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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Trouble with Mr Bennet | A Conversation with Maria Grace

There's a surprising commonality I've been noticing in some Austenesque authors Pride & Prejudice retellings, wherein Mr Bennet transforms from this passive, sarcastic, mostly-in-the-background guy to one of the main obstacles to be overcome, if not a downright villain. In some works I've read, he's even given Lady Catherine a run for her money. And I've noticed this nowhere more strongly than in some of the works of Maria Grace, who often gives grittier, darker takes on the tales — a trait that is thanks in no small part to Mr B.
So I asked Maria if she'd mind sitting down with me and letting me pick her brain on the story and psychology behind all of this. I've very curious to hear what all of you think, as I've always considered Mr Bennet to be pretty universally liked, even while his flaws are well-recognized, but I've come to realize he's a much more divisive character than I ever imagined him to be. . .

I was thinking that it'd be interesting to talk about your darker tones and general treatment of Mr Bennet, who is often more adversarial (in some of your books, and others I’ve read) than I think most people would expect from having only read P&P and being new to adaptations. Most readers consider him sort of funny and witty and mildly (or more than mildly) neglectful and lazy as a parent/husband, but never downright cruel or a bad guy, especially where Lizzie - his favorite daughter, and arguable favorite person - is concerned. But often in your books, he's more malicious and something for Lizzie to overcome.

MARIA: Oddly enough I was just thinking about doing a blog post on why Mr. Bennet was a truly dreadful father, so maybe I'm channeling your wavelength.

Great minds, and all that. Winking smile
So let's start there: you think Bennet was a truly dreadful father? Not just lazy, not just clueless, but downright terrible?

MARIA: Yes, I do. He was definitely lazy and passive which meant that he failed to attend to his responsibility to his wife and daughters. AND he recognized he was doing that. In a conversation with Elizabeth he said that he had meant to lay by a sum by which he could 'bribe worthless young men to marry his daughters." That tells us not only did he know what he should do, and failed in his duty, but reveals his thoroughly rotten attitude toward doing it. 

I have to give him a little slack here, for two reasons: 1) he's sarcastic and facetious in conversation nearly 100% of the time -- we can see that he doesn't actually want his kids to end up with worthless young men (he's pretty mad at Lizzie when he thinks she's marrying someone she won't be able to respect).

MARIA: See, I take this to mean that he sees young men who would consider a woman's dowry when choosing marriage worthless--and I assume that is because it would cost Mr. Bennet. So he denigrates young men acting in the culturally/period expected way because it is inconvenient for him. There you go, make it someone else’s responsibility because he can't be troubled to do better for his family. Not an appealing character trait to me. And it's a bit ironic in that he probably did just the same thing himself when he married...

I can see that. And to be fair, he does certainly settle and try to put the best (or funniest) face on things when he has no choice, ie Wickham. 2) Not doing what he knew needed doing seems like a very human failing to me, and though it's horrible because they have no other real recourse, it also just seems so realistic to certain personality types (most personality types?)-- to always think you can start doing the thing tomorrow, or that things will somehow work themselves out -- that I can't think of him as thoroughly bad for it.

MARIA: We'll have to agree to disagree on this one. It's one thing to say you'll help your kid with their science project and not get to it until the night before (or not at all). It is entirely another to take that same attitude with something that could land your children homeless and forced into prostitution. You may think I'm exaggerating here, but
women had NO CAREER track. Even if they were educated enough to become a governess, guess what, governesses frequently were expected to serve the master of the house as much as the children. Brutal reality of the era.

Fair point. It certainly wasn't a pretty life for women, as is true of much of human history, unfortunately.

MARIA: With all the romance and beauty in Austen's writing, it is easy to forget the very harsh realities of life in that era. I'm sorry but I just can't think of a man who couldn't motivate himself to make sure his daughters don't have to sell themselves on the street as not thoroughly bad. Even if he couldn't have roused himself to stay on a budget, he could have seen them educated properly and introduced into society properly to increase their chances of a good match. But nope, not even that.
A dowry was a means of protecting and insuring a young woman's future. His wife had a dowry of five thousand pounds! He well understood the advantage of a good dowry and refused to be bothered with that for his own daughters, knowing full well what that would mean for them.
Beyond that, he did nothing to see to their education (acquiring the necessary female accomplishments) which would have aided them in making a suitable match. Nor did he do anything to assist them in meeting the right kind of potential matches! It's critical to remember here, that in that era the ONLY way a woman had position and security was through marriage. Society just didn't know what to do with unmarried woman.

