At first glance, Mrs Bennet seems to have nothing whatsoever to recommend her as a mother. Jane Austen, who had a sharp tongue when she’d a mind to, tells us that, ‘She was a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper.’ This harsh judgement is corroborated by Mr Darcy, in his letter to Lizzy, where he doesn’t hesitate to point out Mrs Bennet’s ‘total want of propriety’. And poor Lizzy herself, ‘blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation’ when her mother showed up her ill-breeding when she came to Netherfield when Jane was ill.
However, whilst admitting that Mrs Bennet’s behaviour could be embarrassing – it certainly gave Darcy and Bingley’s sisters a disgust of her ill-bred manners – nevertheless, Mrs Bennet also gave her daughters some very useful qualities.
For her point of view, ‘The business of her life was to get her daughters married,’ and in this she is entirely single-minded. Far from being of ‘mean understanding’, Mrs Bennet is absolutely clued up here. Her daughters have got to marry; if they don’t, their financial situation will be perilous indeed. Once Mr Bennet dies, Mr Collins will inherit the house and the property, and what will happen to Mrs Bennet and her daughters, then? Would Mr Collins offer them all a home at Longbourn? I can’t see any of the sisters wanting that. Their only work option is to be a governess; and we know how sketchy their education was. ‘We never had a governess,’ Lizzy tells Lady Catherine. They did, however, have all the teachers they needed, and Elizabeth and Mary, in particular, had piano and singing lessons.
Early 19th century Piano, Kenwood House
So what did Mrs Bennet give her daughters? To answer that, we need to look at why Mr Bennet married her. Jane Austen tells us he was, ‘captured by (her) youth and beauty and that appearance of good-humour which youth and beauty generally give.’ And if Mr Bennet, a well-educated man, could be taken in by youth and beauty, why shouldn’t other equally eligible men fall for her beautiful, good-humoured girls?
Genetically, Mrs Bennet has passed her looks down to four of her daughters. When Mr Bingley first pays a call on Mr Bennet, we learn that, ‘he had entertained hopes of being admitted to a sight of the young ladies, of whose beauty he had heard much.’ Beauty is a very useful quality for girls who are not rich and in need of a husband.
19th century ebony fan.
Furthermore, I would argue that Mrs Bennet also handed down to her daughters a sort of sexual self-confidence in their relationships with men. Jane Austen mentions Lydia’s ‘high animal spirits and a sort of natural self-consequence’, that is, sex appeal. When Lydia returns to Longbourn after her shot gun marriage, Jane Austen describes her as: ‘untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy and fearless.’ She has no shame at all in having eloped with Wickham; she knew that they would get married sooner or later – and she is proved right.
Lizzy, too, has inherited the magic ingredient of light-hearted sexual self-confidence. Consider how Darcy reacts to her at Netherfield, early on in the story: ‘There was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman and he was by her.’
She’s beautiful and she’s sexy; and for that she has Mrs Bennet to thank. Of course, she has other, more solid qualities, too, but it is these very basic ones which initially attract Darcy to her. You could do a lot worse than have Mrs Bennet as your mother.
Having said that, I feel sorry for poor Mary, the only plain sister, who has to rely on ‘accomplishments’ and an over-earnest interest in books of high-minded morality. Poor Mary. If only Mr Bennet would take his third daughter in hand and teach her how to think logically and develop a sense of humour to leaven that moral earnestness, but I suspect that he’s too lazy. I fear for Mary’s future.
Lady riding side-saddle
All the same, the fact remains that Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, two girls with very little in the way of a dowry, and a mother whose manners can only be described as detrimental to her daughters’ marriage hopes, both manage to acquire rich and personable husbands against the odds.
When the chips are down, it is beauty and sex appeal which is the trump card in the marriage game. And it probably still is. I rest my case.
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