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Give Mrs. Bennet a Break

In honor of Jane Austen's 248th birthday, I'm sharing an excerpt from my book Heroic Disobedience: The Forced Marriage Plot and the British Novel, 1747-1880, which analyzes the ways in which British writers use what I call the forced marriage plot -- when a tyrannial father tries to force his daughter into a marriage she does not want, but which would be financially beneficial to himself -- to expose the multi-faceted ways in which the development of capitalism used and abused women.

One of the chapters analyzes Jane Austen's novels within this context, including a short look at Pride and Prejudice. Most modern audiences find Mrs. Bennet and Charlotte Lucas' attitudes toward marraige as a means of financial stability off-putting, but in the excerpt below I make the case for giving them a break. And Mr. Bennet, so charming to today's readers? Deadbeat dad status. Read more below.

From Heroic Disobedience, by Leah Grisham, PhD. Chapter three: “Young Ladies that have no Money are to be pitied”: Jane Austen and the Forced Marriage Plot:

On the surface, Pride and Prejudice diverges from the strict forced marriage plot points depicted in the other novels analyzed in this project, including Austen’s later novel Mansfield Park, discussed below, in that there is not necessarily a tyrannical father who has contracted a quid pro quo marriage for his own socio-economic gain. If anything, it is Mrs. Bennet who appears to be trying to force her daughters into marriage while Mr. Bennet supports their right to autonomy. Thus, the proposed marriage between Mr. Collins and Elizabeth Bennet appears to be Mrs. Bennet’s doing. Her bumbling eagerness to marry off her daughters is comedic, and her family often mocks her one-track mind. Mr. Bennet, for example, insists he has “a high respect for [Mrs. Bennet’s] nerves. They are my old friends,” he tells his wife, “I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.” Half mocking, half exasperated, Mr. Bennet’s attitude toward his wife has typically directed how readers understand Mrs. Bennet. Edward Copeland, for instance, falls into this trap when he describes Mrs. Bennet as “ambitious” due to her obsession with marrying off her daughters. Similarly, Lisa Hopkins claims that Mrs. Bennet “suffers from an innate lack of restraint and good taste which has nothing to do with her financial situation.”

However, applying the principles of the forced marriage plot to Pride and Prejudice shows that Mrs. Bennet’s anxieties about marriage are, in fact, quite rational and justified.

The entail that looms over the head of the Bennet family is one of the most-discussed aspects of Pride and Prejudice. As Mrs. Bennet declares, “I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children; and I am sure if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.” Jane and Elizabeth’s frequent attempts to make their mother understand the “nature of an entail” have been futile, and Mrs. Bennet remains “beyond the reach of reason.” As with many of the family’s reactions to Mrs. Bennet, there is a discernable note of exasperation at her inability – or refusal – to listen to their logic. Her ever-changing opinion of Mr. Collins, who goes from “odious” to a highly-desirable son-in-law, also makes her insistence that Elizabeth accept his proposal seem absurd. However, Mrs. Bennett’s begging her husband to force Elizabeth to marry Mr. Collins and subsequent attempts at forcing the marriage herself (she “talked to Elizabeth again and again; coaxed and threatened her by turns. She endeavored to secure Jane in her interest”) should not be read as a sign of ambition, but rather as a sign of her fear for her daughters’ socio-economic stability.

As critics like Alistair Duckworth and Sandra MacPherson point out, the way that the Bennet family estate, Longbourne, is passed from male heir to male heir is “not merely a plot device designed to set in motion and to serve the marriage comedy,” but is deeply political. The concept of entails was from its very inception a patriarchal and classist practice that enabled landowners to protect their estates. According to Deirdre Gilbert, entails and similar provisions (such as fee tail, fee simple, and strict settlements, just to name a few) were natural outgrowths of primogeniture, meant “to prevent the disintegration of large estates through divisible inheritance.” The specific differences between these terms are so complicated that William Blackstone called inheritance law “the most intricate and most extensive object of legal knowlege [sic]. Thorough comprehension of these, in all their minute distinctions,” he claims, “is perhaps too laborious a task for any but a lawyer by profession” – an opinion clearly shared by Mrs. Bennet. In their case, when Mr. Bennet dies the Longbourne home and living will revert to their distant cousin, Mr. Colins, since there is no male heir among Mr. Bennet’s children. Part of Mrs. Bennet’s – and quite probably Austen’s – outrage over the entail is its sexist nature, since in practice it was almost always sons who benefitted, leaving the women of the family at the mercy of familial charity or the marriage market for their economic security. This is in part, no doubt to the patriarchal, exclusionary nature of inheritance practices in Austen’s period; Mrs. Bennet is angry at and anxious about feels anger and anxiety toward the legal mechanisms that will disinherit her daughters.

