the old view that it meant “she is a virgin”. Our bodies may not be hormonally urging us to have sex at age 12 but at age 14 (as a parent and teacher) the hormones sure do kick in. So many couples live together before marriage. A grandmother at age 38…I had my last child at 37 but that was due to infertility issues. Yes, I realize that if Mrs. Bennet married at 17 or 18 and had a child 9 months later then in this story she is 39 or so. She could actually still be having children of her own and i have read several stories in which she does just that. So TV and movies present much older couples and that practice is a reflection of our times and cultures. BUT then the couples themselves are presented as much older many times. Then there are the men who portray Mr. Knightley in Emma. Only one version has it right – he is 16 years older than Emma so if she is 20 he should look 36. Does he? Sometimes but most of the movies show a couple who look close in age. But I still love the movies.

October 19, 2016 8:37 AM

Many characters appear older on screen, not only Mrs Bennet or Mr Bennet (although we have no indication of his age, he could be many years older than his wife), but also Elizabeth and Jane for example (who appear older than they are in the BBC series or the 2005 adaptation), or Elinor and Marianne who are not 20 in the novel. I would say that the directors/producers sometimes do not find the right actors in the right age range.

As for the average age for marriage, men would not marry until they could support a family, i.e. in their late twenties or later, and women in the lower classes would very often not marry before their mid-twenties, in the hope of not having too many children. I am no specialist but they are certainly exceptions of course.

October 19, 2016 7:56 AM

I think the main problem with actors being older than mentioned in the books etc, is finding the right actor, of the right age to lay the part. Probably less of a problem now than say 30 years ago.

Trudy Timkovich
Trudy Timkovich
October 19, 2016 5:30 AM

I would be interested in seeing your sources for stating these ages and reasons for early death. Some of your statements are true: germ theory was not present. But cleanliness was present. Cleanliness was not the present concept of immersion bathing, but that lack of immersion did not contribute to early death. Soap was commonly available and made at home. People generally did not marry until they knew how to keep a home and support a family- generally in their twenties. Child brides? Yes there were some, but look at the ages in the marriage registers, the older age of the bride and grooms would surprise you. Yes, there were childbirth deaths and mortality in children, but women generally had many children and enough of those survived to continue to increase the population. There were older people around-many people lived into their 60s and older-just look at the age of Austen ‘s contemporaries. Have you heard of privies? They were present for years and dug out annually. Yes, the rivers were polluted but people knew enough to not bathe in pollution nor drink the water from them-they had the common sense to not drink bad water. Let’s not perpetuate myths except in fiction.

Regina Jeffers
October 19, 2016 4:58 PM

You might look to the Word Wenches post on “Keeping Clean.” They have quotes from diaries and literature of the time in the piece.

Regina Jeffers
October 19, 2016 4:51 PM

The Marriage Act of 1753 tightened the existing ecclesiastical rules regarding marriage, providing that for a marriage to be valid it had to be performed in a church and after the publication of banns or the obtaining of a license. Those under the age of 21 had to have parental consent if they married by license; marriages by banns, by contrast, were valid as long as the parent of the minor did not actually forbid the banns.
Although it was legal to marry in Scotland at 14 without permission. English children needed permission until they were 21. However, a child could be married off at age seven in England with parental permission. Supposedly this child had the right to deny the marriage at age 12. Any marriage after age 12 for girls and age 14 for boys was considered valid if done with parental permission. The number of marriages of infants decreased during the age of enlightenment until the 18th century when people started to think 16 was too young. Also, the trend was towards nuclear families instead of more communal living with many generations in the same house. Marriage statistics take in all classes of people. A peer of the realm or his wealthy heir could marry at any age. A man of lower status had to be established in his profession or job to be able to afford a wife. Quite often the would-be bride was also working in some way to acquire money for the new home.

