2009 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner College/University Division
Re-discovering the Gardiner Family
No, not that Gardiner family! Before readers could love and respect Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner in Pride and Prejudice, there were once three young Gardiners—the children of a country attorney with very little said about them. Now they are known as Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Bennet, and Mrs. Philips. Every sibling relationship in a Jane Austen novel is bound to be fraught with complexity. In Pride and Prejudice, siblings can have similar values and be mutually supportive, as Jane and Elizabeth Bennet are. At the same time, Lydia and Elizabeth, a pair of sisters with incomprehensibly different dispositions, serve as foils for one another. Though critics often discuss the sibling relationships of the younger generation in Pride and Prejudice, they say less about the parental generation, namely the sibling relationships of Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Bennet, and Mrs. Philips. The same level of complexity that abounds in the younger Bennets’ relationships is vibrantly alive in the relationships of their uncle, mother, and aunt. The great differences between Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Bennet, and Mrs. Philips, concerning their temperaments and respective marriages, help to explain each sibling’s shift, or lack thereof, on the social scale of English society.
Mr. Gardiner is so different from his two sisters that readers would hardly suspect the connection were it not stated by Austen. When the reader first hears of Mr. Gardiner, he is mentioned only as the brother of Mrs. Bennet “in a respectable line of trade,” and in conjunction with the mention of “a sister married to a Mr. Philips” (66). The reader does not meet Mr. Gardiner, or even read his name, until much later, when he and his wife come to Longbourn for Christmas. Here the reader discovers, in contrast to his sisters, Mr. Gardiner is “a sensible, gentlemanlike man, greatly superior to his sister [Mrs. Bennet] as well by nature as education” (168). At this point in the novel, the reader knows little about Mr. Gardiner, but he is instantly portrayed as a great contrast to his sisters: Mrs. Bennet is “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” (45), and Mrs. Philips merely acts her part as the source “of the most interesting intelligence,” at least in Catherine and Lydia’s eyes (66). What can be assumed about Mr. Gardiner, however, is that the life of a country attorney is not what he desires as a young man. Unlike Mrs. Bennet, who seeks no further development of her mind after her marriage, and Mrs. Philips, who marries the clerk of her father, Mr. Gardiner rejects his expected trajectory, and moves to London to try his wits and better his education.
Though likely exposed, as children, to similar educations and social distinctions, the different marriages of Mr. Gardiner and the two Miss Gardiners explain much about the distance between the siblings on the social scale in their adult years. The reader knows little about the marriage of Mrs. Philips, only that she married a Mr. Philips, “who had been a clerk to their father, and succeeded him in the business” (66). Mrs. Philips, then, moves neither up nor down socially through her marriage. Presumably, if she were to have children, they would grow up in Meryton, and also be likely to marry into the law as well. Mrs. Philips’ marriage to a law clerk solidifies her continuance in the same level of society in which she was raised, and her assimilation into that level of society is reflected in her less-than-sophisticated personality. She becomes “eager” and “loud” (107) and delights in town gossip, just as Lydia and Catherine delight in her ability to supply that gossip. Mrs. Bennet, on the other hand, raises herself on the social scale, marrying a gentleman and gaining an estate with very little trouble. However, Mrs. Bennet’s easy transition upward into the landed gentry stunts her intellectual and emotional growth. Though her disposition seems similar to her sister’s, her situation is different because of her “unsuitable” marriage (251). Austen describes Mrs. Bennet’s marriage to Mr. Bennet as “unsuitable,” in contrast to what readers would normally believe, because the marriage guarantees Mrs. Bennet social distinction and ostensible importance, an attainment that seems to be the goal of many young ladies of the novel. However, the unsuitableness comes not through Mr. Bennet’s position, but in his blatant disrespect of her. Mr. Bennet married Mrs. Bennet when she was very young and believed himself to be significantly affected by her youthful charms. He had been:
captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, [and] had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished forever (250).