There is more to Mrs. Bennet’s anger at the entail, however: the very practical fact that upon Mr. Bennet’s death, she and any unmarried daughters will be left in relative poverty. As the narrator lays out in great detail, the fault for this lies squarely with Mr. Bennet. Mr. Bennet had very often wished before this period of his life that, instead of spending his whole income, he had laid by an annual sum for the better provision of his children, and of his wife, if she survived him. He now wished it more than ever.” Rather than provisioning for the family he has, Mr. Bennet counted on having a son to take care of his wife and daughters. The narrator continues:

The son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age, and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for. Five daughters successively entered the world, but yet the son was to come; and Mrs. Bennet, for many years after Lydia’s birth, had been certain that he would. This event had at last been despaired of, but it was then too late to be saving. Mrs. Bennet had no turn for economy, and her husband’s love of independence had alone prevented their exceeding their income.

As in other places within the novel, Mrs. Bennet’s silliness (her certainty they will have a son, she has “no turn” for saving money) thinly veils her husband’s failure to support his family. This passage makes it perfectly clear that Mr. Bennet has neglected an important aspect of his paternal duties: financial planning. Though he is aware of his shortcomings – his lack of any saving – he is content to write it off as a lost cause without any attempt at rectifying the situation. Mary A. Burgan helpfully describes Mrs. Bennet as a “convenient scapegoat” whom the family – and reader – can blame for the Bennet family’s mishaps, explaining that: “Mrs. Bennet’s extravagances provide a convenient blind for her husband, and he uses her to justify his continuous retreats to his library and to his satirical perspective on all that passes,” but by the end of the novel both Elizabeth and readers see “signs of a crucial failure in her father,” especially when it comes to providing for his daughters.

This point is made even clearer by Robert Hume, who (drawing on the work of J. A. Downie) corrects a common misunderstanding of Pride and Prejudice: that the Bennet family has only modest financial means. Hume provides a formula for translating their wealth into twenty-first century equivalencies. “Mr. Bennet's £2,000 projects to a present-day buying power between £200,000 and £300,000 a year” in twenty-first century liquid assets, meaning that that, as long as Mr. Bennet is alive, the Bennet family is wealthy. “What Jane Austen shows but does not say in this novel is that Mr. Bennet has been grossly irresponsible,” Hume continues, “[h]e has an income of £2,000 per annum, and he has saved nothing. Most present-day readers seem to assume that this is just too small an income on which to save anything, but this is manifestly untrue.” Though readers often enjoy Mr. Bennett’s sarcasm and dry humor, Hume argues that Austen wanted her readers to be critical of the Bennett family patriarch given his conscious neglect of his daughters. “A husband and father ought to have been setting something aside from the time of his marriage, as Mr. Bennet perfectly well knows…His complete failure to make any attempt to provide for his wife and daughters suggests that Austen is implicitly asking us to despise him.” Tapping into what Burgan describes as Mr. Bennet’s “cynical inertia,” other scholars, such as Deidre Gilbert, argue that Mr. Bennet could have, in fact, broken the entail if he were not such a “dead beat dad.” Perhaps not the obvious mercenary villain found in Clarissa or in the gothic-inspired forced marriage plot novels of the 1790s, Mr. Bennet’s financial neglect has serious repercussions for his wife and daughters that he seemingly has no interest in rectifying. As he tells Mrs. Bennet: “when I am dead, [Mr. Collins] may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases,” a fact which clearly weighs heavily on Mrs. Bennet. In addition to being house-less, upon Mr. Bennet’s death the Bennet women’s income will also be drastically reduced from a collective £200,000-£300,000 pounds a year in twenty-first century money to about £40 each per year (again, in today’s currency): a dire situation, especially without any marketable skills or a brother to support them. In the end, marriage is their only viable option to house and keep themselves.

There are many ways in which bumbling Mrs. Bennett is made the butt of the joke throughout the novel: she is constantly mocked by her husband and the Bingley women, her poor manners are an embarrassment to Elizabeth, and her mothering skills are at least partially to blame for Kitty and Lydia’s flirtatious manners. However, the narrator makes it clear that, silly as she is, Mrs. Bennet is not solely responsible for their family’s shortcomings. In fact, readers are told that, when it comes to his attitude toward his wife, “[r]espect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished for ever [sic],” which is obvious through the way he treats her. The novel is filled with moments in which he is dismissive and demeaning to his wife and daughters. Even Elizabeth, his favorite daughter:

had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband…[his] continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible. But she had never felt so strongly as now, the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor even been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife.