That’s true. And people give Mrs Bennet a lot of flack for having a one-track mind where her daughters were concerned (marriage! marriage! marriage!), but really, what else could she do? What else would have protected and provided for them, and for her, in the eventuality that her husband dies before she does?

MARIA: So if he couldn't or wouldn't provide suitable dowries for his daughters, then the least he could have done was to ensure that they had the skills necessary to attract marriage partners for husbands who could provide for them. But he didn't, and it seems he didn't make much of an effort to. Elizabeth says that there were masters for those of the girls who were interested in something, but that is hardly the same thing as making sure that they got the education they needed.
Then, when Lydia got herself in trouble because he could not be bothered to check her behavior, although he did confess he had been in error, he also said that those feelings of guilt would pass soon enough. He realized he was actively responsible for the ruination of his daughters' reputations (because after Lydia's antics, there was a very real chance, all the sisters would be tainted) and in the same breath acknowledges that its not going to bother him for very long. Really? Seriously? What kind of decent father would feel that way?

Maybe I just give him too much credit, but same as before, I see him as someone who says things facetiously, that aren't necessarily all that indicative of his actual internal thoughts. He presents himself as untouched by things, but I don't think he is...

MARIA: Yeah, I do think you're giving him too much credit. There's no evidence to suggest he's touched. His words are consistent with his behavior, he doesn't act differently because of what has happened, so what evidence is there to believe it? I think this is a place you really have to go to the text and see what it says, not what we hope or want it to say.

If that wasn't enough, he actively mocked and criticized his wife and daughters to their faces. The whole sequence about not going to visit Mr. Bingley, then doing it anyway was just one example of the backhanded way he treated his wife's concerns. While Mrs. Bennet makes me nuts, and I don't like her as a character, her underlying concerns were very, very real. She and her daughters were in a very precarious position with the estate being entailed to Mr. Collins. Should anything have happened to Mr. Bennet, Collins would have inherited immediately and had no obligation toward Mrs. Bennet or her daughters.  They would have been out of their home, reduced from an income of 2000 pounds a year to 250 a year (assuming they followed the standard practice of setting up a jointure (annuity) equal to Mrs. Bennet's dowry.) That's a pretty serious reduction in circumstances and definitely worth worrying about! And Mr. Bennet mocked her for it. Afterall, he would be dead and gone and it wouldn't trouble him, right?

Maybe it's just that he reminds me of people I know, including my own dad, honestly -- people who I know do care, but will do their utmost to not show it in any serious way, and will cover everything in a veneer of untouched joking. Eh, I dunno. It’s certainly not a trait I like, but I’m familiar enough with this sort of mild antagonism and facetious bullshittery to not really find it malicious, I guess?

MARIA: I guess for me it come down to actions. If Mr. Bennet had talked one way but then acted in a caring and responsible manner, then I would give him some slack. But he did neither. Sigh. Taken together, that isn't what I consider a lazy and clueless, but rather willfully neglectful, irresponsible, and even bordering on abusive.

And do you think he's representative of a Regency father, or better, or worse?

MARIA: I don't think he was representative of a typical father then just as I don't think he's representative of a typical father today. Fathers of the era typically were not close with their daughters, but that didn't mean they neglected their duties toward them.

Did you feel that way when you first read it, or did the sense build on you? Because I think most people find him funny/charming, but also a little frustrating - but not necessarily villain material, as he often becomes in your hands.

MARIA: My first take on him was definitely colored by the movie portrayals that play him as loveable and funny. As I ready Austen more deeply, and perhaps more importantly, studied the history of the period, I realized just how precarious a position he had put his daughters and wife in and how very real Mrs.Bennet's concerns were, I slowly changed my mind. Bennet went from being benign and lazy to neglectful, mean-spirited and uncaring husband and father who couldn't be bothered to see that the people he expected to care for him in his old age (should he live that long) would be likewise cared for. That just doesn't seem particularly loveable to me.

