Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Real Villain Of "Pride And Prejudice"

It so happens that while I was on vacation I discovered that my mobile phone had two books uploaded to it, one being Pride And Prejudice, so having nothing to do in the evenings, I decided to re-read it.

Of course, not only have I read the novel multiple times before, but also watched the famous TV series with Colin Firth I don't know how often. It was an interesting experience, though, to read it again at a more mature age than 20+.

Pride and Prejudice is perhaps the most famous work of Miss Austen, probably partly due to its inherent liberalism, which deserves a blog post of its own, so that there is hardly any need to tell or even to remind my readers what the story is all about. By now everyone knows, or at least have heard, about the romance between Elisabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy and the obstacles they have to overcome on their way to living happily ever after.

Even minor characters hardly need any introduction, and the general opinion concerning them is more or less fixed, so if one asks who is the villain of the story pretty much everybody will point to Mr Wickham, a reckless cad who refuses to pay his debts of honour and spends his time seducing young girls of fifteen. There is little to say in defence of his behaviour, so I'm not even going to try. Instead, I want to direct your attention to another character, who is hardly less responsible for the disaster which awaits the Bennet family in the end.

Let's look at the situation in the story from a pragmatic instead of a romantic point of view. What do we see? There are five Bennet girls who, though daughters of a gentleman, have virtually no dowry and after the death of their father will lose the roof over their heads as well, since their estate is entailed to Mr Collins. Their mother who is shown as vulgar and silly and constantly made fun of, realises the seriousness of the situation and does everything humanly possible to marry them off, while their father seems not to care at all.

By now you all must understand what I'm trying to say. Mr Bennet marries a rather poor and stupid girl who is also socially beneath him. When he finally realises she is stupid, instead of trying at least to raise the children well, he retreats into his library and lets his idiotic wife indulge and spoil the younger children as much as she wishes, without even trying to influence them in a more positive way or to teach them (especially Lydia) some rudimentary morals.

It's enough that his two eldest daughters are not total idiots, it seems. He doesn't even bother to hire a governess though he could perfectly well afford it, allowing the children to do pretty much what they wish. Elisabeth, a gentleman's daughter, can't ride a horse, for instance.

Mr Bennet has a considerable income, and since there is but 7 years difference between his youngest and his eldest daughter, he learns soon enough he will never have a son, yet does he try to save money to provide for his children after his death? Not a penny. Moreover, he actively undermines the efforts of the girls' mother to find suitable marriage partners for them, by refusing to curb the behaviour of his three younger daughters which brings the ridicule upon the whole family wherever they go.

Not to forget, that it's possibly his influence which persuades Elisabeth to get married only "out of great love" since in the end of the story, he actively tries to persuade her not to marry Darcy. The question of what would be his daughter's future otherwise seems to never enter his head.

And here I come to my next point. In the times when the novel was written, by law and custom, the father had all the authority in his family over his children and his wife, and yet he chose not exercise it, hoping that the things will turn out well in the end. They do, but only because the author's fantasy allows it. Pride And Prejudice has one of the most unrealistic endings in literature and films and next time I''ll write why.


  1. Yes, the Bennets were dreadful parents. mr bennet, a 'gentleman', married a solicitor's daughter because she was pretty. his entire future planning was limited to hoping he had a son so the entailment could be broken (entailment-breaking requiring the 'owner's' and heir's consent. Mr Collins was not going to consent to this, as Mr Bennet could have left him with a smaller inheritance). Despite having 5 daughters, he spent all of his income, setting aside none for dowries. He also spent 'frivolously' on books (this would have been the daughters' only inheritance, as it would be personal assets, not the entailed estate).

    Mrs Bennet cared little about responsibility, or maintaining the social observances necessary to improve her daughters' (already woeful) marital potential. She, despite being a solicitor's daughter, did not ensure her daughters had a grasp of 'household administration'. as a solicitor's daughter, she would have had these skills, but since mr bennet had staff, it was apparently not necessary or important to teach these things to her daughters. Ignoring the minor detail that as un-dowried young women, they were unlikely to marry well enough to have staff.

    I could go on...

  2. Housewife from FinlandAugust 6, 2015 at 6:10 AM

    I totally agree with you. I have never understood why mr. Bennet was stupid enough to marry mrs. Bennet in the first place. I assume, that pretty girl with good manners can hide her stupidity long enough to fool a man, but mrs. Bennet didn't even have good manners. Quite the opposite. She was totally unable to control herself.

    I think people read Jane Austen's books in quite a different way that she ment. I mean most of her characters are really annoying. I admire Elinor Dashwood and Mr. Knightley and that's it. I would like colonel Brandon too, but I despise his taste on women.

    I did like the TV -series, though.

  3. I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed this:)

    However, as for entail, I was under the impression that if Mr Bennet had a son, he would automatically inherit the estate which otherwise went to Mr Collins because only a man could inherit, in the way the titles were usually inherited by sons only.

    Mrs Bennet was certainly irresponsible, but at least, she realised her daughters' disastrous prospects. She is depicted in a negative light anyway, while the father isn't.

  4. (My previous comment was in response to al).

