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 . 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.