Who do you think is the better parent in Pride and Prejudice: Mr. Bennet or Mrs. Bennet?
If you were to ask the twenty year old Elizabeth Bennet at the beginning of the novel, the answer would probably be a resounding, “Mr. Bennet!” But I wonder if she would have said the same thing a few years later, especially if Mr. Bennet had died before she and Jane had made advantageous marriages.
Mr. Bennet has his good qualities. He and Elizabeth share a love of books, a sarcastic sense of humor and the ability to laugh at the world around them. He openly proclaims “Lizzy” to be his favorite child, and he is her favorite parent.
Mrs. Bennet is described as “a woman of mean understanding,” another way of saying she’s neither intelligent nor well educated. It’s a safe guess that Mrs. Bennet doesn’t go into her husband’s library too often and when she does, it’s not to read the books. She talks too much, frequently embarrasses her family with her boorish manners, and makes no attempt to correct the atrocious behavior of her younger daughters. Her husband makes fun of her to her face, which is sad. Even worse, she doesn’t even realize it when he does.
But as fond as Elizabeth is of her father, there is one advantage Mrs. Bennet has over her husband: she takes the family’s future seriously.
Mr. Bennet has spent the last dozen years or so, since sometime after Lydia’s birth, doing absolutely nothing for his family’s financial security. He hasn’t put aside any money for them, so when he dies, each daughter (assuming they are not married) will inherit a thousand pounds and nothing else. (Keep in mind that this is during a time of war, when eligible bachelors are in short supply.) The interest from their inheritance will not be enough to support them, so they will have to live with relatives or else (horrifyingly!) find a way to earn a living. This is a disaster waiting to happen.
Yet Mr. Bennet, who is painfully aware of this possible future, doesn’t do anything to avoid it. He hasn’t regularly set aside sums of money to add to his daughters’ fortunes. He hasn’t even made sure that they are properly educated. And when his youngest two daughters, especially Lydia, engage in behaviors that could damage their chances of making a good marriage even more, he does nothing to stop them.
On the other hand, Mrs. Bennet urges Mr. Bennet to form friendships with eligible men who might possibly become suitors for her daughters. She makes sure that her daughters look their best at social engagements where they might meet single gentlemen. She connives ways for her daughters and the men in question to be alone together. In short, she does anything and everything she can to throw her daughters into the paths of rich men so that they can make good marriages. Mrs. Bennet is crude and she may not be very smart, but she definitely makes the most of what she does have.
So which parent is better? Do you prefer the parent who knows what he should do and just can’t be bothered, or the one who knows what needs to happen but not the best way to go about it? It’s a tough call.
Imagine an alternate Pride and Prejudice future, one where Jane and Elizabeth do not marry well and all the Bennet daughters are still single when Mr. Bennet dies. What would happen then? My predictions:
- Collins hears about Mr. Bennet’s death and is “kind” enough to give his cousins ninety days to leave Longbourn.
- Mrs. Bennet and her daughters move in with Mrs. Phillips.
- Jane accepts an offer of marriage from a Meryton shopkeeper. In her old life this match would have been a non-starter but things are different now. She marries him and hopes they will learn to love each other in time.
- Lydia ends up going “on the town” and is never heard from again. Not in polite society, anyway.
- Mary ends up an old maid. After all, she doesn’t have Jane or Elizabeth to bring her more into society and improve her manners.
- Kitty, who hates living with her relatives and can’t wait to leave home, accepts a marriage offer just to get away from her family. It doesn’t work out well.
And Lizzy? Well, Elizabeth receives a marriage offer from the shopkeeper’s brother, a cobbler, but she can’t stand the idea of seeing Longbourn in Collins’ care so she moves in with the Gardiners in town. She never finds any gentleman who meets her ideals and eventually becomes a governess. In her few quiet hours of reflection, when she’s not corralling unruly children or teaching them how to play their instruments remarkably ill, Elizabeth the governess comes to realize that maybe, just maybe, her mother was on to something after all.
Let me know below what you think of all this! I’d love to hear your thoughts.