Mrs. Philips seems quite content in her marriage, and the bluntness with which Mrs. Bennet’s marriage is depicted suggests that Mrs. Philips’ marriage would receive equal treatment if she suffered the same problems. Mrs. Philips, though lower on the social scale, seems quite happy, while Mrs. Bennet, who arguably made the better marriage, “fancied herself nervous” (45) constantly, and is the wife of a man who does not love her. By contrast, Mr. Gardiner marries a woman who is both estimable and “a great favorite” of her nieces (168). The first thing that the reader learns about Mrs. Gardiner is that she is an “amiable, intelligent, elegant woman,” a description which is strikingly different from Mr. Gardiner’s sisters and which also immediately gives her the qualities that both sisters lack: intelligence and elegance. The reader knows Mr. Gardiner to be sensible and “superior” to his sisters (168), and it appears that he has made the best marriage of the three. Because he is male, Mr. Gardiner’s movement in society is entirely dependent on his own endeavors, and he must work significantly harder in his trade than Mrs. Bennet must in society, in order to achieve the same kind of upward mobility in society that her marriage is supposed naturally to grant her. To Mrs. Philips, there is hardly a comparison. Wheras Mrs. Philips repeatedly encourages Catherine and Lydia in their inappropriate pursuits of officers, Mrs. Gardiner “caution[s]” Elizabeth on the imprudence of a relationship with Wickham (172-3). Though younger than both Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Philips, Mrs. Gardiner is not preoccupied with the necessity of marriage for the younger Bennet girls, and serves as a kind of surrogate mother to Elizabeth. Again, Austen addresses the “suitableness” of a union, emphasizing the better marriage of Mr. Gardiner. On Elizabeth’s journey into Derbyshire with the Gardiners, she is certain of one enjoyment: “suitableness as companions: a suitableness which comprehended health and temper to bear inconveniences—cheerfulness to enhance pleasure—and affection and intelligence, which might supply it among themselves if there were disappointments abroad” (254-5). Elizabeth has already observed that, should she look to her own parents, “she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort” (250), and the reader rarely sees her in conversation with Mrs. Philips. With the Gardiners, however, she looks forward to both intelligent conversation and affectionate discourse.
Each member of the original Gardiner trio enjoys a different level of societal respect that is in part determined by his or her marriage. Again, though Mrs. Bennet improves her social standing by her marriage to Mr. Bennet, her “intolerable” personality inspires unwavering contempt amongst genteel society, particularly that of Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley (59). Early in her acquaintance with Jane, Miss Bingley expresses the wish that Jane could marry well, but “with such a father and mother, and such low connections…[she is] afraid there is no chance of it” (73). Mrs. Bennet’s self-importance, greatly misplaced, does little but offend Mr. Darcy, particularly when Mrs. Bennet comes to check on Jane at Netherfield. She is so disrespectful toward Mr. Darcy, that “everybody was surprised” (79), and she causes Elizabeth to blush with embarrassment (80). This blush recurs at the Netherfield ball, when Mrs. Bennet does not heed the warnings of Elizabeth to speak lower of Jane’s certain marriage to Mr. Bingley in the presence of Mr. Darcy (131). Mrs. Philips has little, if any, interaction with Mr. Darcy or the Bingleys, which suggests that she is unworthy of the notice of those in “high” society. Initially, Mr. Gardiner, like his sisters, lives beneath the notice of Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley. In their view, Jane has “vulgar relations” (74), one of whom unforgivably lives in Cheapside and not the fashionable part of London (73). Darcy, too, admits that Jane and Elizabeth’s relations “must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world” (73). After Elizabeth refuses to marry him, however, Mr. Darcy relinquishes his prejudice against the Gardiners, and astonishes Elizabeth when he asks her if she “would do him the honor of introducing him to her friends” at Pemberley (267). This request “was a stroke of civility” for which Elizabeth is unprepared (267), and she is amused “at his being now seeking the acquaintance of some of those very people, against whom his pride had revolted” (267-8). She does not believe Mr. Darcy will continue the acquaintance, once he learns who the Gardiners are. Here, however, she is proven wrong, and, not blushing as she often does while Mrs. Bennet talks with Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth is thankful that
[Darcy] should know she had some relations for whom there was no need to blush…she listened most attentively to all that passed between them, and gloried in every expression, every sentence of her uncle, which marked his intelligence, his taste, or his good manners (268).
The same cannot not be said for Mrs. Bennet, or Mrs. Philips, who both suffer abrupt ends to their intellectual growth with their marriages. Mr. Gardiner fought his way up in society through his work and his marriage to a sensible and intelligent woman. And his efforts serve to suggest that he strives to become not only a gentleman-tradesman, but also a gentleman.