    Housewife, I have to leave now, I'll write more later.

  5. Housewife, I rather like Col. Brandon myself:) As for his taste in women, I think it's perfectly in line with his general character. Sense And Sensibility is, imo, The most traditional of all Jane Austen's books and P&P the most liberal. Others fall in between.

    It's an interesting idea that people misunderstand her books which can very well be true, due to the changes in perception modernity brought. There is also a theory that she only submitted the ideas and/or plots, while the rest was the work of her male editor, I guess due to discrepancies of style in her earlier, unfinished works and the 6 originally published novels.

  6. Read this aloud to my husband over breakfast this morning and we both agree! :) I always thought the father realized his error, but also realized that he didn't have the dedication to do better, even after Lydia ran off.

  7. Yes, Sanne, if Mr Bennet had a son, the son would inherit. Since Mr Bennet had no son, Mr Collins was the lucky heir. It may have been the law, or the terms of the entailment

    The estate was entailed (something like held in a trust), and could not be sold (not even the tiniest bit), which limited Mr Bennet's options regarding money. He only had the estate's income (of which he ensured to spend the entirety, with his wife's eager assistance)

  8. Anonymous, please pick up a handle. Anonymous comments are not allowed on this blog.

    al, yes, that's how I understood it, too. Mr Bennet's income was considerable, though, and he could have laid aside a nice sum of money had he chosen to do it.

  9. Housewife from FinlandAugust 7, 2015 at 2:10 AM

    About colonel Brandon: I wonder if it was fashionable back then for a man to be sentimental, or was that later? I personally don't like that feature in a man. Men are not supposed to be too romantic, either. :) If reason doesn't rule them, how can we trust them?

    For defence of mr. Bennet: We do not know how much he has tried in the early years of his marriage. Maybe he tried to train mrs. Bennet to save money and behave well and to educate the girls better. But maybe mrs. Bennet was so hopeless that he just gave up and decided to let her take care of everything the way she wanted. This is possible, but not very likely, because mrs. Bennet was not a strong-willed woman, bat rather weak one. I assume that strong-willed and purposeful mand could have lead her better.

  10. Housewife, from the novel I get the idea that Mr Bennet was too lazy to bother:) He could have at least hired a governess for the girls, and since he was the master of the house he had by law the final say about how the money would be spent. He could have easily locked Lydia up, if he chose to. But he preferred sitting in the library:)

    Now concerning Col. Brandon, may be his sentimentality was satirically meant? I think it's OK for a man to be romantic now and then, as long as he has other qualities to compensate for it. Don't forget that Brandon fought a duel with Willoughby. Also, when it comes to a pretty girl, men' reason nearly always goes out of the window.

  11. Totally agree. Most tv/movie adaptations portray Mr Bennett as a loveable smartarse who has the wit to see through the 'nonsensical' social mores of the time. He and Lizzy are portrayed as being intellectually above the rest of the household.

    People today simply don't get how terrible the position of the family is at the beginning of the story. On the death of Mr Bennett they will descend below their class. The girls will have to live with their relatives and go to work as governesses or the like. They won't get good marriages from those positions. Their current social standing is a temporary mirage, they need to get cracking ASAP to utilise it to make good marriages.

    That things will be OK as long as Mr Bennett is alive, only accentuates his negligence.

    Mrs Bennett is the only one who explicitly talks about the danger, and in tv/movie adaptations she is portrayed as being a buffoon. Of course she isn't really portrayed well in the book either, I think Austen's point with her is that she isn't behaving constructively.

    Most people today just don't have the brains to internalise the radically different mores of that time. Once they work out that both Lizzie and Darcy are proud and prejudiced, they smile smugly and imagine they have cracked the Da Vinci code.

  12. Hello and welcome to the blog, Victorstamp!

  13. Thank you for this analysis and comments. I'm a young woman and love jane austen's novels and never thought of mr bennet as a villain. May i suggest you do more? It's very interesting and living in this modern world it's difficult speacially for young people to grasp these things or not to read a book with "modern eyes".

  14. Dear M., I'm glad you enjoyed this post. I'm certainly going to write more about P&P, possibly next week. As for Mr.B., since I already belong to the generation of parents, not children, I guess I start seeing things from a different angle.

  15. Housewife from FinlandAugust 10, 2015 at 8:41 AM

    One has to reach certain age and certain knowledge about history to be able to really see what's behind historical novels. To be able to read them in their own contects. I mean I recall that I absolutely admired both Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse when I first read the books. Since they were so witty. Nowadays I tend to think that they both have missed some spanking when they were young... ;)

  16. I find Emma one of the most irritating Austen's characters, because of her snobbery, but she gets her comeuppance in the person of Mrs Elton:)

  17. Something interesting about the entail issue is that Mr. Bennet could have actually cut it off. There was a legal mechanism in common use to gain control of the estate, but it would have left the estate under the control of Mr. Bennet who relied on the entail for what economy the family had. Found this out on one of the many Austen fan sites. He was a man who refused to exercise authority over his wife and relied on the entail issue to avoid dealing with her spendthrift, flighty ways.

  18. Thanks for the info, I never knew it!