The Miseducation Of Elizabeth Bennet

It should not be any surprise that one of my favorite heroines in all of literature is Elizabeth Bennet, the spunky heroine of Pride & Prejudice (I would say that perhaps only Sara Crewe, the sweet and tenderhearted little princess but voracious devourer of books could possibly outweigh her in my estimation and devotion among the heroines of literature). Yet despite her spirited personality, which I greatly appreciate, and her combination of honesty and passion as well as a certain tenderness towards others and a playfulness that relives the rather somber seriousness that some of us happen to live under much of the time, there is an aspect of her education that was greatly defective and that could have done her great harm. I would like to explore that matter today at least briefly.

In most movie adaptations, the indolent but drily witty Mr. Bennett gets off rather easily, largely portrayed as immensely sympathetic and wise. In the novel, Jane Austen is rather cutting and sarcastic about his failings as a father to defend the best interests of his daughters, or provide them with an example of love and respect for his wife. Because of her father’s favoritism towards her, Elizabeth is a bit slow to recognize the harm that his contempt for his wife has done for her family and their well-being as well as their esteem in the world’s eyes. Mr. Bennet is a man of considerable intellect, but rather than turning those talents to helping to educate his daughters, he spends his time ensconced in his library and making snide comments about his wife and others whom he feels to be unworthy of his respect, and even teases his daughters about being jilted by the few gentlemen who call on his daughters, completely insensible to their insecurities as young women in a world of few worthy gentlemen, something which is not so unfamiliar to quite a few young women of my own acquaintance.

To be fair, in the time of Jane Austen and her spunky heroine, there was a shortage of decent men for a very clear reason: England was at war nearly constantly during her life, except for a few years of truce to prepare for more bloodletting. With a generation of English men fighting in the English army in places like Portugal and Spain, or on a ship fighting on the seas, a lot of the bravest young men were involved in the British military effort in some fashion. Jane Austen speaks about these matters in a fairly elliptical way, referring to Wickham’s banishment to the regulars in the northern part of England after his elopement with Lydia, and talking about the attraction of young women to men in red coats [1]. Jane Austen even takes an interest in some of the seamier side of military life, including its tendency to attract the dissolute as well as the brave, as well as aspects of punishment. So, Mrs. Bennet, who is often thought of as being too flighty and nervous, is not out of her senses to worry about the difficulties of her daughters in finding suitable young men, and her matchmaking efforts, if largely ineffectual, are a rational response to the difficulties of her time.

Given that Mr. Bennet does not respect his life, and in fact treats her with open scorn, completely rejecting her needs for activity on his part in seeking their daughter’s well being, as well as her own emotional needs (which he is highly insensitive to), we might ask what harm that would mean for his daughters? Why is it important for a man to respect his wife for the well-being of his children? If the Bennets had any sons, there would have been a good reason for Mr. Bennet to show respect and honor for his wife in modeling the proper way for a gentleman to behave. One of the ways that a son learns to grow up to become a loving husband and father is to see and follow the model of his own father, if that father is a good one. It is, on the other hand, all too easy for people to struggle for many years to overcome the difficulties of having a bad father, whether that evil is through abuse or neglect. Mr. Bennet has some elements of both, with a sarcastic and biting sort of disrespect for his wife and a neglect of his daughters that borders on the criminal.

Even though the Bennet family only has daughters, the behavior of Mr Bennet is no less dangerous. For one, it appears to have led to a difficulty in trusting men or in attracting good men to the family as a whole. Elizabeth is a catch on her own virtues (as is Jane, and to a lesser extent Mary), but a lot of men are simply scared away by the family despite the virtues of their lovely eldest daughters. Part of the family problems consist of their mother, as well as Lydia (who is much like her mother in character), whose overly loud and obnoxious ways offend others in a very prim and fussy society, and part of the problems consist in the lack of financial stability because their father is so indolent and completely uninterested either in trade or in helping his daughters acquire a greater social circle or the kind of education that would give them accomplishments. By completely undeserved providence, the eldest three daughters applied themselves with some degree of self-discipline, through no credit of their father’s, but the silliness of the youngest two daughters brings a great deal of shame upon the family as a whole.

On the optimistic side, though, Elizabeth’s own happiness is saved by a sympathetic author, who fleshes out her skills in understanding people and learning how to behave in a proper fashion from sources outside of her own dysfunctional family. Not everyone has the same sort of optimistic spirit or the same sort of sympathy from their own authors and creators when it comes to the course of their own life. Perhaps the fact that Elizabeth Bennet ended up with a glorious fate despite her miseducation ought to be seen as a hopeful sign for those who seek to rise above their own backgrounds through diligence as well as divine providence. If only we could all be as lucky as she was thanks to the pen of her authoress.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/the-curious-connection-betweenjane-austen-and-military-history/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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19 Responses to The Miseducation Of Elizabeth Bennet

  1. I personally hold Mr. Bennett directly responsible for the younger Bennett sisters’ intense need for male attention and approval. He dropped the ball; not only when it came to education any of his children, but for failing to provide an example of how a man should treat a woman. His
    younger daughters were desperate to hear endearments from anyone who would give them and were an easy target for unscrupulous men on the prowl. Daughters learn their sense of what they can accomplish from their mother (strike one), but they develop their sense of worth and who they are from their father (strikes two and three.) It is unclear how Jane and Elizabeth overcame such obstacles, except that the book provides a glimpse of some of their more upstanding relatives. Perhaps they were innately sharp enough to dissect the differences and figure out what their personal currency should be. Mary, of course, lived in a cultural world and was influenced more by it than by either parent–since both were emotionally absent in her life as well.

    I grieved over Elizabeth’s feeling responsible for the Wickham affair, as this affirms the fact that she had taken upon herself the parenting role that her father should have filled. Nothing feels so empty as a head-of-household who has abdicated his duties yet physically remains in the home. He manifests a lie, and his presence is a constant reminder of his shortcomings–which is why he constantly carps at his wife. It would have been far more honest for him to simply leave, for he contributes nothing to the family, but he is trapped. In 18th-19th century England, appearances were everything, and exposing truths such as this would have been too scandalous to have been borne. I’m sure that Jane Austen bit her tongue even more than her biting satire suggests.

    • Yes, that is a very good bit of context as well, and Jane Austen’s withering comment that he bore the disappointment of a foolish wife like a philosopher was surely a sarcastic reference to his lack of wisdom in doing what was possible to ensure the well-being of his daughters, as well as to appreciate when his wife actually had a good point (namely the need to secure a good marriage for at least one of their daughters so that they would not be destitute upon his death, as happened to the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility).

      • We still fail in this regard to provide for our families, for our society worships youth and shrinks from facing the fact that we will all die someday. We find discussing these things painful and often defer getting the house in order until it’s too late. The method may be different; securing life insurance, a living will and trust, etc., rather than a good marriage–but the principle is the same. All too often, divorce has the same effect as death, for marriage is not the safe haven of security it once was. The alternative of not marrying is even worse; out-of-wedlock single parenting is the blight of our cultural landscape and a major drain on the government’s resources.

        As a sidebar, Jane Austen wrote about throw-away families–and we are living this same situation today. Only now, it’s too big a problem for the upper echelons to ignore because it’s becoming the reality for everyone. Old money doesn’t matter when the world economy collapses and food becomes scarce. You can’t eat your land holdings, stocks, bonds, gold or precious gems.

      • It’s not a pretty picture. Perhaps our society worships youth, but it doesn’t respect youth or equip it for success.

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