Mr. Gardiner not only serves as the model for a good marriage to the younger generation, but he also supports and helps them in ways that both Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Philips do not. After Lydia’s elopement, Jane writes to Elizabeth, requesting that she and the Gardiners return to Longbourn. Jane desires their comforting company and says, “I know my dear uncle and aunt so well, that I am not afraid of requesting” their return (285). To Mr. Bennet, “in such an exigence, [Mr. Gardiner]’s advice would be everything in the world,” and Jane asserts that Mr. Gardiner “will immediately comprehend what [she] must feel” and she will “rely upon his goodness” (286). Jane cannot hope to turn to Mrs. Bennet for help in the same situation, as Mrs. Bennet “received [the news] exactly as might be expected; with tears and lamentations of regret…complaints of her own sufferings and ill-usage; blaming every body but the person to whose ill judging indulgence the errors of her daughter must be principally owing” (296). Mrs. Bennet, wholly engrossed in her self-enforced seclusion, professes to Mr. Gardiner, “Oh brother, how kind you are! I know you will contrive it all” (297). Mrs. Bennet understands her brother’s superior abilities, and depends on him to set things right. Mrs. Philips, though she is not as wildly over-anxious as her sister, only pretends to offer comfort, when she visits
frequently, and always, as she said, with the design of cheering and heartening them up, though as she never came without reporting some fresh instance of Wickham’s extravagance or irregularity, she seldom went away without leaving them more dispirited than she found them (302).
Of course, until Elizabeth learns differently, the Bennets believe that Mr. Gardiner is the only person available to settle Lydia’s marriage with Wickham by paying a great deal of money for his commission, and for the discharge of his numerous debts (311). Elizabeth believes that it “must be [her] uncle’s doings” that finally convince Wickham to marry Lydia, and that the kindness of Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner “can never be requited” (312). Mr. Bennet naturally turns to his own family for help, and Mr. Gardiner, rather than Mr. Bennet himself or Mrs. Philips’ husband, is in the best position to offer it. Even after the reader learns that it is Mr. Darcy who paid for the marriage of Wickham and Lydia, it is still understandable that he goes to Mr. Gardiner to acquaint him with his decision. Mr. Gardiner, because of their interactions in Derbyshire, is really the only member of the Bennet’s extended family to whom Mr. Darcy can turn, as he “did not judge [Mr. Bennet] to be a person whom he could so properly consult as [Mr. Gardiner]” (328). He also knows that he can help anonymously, which could not happen if he were to approach Mr. Bennet.
Not only do the marriages of Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Bennet, and Mrs. Philips affect their own movements on the social scale, but they also must represent the possible consequences of choosing a prospective marriage partner to the younger generation. The five Miss Bennets have few marriages to observe closely other than those within their own family. Mrs. Philips, to the reader, does not seem unhappy in her marriage, but she is least like any of her nieces. Lydia, who is most like Mrs. Bennet and quite the “favorite with her mother” (82), moves just as easily along the social scale as does Mrs. Bennet, yet she moves in another direction. Whereas Mrs. Bennet marries a gentleman and gains an estate, Lydia marries Wickham, who is a gentleman in name only, and she gains nothing but a shameful reputation. Though the daughter has married differently than her mother, the transition in social standing is just as easy for Lydia as it was for Mrs. Bennet, because the entire process of ensuring her marriage was conducted by her relations. Lydia fails to see the “impropriety” of marrying so abruptly (251), and Mrs. Gardiner tells Elizabeth that, while Lydia was staying with the Gardiners, Mrs. Gardiner was “sure she did not listen” to anything Mrs. Gardiner had to say and was guided instead by her own foolish fancy (329). Elizabeth’s character and judgment, on the other hand, seem to be more of a hybrid of her father and uncle, but she ultimately judges her uncle’s marriage to be the proper model. Elizabeth notes that there is a “continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which…is highly reprehensible” in her own parents’ marriage (251). Also, while her own family has been the source of “mortifying, yet merited reproach” (227), Elizabeth and Darcy remain “on the most intimate terms” with the Gardiners, whom they credit as the “means of uniting them” (385). Not only are the Gardiners a model of the suitable and affectionate marriage, they inspire the same in those who attend them. Unlike Mr. Gardiner, Elizabeth significantly heightens her social standing through her marriage to Mr. Darcy. Nonetheless, she remains comparable to her uncle, because, like him, her struggle for respect and success is not easy as it is for both her mother and sister. The older generation of siblings, in choosing their respective spouses, creates a kind of mirror through which the younger generation of siblings can view their possible futures, should they choose their partners similarly.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Ed. Robert Irvine. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press Ltd., 2002.