I've noticed you’re not the only one who portrays him in a much more negative light than I think Austen portrayed him (by this I mean, you're not the only one that makes him downright a villain at times, outwardly cruel rather than just wryly neglectful), and I do find it interesting. I've always felt that you could kind of tell Austen's opinions on people / personality types by her treatment of their flaws and foibles, and though I think she is making somewhat of a statement with Bennet, she also treats him fairly gently. He's absolutely at fault for not setting his daughters up better, and he put them at real risk; there's no debating that. But I can't seem to see ill-intent in it, even knowing how much at risk he put them, and how much their lives could have changed. I just don't read maliciousness in him, though he's certainly reckless.

MARIA: Austen said ' “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.” She doesn't like to delve heavily into all those icky things. She avoided it with Wickham, Willoughby (in Sense and Sensibility) and most of the real icky villians in her other works. Why would she dwell on Mr. Bennet? It wasn't what she wanted to write about (her words), so she treated him gently and moved on the the more fun stuff to write about. To me that doesn't mean he was less bad than Wickham in his own way.

It is a fair point that Austen sometimes avoided the "icky" things, to be sure, but she also didn't shy from painting people -- especially parents -- as troublesome, loathsome, malicious, capricious, cruel... She may not get nitty gritty, but she doesn't entirely hold back, either. But then, there are people that I abhor, that other people make excuses and justifications for, so I guess it’s really in the eyes of the reader, and what pushes our individual buttons!

Do you ever make any excuses for him? Do you harbor any little soft spot for him somewhere, or does he disgust you?

MARIA: As Austen wrote him, I'm sorry, I can't make excuses and I don't have a soft spot for him. He is a selfish, neglectful man who would blame others for his problems and makes no effort to make things right when he knows what he has done. I just don't find anything sympathetic in that sort of character.
Now, I did reform him in one book, Remember the Past. I made him a second son who didn't inherit the estate and packed him off into the navy. Now that had a redeeming effect on his character... ;)

Ha! Aside from Remember the Past, your Bennet goes from the "passive bad" do-nothing father he is in P&P to what is often an active bad (angry, abusive, malicious, etc.). Do you feel you're doing this to drive home to readers to look at him differently? Dialing up his flaws, or flaws you think would manifest in him in different scenarios? Are you punishing him? Is it an intentional tear-down of his character, or subconscious loathing that spills over?

MARIA: No I'm not really writing with any particular agenda. To some degree, the characters just kind of come out as they choose to in the writing process. Honestly, when I wrote Mistaking Her Character my plan all along had been that Mrs. Bennet was the abusive character and Mr. Bennet was far more sympathetic to Elizabeth. Hard to believe right, since that is so not the way the story turned. There is certainly a level of the subconscious involved, a lot of writing works that way. But when I look at everything I've written, I think only about half the time does he end up really awful, the rest he's just basically the passive-type. So, I don't think I'm running an intentional smear campaign against Mr. Bennet. :) LOL

I mean, you’ve certainly given me a lot to think about, and I think that’s what I love most about reading JAFF and doing Austen in August – things I would have never considered, or would have thought to be pretty much set in stone (Mr Bennet is lazy and sarcastic, but everybody loves him), I’m able to see from new perspectives, and writers are able to explore from new perspectives, in ways that give these old stories new life. There’s always something fresh to consider. Thanks for joining me for this! I’m very curious to see what other readers have to say about Mr B. after this discussion!

about Maria Grace:
Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate in Educational Psychology. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

She has one husband and one grandson, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, is starting her sixth year blogging on Random Bits of Fascination, has built seven websites, attended eight English country dance balls, sewn nine Regency era costumes, and shared her life with ten cats.

