Pride & Prejudice: Mrs. Bennett is not *that* silly.

Today’s diversion: watching the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice.  The miniseries follows the book pretty faithfully, except for a few gratuitous Colin Firth wet shirt shots.  Given that it is Colin Firth, this increases the sexiness quotient radically.

Pride & Prejudice is one of my favorite books.  I reread it at least once a year, and although there are other of Austen’s works that I have read and enjoyed (Sense & Sensibility, Lady Susan), Pride and Prejudice holds a special place in my heart.

Part of it is Austen’s wit.  Her sharp eye for the fallibilities of society (and its members) are translated into wonderful prose and great character development.  But lately I have been trying to think differently about the book, and what it says about the world.  I usually read it with a 20th century sensibility, which shades how I see some of the characters.

My thinking about this started when the Red-Headed Menace was assigned to read the book for his AP Lit class.  He whined through the first several chapters, and then got caught up in the story.  Like me,  he felt that the book really came alive in its second half, starting with Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy’s first proposal, and kicked into high gear with Lydia’s elopement.  We started dissecting some of the characters, how their reactions fit into their times. *

The one character I keep coming back to is Mrs. Bennett. Viewing her through modern eyes, she seems silly and  obsessive.  Checking my modern prejudices at the door, however, she becomes a much more interesting character.

The chief goal of Mrs. Bennett’s life is to get her daughters married — preferably married well. In the context of the times, this was eminently reasonable.  She is still silly, and her methods are obvious, manipulative, and most often unsuccessful, but her need to make sure her children’s future secure is very serious.

There is much talk of the entail that will result in the Collins’ getting Longbourne after Mr. Bennett’s death.  This was a very big deal.  As Mrs. Bennett notes on more than one occasion, Mr. Collins can have her and whatever daughters are living at home tossed out once he succeeds to the property.  They would be forced to live on whatever relatively small amount they are left through Mr. Bennett’s will, and whatever assets Mrs. Bennet brought into the marriage. (Just how small an amount this will be is brought up when the arrangements for Lydia’s marriage to Wickham are discussed.) Six gentlewomen with no place to go, and relatively little to live on, is not a pleasant fate to contemplate.

In this light, Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Collins’s offer of marriage is infuriating. She has a chance not only to secure her own future, but to shelter her mother and her sisters until they marry.  She tosses this away.  In our modern eyes, Collins is ridiculous and obsequious, in all ways a bad match for the lively and intelligent Elizabeth.  In her time, the notion that she insists on marrying for love is unusual, to say the least.

Elizabeth’s first refusal of Darcy seems even more remarkable.  She is sought by a wealthy man who is in a position not merely to take care of her, but to offer support to her sisters.  Had Mrs. Bennett known of it, she would have been apoplectic, notwithstanding her dislike of Darcy. (A dislike which evaporates upon Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s engagement.)

The need to marry, and marry well, was clearly expressed by a much more reasonable character than Mrs. Bennett.  When Elizabeth was first attracted to Wickham, Elizabeth’s Aunt Gardiner, shown to be a cautious and refined person, warns her about the dangers of becoming attached to a man who would have little ability to support a household.  Part of the tragedy of Lydia’s later elopement is not merely that she has disgraced herself and her family, but that she is now married to a man with no means to take care of her, or any children they might later have.

Elizabeth is not the only character to express the notion that marrying for love was important.  Mr. Bennett, in trying to dissuade Elizabeth from marrying Darcy, says “let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.” There is no chance of that: Lizzie has shown by her previous actions in refusing both Collins and Darcy the first time that she requires a husband that can be a proper match for her liveliness, wit, and understanding.

I realize I am rambling here, but it amazes me how my opinions have changed.  Not that I think that Elizabeth should have married Collins, but that Mrs. Bennett’s exasperation no longer seems unreasonable.

Actually, I know why my assessment of Mrs. Bennett has changed: I, too, now have grown or nearly grown children, and their future security is a very major concern for me.  I have grown more sympathetic to her as I become more like her.

This is why it is such a joy to reread good books: you are never the same person, so they are never the same characters.

*Let me just say how delightful it is to discuss literature with your children.  I am so fortunate to have sons who love to talk about art and literature, and who have intelligent (and usually informed) opinions.

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