Anne Stott teaches for the Open University and Birkbeck College. She is the author of Hannah More: the First Victorian, which in 2004 won the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize for literary biography. She is currently researching for a book on the domestic life of William Wilberforce. Here Anne writes about Jane Austen's Mr Bennet.
Anne Stott on Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice
Fathers play a large part in Jane Austen's novels, and most are in varying degrees inadequate. Lieutenant Price is coarse and brutish, Mr Woodhouse an elderly baby and Sir Walter Elliot a heartless snob. Sir Thomas Bertram does his best but he is absent for part of the novel and his false values blind him to his daughters' moral danger. Some feminist scholars have seized upon this ineffectiveness to argue that Jane Austen's purpose was to critique patriarchal society, but I believe that the inadequate fathers are castigated less for being patriarchs than for failing to face up to their responsibilities as heads of families. In her day, as in our own, the nature of masculinity and the roles of fathers were under close examination, and it doesn't need an especially close reading of Pride and Prejudice to spot that Mr Bennet, perhaps the wittiest character in the whole canon of English literature ('Discuss'), is also the most culpable of her inadequate fathers. He, of all of them, should have known better.
Jane Austen's Mr Bennet is nothing like the shambling 1790s bohemian of Donald Sutherland's portrayal in the recent film. Benjamin Witherow's performance in the television adaptation gets it exactly right. He is dapper and fastidious in his dress. We know this because he has a powdering gown, so he must wear a wig, which was old-fashioned by the time the book was published (1813) and all the more noteworthy in that he goes so seldom into society. He takes part in some country sports, as he goes shooting with Darcy and Bingley, but hunting seems a bit energetic for him. He runs a farm at a distance but spends most of his time in his library, which is a place of retreat as much as of pleasure. Perhaps he is a magistrate but this is not likely. It is difficult to imagine him sitting in judgement on the bench or socializing with other gentlemen at the quarter-sessions.
Mr Bennet is the victim of two circumstances that have come to dominate his life, one of them beyond his control. The first circumstance is the law of strict settlement that was devised to keep estates intact, with results that can be seen in any visit to a National Trust or English Heritage property. Jane Austen devotes some space in the novel to explaining the situation, so clearly it's important to her that her readers understand it. The Longbourne estate is entailed, which means that Mr Bennet is a life tenant rather than an owner-occupier. He cannot sell or even mortgage any part of it in order to raise the money that would provide his daughters with dowries. It is a sign of Mrs Bennet's irremediable stupidity and perversity that she, an attorney's daughter, refuses to understand this not very complicated point of law. There was only one way in which the rigidity of the law could be relaxed and that was for the eldest son, when he obtained his majority, to join with his father in cutting off the entail; part of the land could then be sold or mortgaged, and the rest re-entailed. When Mr and Mrs Bennet married, they assumed they would have the necessary son and they (Mrs Bennet in particular, of course) rashly lived up to this expectation. Their daughters are therefore doubly disadvantaged, firstly, because the estate is entailed in the male line only (though as Lady Catherine de Bourgh rightly points out, this was not always the case with entailed property) and, secondly, because there is no brother to cut off the entail. The result is that, as Mr Collins helpfully reminds Elizabeth, all they can each expect as a dowry is £1000 invested in the 4 per cents (government bonds), which would yield an annual income of £40. Unless they can find suitable husbands - and here one feels a smidgen of sympathy with Mrs Bennet - genteel poverty beckons.
Mr Bennet's second mistake is, of course, his calamitous marriage. We are given enough of this back-story to fill in at least part of the picture. Some 25 years before the opening of the novel, he fell in love with a Miss Gardiner, almost certainly named Jane, the daughter of a country attorney, with the respectable though not lavish fortune of £4,000. As for the type of young woman she was, we have only to look at her youngest daughter Lydia to find out. She was pretty and lively, Mr Bennet was captivated and he spent the rest of his life regretting his mistake. Trapped in a horrible marriage he takes refuge in his books, and world-weary indolence.