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  1. Maria, I think I need to send this response partially to you. Mr. Bennet knew after the birth of his fifth daughter that his Last Name was going to be Lost to posterity forever. He lost all interest in his family at that point. If I may be so bold: he had a BREAKDOWN even more devastating than anything Mrs. Bennet could even imagine with all her wailings about her nerves. Remember, husbands had ALL the decision-making powers. He reneged on those leaving them in the hands of Mrs. Bennet. She did not have the proper education of a gentle-woman and did not feel that her daughters needed it, either, since she got herself a husband. Thus, Mrs. Bennet did not feel that they really needed all those languages, art, music, drawing, etc. Elizabeth enjoyed the heavier things that her Father read. Jane is more a blank cipher. Who really knows what she would really have wanted beyond that smile and Candide personality. Mary had the shyness of the middle child, unable to ask for assistance. It is a totally fouled-up family for very unstated but very human reasons -- nothing to laugh at here. Men usually did marry under-educated women as Mr. Bennet did. I do not believe that he ever did want to become what he did; but, extreme mental breakdowns change people profoundly in many ways and those ways possibly to the detriment. It is an American mythos that we labour under that we can some how or other pick our selves up by ourselves up by our own boot straps. That is sometimes not always the case no matter how hard we try. there are 2 reasons why I know this: I am a retired librarian for an academic psychiatric facility and I am a long term sufferer of chronic depression and anxiety disorder. In the late 18th/ early 19th centuries people did not recognize these disorders as being real, thus causing (even fictional characters) more distress. Coping skills deteriorate. Possibly Mr. Bennet's sarcasm was the one last negative coping skill he had left. I still love P&P; but, given all of my experience in life I see so many other levels beyond some of the surfaces.

    1. Really interesting take! This is why I love discussions like this, and doing Austen in August in general -- it leads to new perspectives on nearly everything. Thanks for weighing in!

  2. Fascinating conversation. I've always had mixed feelings about Mr. Bennet. I like his irreverence, his biting humor, and the fact that he values our Lizzy. However, his neglect of his daughters is pretty inexcusable, especially how willfully and flippantly he ignores Lizzy's well-founded warnings about letting Lydia go to Brighton.

    But worst of all is how he jokes with Lizzy about Jane's heartbreak. ("Your sister is crossed in love I find. I congratulate her. Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It...gives her a sort of distinction among her companions. When is your turn to come? You will hardly bear to be long outdone by Jane...Let Wickham be your man. He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably." The fact that Lizzy goes along with it also makes me cringe. ("Thank you, Sir, but a less agreeable man would satisfy me. We must not all expect Jane's good fortune.") Ouch. I think Daddy's a bad influence.

    1. I think I've always looked at that conversation slightly differently. 1) from a craft standpoint, I've always seen it as Austen's bit of dramatic irony -- the audience knows more than Mr B here, and it makes the cringe cringier. It also serves to slightly support what Darcy (and Charlotte) said about Jane not being likely to be touched, emotionally, even though Lizzie knows and we know that she is, deeply. If even her own father doesn't see how serious it is... it helps exonerate Bingley a bit.
      2) I feel like it's pretty standard (cringey) practice to mock young people's romantic feelings. Even still. Adults, and especially parents, seem to look at young people as even younger than they are, and are often dismissive of their emotions, which we consider erratic and dramatic and something that will blow over. This seemed like that, to me.

  3. I agree with you Maria, Mr. Bennet's negligence of his duties was not as harmless as Elizabeth was trying to make it, due to her love of her father. I find JAFF variations with Bennet as a ghastly character fully believable.

  4. LOVED this piece! My mom and sister and I (the core Austen-lovers in our family, though my dad enjoys it more than he admits!) talk about this exact thing quite a bit. I definitely think I have grown harsher towards Mr. Bennet and softer towards his wife (though she still drives me crazy!) as I reread Austen and learn more about the harsh realities of Regency life.
    For me, it comes down to my belief that laziness or unconcern can cause just as much damage as malicious intent. I enjoy Mr. Bennet's snark and I can relate to his introverted tendencies to vanish into his library rather than deal with some of his more irritating acquaintances, but the fact that on some level he was aware of what his neglect would mean for the futures of his daughters (had they not been VERY lucky) means that I can't seem him as benign or even neutral. He's a smart man; he knew what his actions would likely cause, and even if he didn't know, I think ignorance after a certain point becomes willful blindness, and that's something I can't easily forgive.