As she fears for Lydia’s wellbeing – having been allowed to go to Bath without a proper chaperone – Elizabeth can no longer ignore the harm her father has done to their family unit. He has no patience or regard for his wife and younger three daughters; though humorous, his constant belittling of his wife is, in fact, quite mean. Constantly undermining Mrs. Bennet’s authority over their children, he nevertheless shirks most of his own fatherly duties. Despite the affection she seems to feel for her father Elizabeth recognizes these serious shortcomings and laments that he has wasted so much potential by spending his time mocking his wife or shut up in his library. Instead of finding a way to provide for his daughters, Mr. Bennett has exacerbated the problems within his marriage and family. There is a recognition within the text – within Elizabeth – that the near-disgrace into which Kitty falls with Wickham is ultimately her father’s fault. As she tells the Gardiners, Wickham “might imagine from my father’s behaviour, from his indolence and the little attention he has ever seemed to give to what was going forward in his family, that he would do as little, and think as little about it, as any father could do.” And while it is certainly understandable to applaud his decision to support Elizabeth’s rejecting Mr. Collins (one can see how that plotline might have turned out differently if Mr. Bennet put more stock in socio-economic advancement), how exactly Elizabeth will be supported after his death is not a matter that ever concerns Mr. Bennet beyond the vague regret quoted above. The financial negligence he shows his daughters is bad enough, but Elizabeth’s inner monologue goes further, describing a father who fails the women in his family on multiple levels. If there is a silver lining to Mr. Bennet’s negligence, it is that Elizabeth is confident that her father will not support the forced marriage Mrs. Bennet tries to enact. When Mr. Collins refuses to take her rejection seriously, she: “determined that if he persisted in in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as must be decisive.” Mr. Bennet’s laziness as a father prevents Pride and Prejudice from becoming a forced marriage plot proper, but the problems that he causes within the family shows echoes of the forced marriage plot Austen will employ in Mansfield Park.

“The pure and disinterested desire of an establishment”: a case study of Charlotte Lucas

Elizabeth Bennet and Anne de Bourgh have narrow brushes with forced marriages that, ultimately, their mothers lack the power to enforce, but it is possible to see how marriage can be forced in other ways when considering Charlotte Lucas: a character who, like Mrs. Bennet, is typically seen unfavorably by twenty- and twenty-first century readers. There is a tendency to see Charlotte through Elizabeth’s perspective: that Charlotte has “sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage.” Applying the socio-economic context behind the forced marriage plot, however, allows a more historicized reading of Charlotte’s marriage that reveals the many grey shades of forced marriage in Regency England. There is no question that Charlotte marries Mr. Collins out of “the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment,” a blunt statement that, taken alone, casts Charlotte in a materialistic light. “I am not romantic, you know,” she insists to Elizabeth, who is shocked at the news, “I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.” However, over the course of her discussion with Elizabeth on the subject, it is revealed that Charlotte’s sense of urgency toward finding a husband is based on the financial precarity she faces as a woman. Charlotte highlights the principle that, as Austen wrote to her niece Fanny, “[s]ingle women have a dreadful propensity for being poor – which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony.” Between male-centered inheritance practices and the lack of employment opportunities for women like Charlotte, she has a palpable fear for her future economic stability that, like Mrs. Bennet, she must consider. “Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want”; as a twenty-seven-year-old woman without great beauty, talents, wealth, or alternative prospects, she feels the “luck” of the connection.

This feeling of luck is no doubt bolstered by Britain’s shortage of eligible bachelors. This was partially due to the protracted Napoleonic wars Britain fought against France and the War of 1812; Laura Fairchild Brodie calculates that in the year 1810, one in six British men were away fighting – and most of these would have been around marrying age. Additionally, as Deborah Kaplan explores at length:

"Women of more modest means had a hard time finding spouses even among younger sons. Patrilineal customs left younger sons, many of whom could not find professional niches that paid very well, with fewer inherited resources and therefore with a greater need for affluent brides or with less inclination to marry. The celibacy rate among younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry was over 20 percent at the end of the eighteenth century."

More men were away fighting and fewer men at home were getting married, leaving women with few options. Though Charlotte Lucas’ marriage is not forced in the same way as Fanny Price’s is in Mansfield Park, Austen’s narrator makes it clear that, in a world with so few options, Charlotte feels compelled – gently forced – into accepting the first proposal that comes her way. Indeed, her brothers’ reactions to her engagement – they are “relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte’s dying an old maid” – suggests that she is right to worry about her own financial security, since, as the Dashwood sisters learn, brothers were not always a safeguard against penury. “Sympathy for Charlotte is in short supply among twentieth- and twenty-first-century readers,” Hume writes, “but from the vantage point of the early nineteenth century she was probably an object of empathy for some women.” As mentioned above, it is easy for Elizabeth to marry to suit herself since she knows her father will never deprive her of agency. As Hume concludes, her marriage to Darcy is analogous to a fairy-tale ending, while Charlotte Lucas’ attitude toward marriage would likely be familiar to Austen’s readers. This is not to argue that Austen’s fiction encourages young women to marry the Mr. Collinses of the world. Rather, in Pride and Prejudice Austen shows the legal and economic practices that backed women into a corner, leaving them with few options for sustaining themselves as they aged. In this light, Mrs. Bennet’s apparent obsession with marrying off her daughters and Charlotte’s resigning to marry Mr. Collins are logical reactions to the socio-economic precarity women faced, not faults for which they should be condemned.

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