Mrs. Bennet is one of Jane Austen’s most memorable characters. Clearly Austen wants us to laugh at her histrionics and her constant, blatant husband hunting, and we feel sorry for her daughters when her antics push away eligible suitors. But we are also frustrated by her lack of manners and wish she would at least try to discipline Lydia once in a while! Does Mrs. Bennet deserve laughter, scorn, or some other reaction? Let’s make a list of her good and bad qualities.
We might as well start with her bad qualities because, let’s face it, they’re what we know the best.
- Mrs. Bennet openly plays favorites with her daughters, preferring Lydia and Jane over the others.
- She is a terrible judge of character. If Mrs. Bennet likes a particular person it’s likely there is something seriously wrong with them. Think Wickham and Collins here.
- She has no filter. She openly (and loudly!) discusses gentlemen’s incomes in public, and she doesn’t try to conceal her opinions of other people’s looks and manners even when they can hear her.
- She is mercenary. She is more concerned with how rich her daughters might be after marriage, rather than how happy they would be.
- She is self-centered. There is no family drama that can’t be made worse by her sudden fainting fits, palpitations, and pains in the side.
- She has little self awareness, contradicting herself frequently.
- She spends too much money.
- She does not try to control or correct her daughters’ wild behavior, which almost brings about the family’s social ruin.
But Mrs. Bennet has her good points as well.
- She is practical. She knows that her daughters must have a way to support themselves by the time their father passes away, and she is determined to make that happen.
- She’s friendly. She likes throwing a party and attending events organized by others. Networking is important when you’re trying to get your daughters noticed by eligible men!
- She herself was successful in the marriage market. She made a good match with a wealthy member of the gentry and married out of the working class. You go girl!
- She may be a shameless gold digger, but at least she’s doing *something* to try to secure her daughter’s future. That’s more than we can say for her husband!
- Speaking of husbands, when Mrs. Bennet’s husband openly ridicules her (for shame, Mr. Bennet!), she does not respond in kind. In fact, she sometimes praises her husband when he exerts himself on behalf of their daughters.
- She’s observant. She knows when her daughters have caught a young man’s eye, and she usually judges their interest accurately.
- She appears to be the only member of the Bennet family who recognizes the absurdity of the entail that requires a male heir. “I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children; and I am sure, if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.”
- Against all odds, she eventually succeeds in her mission: her two oldest daughters marry rich, handsome men! Let’s face it: if she hadn’t managed to get Jane and Bingley alone together, would they have ever gotten together on their own?
Considering all these things, I think it’s fine to laugh at Mrs. Bennet a little bit, and perhaps even cheer her on in her husband hunting, at least when she’s not embarrassing her daughters. She may be silly and shallow and yes, sometimes vulgar. But she definitely wants what is best for her daughters, and she is willing to go to some lengths to make that happen. Here’s to all mothers who want only the best for their children!