To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.
With Elizabeth he can let slip the mask of cynical detachment, but he keeps an emotional distance from the rest of his family. At a time when family manners were becoming more relaxed and informal, he is always 'Mr Bennet' to his wife, and 'sir' to his children, with only Elizabeth allowed to address him as 'papa'.
Jane Austen is a tough moralist. She believes that Mr Bennet should have made the best of a bad job. Unhappiness is no excuse for opting out of duties. He ought not to have been guilty of...
... that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.
Taking refuge in irony, he has misused those 'talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife'. The girls' laissez-faire education happens to suit Elizabeth and Jane, who are able to motivate themselves to study, but is disastrous for their three younger sisters. Poor pedantic Mary might have been guided into learning to think for herself rather than spout the stale truisms of the conduct books. Kitty and Lydia - 'ignorant, idle and vain' - badly needed the discipline of being made to learn something to fill their empty heads. Their father sees this with his usual clarity but does nothing about it. He has written off his three youngest daughters.
In his wonderfully illuminating talk to the Jane Austen Society Professor Richard Jenkyns rightly comments on the degree of freedom the Bennet girls are allowed. (However it is stretching it a bit to describe the coaching inn at which Kitty and Lydia welcome back Jane and Elizabeth as a 'pub'. If the youngest Bennet girls ever ventured inside the early nineteenth-century public house it would only have been for a dare.) But unlike Professor Jenkyns, I don't think that this relaxed supervision, arising as it does from indolence and apathy, is a point in Mr Bennet's favour. Lydia continually abuses this freedom, and her unrestrained conduct is the talk of the neighbourhood. This simply amuses her father, and his indifference leads to his disastrous decision to permit her to go to Brighton, when even a modern parent might think twice before allowing a high-spirited teenager to stay near a military camp in the care of a couple of adults they hardly know.
Mr Bennet is more intelligent and perceptive than Sir Thomas Bertram but he has made the same mistake - failing to concern himself with the intellectual and moral welfare of his daughters. When he receives the news of Lydia's elopement, he realizes, too late, the consequences of his neglect. On learning that Mr Gardiner (apparently) has brought about the marriage, he is clear-sighted: '"Wickham's a fool if he takes her with a farthing less than ten thousand pounds. I should be sorry to think so ill of him in the very beginning of our relationship."' The nature of this marriage, a bitter victory for respectability, is encapsulated in a little dialogue between Elizabeth and her father: '"And they must marry! Yet he is such a man!" "Yes, yes, they must marry. There is nothing else to be done."' Mr Bennet is no sexual radical like William Godwin. He accepts the code of his society, but he has failed to protect Lydia from its unforgiving condemnation. True to character, when the marriage has taken place, he retreats behind the irony that allows him to 'value the impudence and hypocrisy of my son-in-law'. If he feels any compassion for his silly daughter, it is well hidden.
Towards the end of the book, the man behind the mask emerges. After his prospective father-in-law's interview with Darcy he is 'grave and anxious' and he begs Elizabeth - 'my Lizzy' - not to marry him: '"My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You do not know what you are about."' He is wrong, but excusably so, and he is showing a proper concern for her happiness. Elizabeth is moved and so are we. It turns out that, after all, he can feel deeply.
In keeping with the famously 'light, bright and sparkling' tone of Jane Austen's best-loved novel, Mr Bennet is not punished much for his shortcomings as a father. At the end he is even allowed respite care away from his wife by making frequent visits to Pemberley 'especially when he was least expected'. (He is presumably too indolent to write and warn Elizabeth and Darcy of his arrival.) Perhaps Jane Austen has put too much of her own character into Mr Bennet to treat him too harshly. Certainly she gave him some of her best lines, and a part of her, surely, was in sympathy with his philosophy: '"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"' Much can be forgiven a bad dad, it seems, as long as he is a witty one.