The fact that it was legal to marry at fourteen does not mean it was common. There are statistics that say during the early 19th Century the average age for women to marry in the British Isles was mid-twenties. As for the short life expectancy, one must look at how the statistics were developed. For example, many who passed early on did so in the first few years of infancy and childhood. If one had six children, and three passed before the age of one and the other three lived to be fifty, their average life expectancy was only twenty-five. We must remember that numbers can be manipulated to prove whatever we wish.

Renata McMann
October 19, 2016 3:13 AM

I think Mrs. Bennet must have been between 39 and 42 at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, which would make it possible that she was attractive, in spite of her comment about not thinking about her own beauty in the first chapter. She was proud of Lydia being married at 16, suggesting she was probably not younger than Lydia when she married.

What bothers me most is the portrayals of Mr. Collins. Movies often portray him as closer to Mr. Bennet’s generation than to being 25.

Regina Jeffers
October 19, 2016 4:45 PM
Reply to  Renata McMann

The old adage is that men waited until between 25-30 to marry, especially if they had to earn their income, and younger brides were preferred because they thought that they could withstand the perils of child birth better.

October 19, 2016 2:04 AM

I’ve always thought that the older generations in any period drama have been cast too old. Mr and Mrs. Bennet, the Gardiners, the Crofts (Mrs Croft’s age is actually given as 37, if memory serves), the Musgraves, the Bates, Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs Dashwood, the Middletons….I could go on and on. My main beef was with the casting of Donald Sutherland in P&P 2005. Fine actor though he is, he was just far too old. The vasting of the Bennet daughters was better in that though. A better choice was Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan in the recent Love and Friendship. She’s in her early 40s so that’s a lot closer to the age she would have been. Then there’s Lena Headey as Lady C. in P&P&Z who’s around the same age as Ms. Beckinsale.

My first thought was “Is it because we’re marrying and having children (or the other way round!) later ourselves nowadays?” After all, I was 37 and hubby 45 when our one and only was born. But that doesn’t wash, because the casting was just the same for Persuasion in 1971 and P&P in 1980.

There’s a telling point in Sense and Sensibilty which shows how younger people then thought of those who are older. Marianne regards Colonel Brandon as being ancient even though he’s still in his 30s, making him not that many years younger than her mother. That attitude may have changed somewhat in more recent times but not a great deal I believe. Ask any late teen what they think of someone 20 years their senior and I’m pretty sure they’s think they were almost “past it”!

One thing for sure, I’m glad I live in the 21st century, with our indoor plumbing, modern sanitation and healthcare.

Regina Jeffers
October 19, 2016 5:02 PM
Reply to  Anji

I am with you, Anji. I had my one and only child when I was 38 and my husband 39. We were always the oldest parents at the school functions.

I could envision Mr. Bennet as 47 – 50 years of age, but I would expect Mrs. Bennet to be more in her early 40s.
In one of my Regency books from the “Realm” series, I write of a couple forbidden to marry when young who reconnect when in their 50s. They are quite besotted with each other.

October 19, 2016 5:48 PM
Reply to  Regina Jeffers

I got all of your Realm books, that I didn’t have already, last time you had a sale Regina. Haven’t got around to reading the one you mentioned yet.

Know what you mean about being the oldest parents at school funtions. I was certainly the oldest first time Mum in the maternity unit when our son was born. There was one other lass the same age as me, but like Mrs. Bennet, she was on her fifth!

Sheila Majczan
Sheila Majczan
October 19, 2016 5:40 PM
Reply to  Regina Jeffers

I think I read one of the Realm series and I know that the rest are on my “Wish List”…sooner or later.

Regina Jeffers
October 19, 2016 5:41 PM
Reply to  Sheila Majczan

They will go on sale again in December if that helps. LOL!

Sheila Majczan
Sheila Majczan
October 19, 2016 5:54 PM
Reply to  Regina Jeffers

That is something I will have to write on my calendar so as to remember to look for the sale.

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