  5. Hrmm...I hadn't really considered Mr. Bennet as cruelly neglectful (as opposed to emotionally absent and distracted from his filial duty). It's hard for me to assign to him the intention of cruelty, but certainly after reading this I feel like I haven't taken into consideration how serious his offenses were. Now that I think of it...are there any good fathers of daughters in Austen's works? Emma's father is dottie and overly indulgent, and then there are absent and deceased fathers...am I missing any good example of one?

  6. This gave me a lot to think about as well as I never thought of Mr. Bennet as being so bad.

  7. I would like to add another aspect to Mr. Bennet's irresponsibility. Even before he gives up on hoping for a son, his solution to his daughters' future is an irresponsible one which places the burden on someone else than himself. He and Mrs. B. were hoping for an eventual son to grow up and agree to break the entail to provide for their daughters/his sisters. Now, entails were invented to keep family estate/fortune tied together, to keep the family wealth for future generations. If a future Bennet son breaks the entail and sells a portion of land to provide dowries for the Bennet girls, he gives away his own capital, the basis of his own offspring's future security and the source of his income. Yes, of course, if there was a son they would not be destitute as they could remain at Longbourn, but they would be like Charlotte Lucas, a dependent of the head of the family, a liability and a mouth to feed. As soon as Mr. Bennet began to have daughters, he ought to have started saving money to provide them with dowries, instead of hoping to cover it at his own eventual son's and grandchildren's expense.

  8. It is very interesting to see how people differ in interpreting Mr. Bennet. I have been wondering whether the hurtful and sort of amoral things he says are facetious or actually true. My own attitude has changed significantly about Mr. Bennet since first reading the book. In the beginning, I completely accepted Elizabeth's opinion of him at face value - along with her, I liked him because he liked her and singled her out; and I was swept along in Elizabeth's excusing his more cutting wit because Elizabeth's wit and attitude is somewhat similar, although tempered by her kindness. And yes, P&P'95 really portrays him in a sympathetic way. But then, I began to feel the sharp edge of all the jokes he allows himself at his daughters' and wife's expense, even in their face (the exchange about Jane's heartbreak being one, but another when he challenges Mary to say something profound and she just sits there embarrassed cut me to the core!) And then I stopped thinkng that "he can't possibly mean the horrid things he says!", like Elizabeth thought Charlotte can't possibly mean the disillusioned things she says about happiness in marriage - and as it turns out, Charlotte means it - and in my present opinion, Mr. Bennet means it. More exactly (I have seen this tactic) he says it as if it was a joke but it is the actual truth and it's a rather dark truth. The tactic in it is that the pretense of joking creates the expectation that those who understand it should excuse him and the people he aims his cutting remarks at would look at fault for actually being hurt by a joke.

  9. On the subject of Austen making a statement about the judgment (hers or general) on characters with how she draws their fate, I beg to disagree. In general, there are very few villains in her wrold ewho get their just desserts - an appropriate punishment for their actions, that is. The only thing is, the villains' evil plans against the heroine are always thwarted, and they aren't rewarded with a personal fulfilment and happiness (it is doubtful whether many of them would even appreciate that). But most of them are fairly comfortable at story endings (Wickham, Willoughby, Henry Crawford, Mary Crawford, Henry Tilney, the Thorpes, Lucy Steele, the Eltons, Frank Churchill...). Mr. bennet fits into this cathegory as well.
    In fact, I think this is part of why readers are always debating whether many of the above are in fact villains (that is, morally seriously in the wrong, with contemptible traits and actions) or just misguided and somewhat faulty individuals.

  10. I really learned a lot from this post about Mr. Bennet. Interesting...This conversation has me thinking about Anne Elliot's father now.

  11. I was thinking he was a great guy, even with the narcissism that allowed his wife and more frivolous daughters to go wild.

  12. I learnt a lot from reading this post. You certainly opened my eyes on Mr Bennet as I always think he is a neglectful parent at best and just cannot be bothered about his daughters other than Elizabeth and occasionally Jane.


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