A first reading of Pride and Prejudice is likely to arouse admiration for the perceptive and witty Mr. Bennet, contrasted as he is with his dim and inept wife. But in later readings (thanks partly to a generation of feminist scholarship) his stock is likely to fall (Drabble x). Mr. Bennet troubles himself hardly at all about the needs of his daughters, especially their precarious situation under the entail; he lives almost entirely for his own present pleasures. In this essay I will suggest that he was a good father to Jane and Elizabeth in their early years, but he treats Mary as a nonperson, having probably done so from the outset. As a result, he misses an opportunity to secure at one stroke her future and perhaps that of the other girls as well. His neglect together with her own choices causes Mary to become almost completely dehumanized. Though she makes one attempt at real communication in response to Lydia’s elopement, it fails, and she returns to being a walking book.
Mr. Bennet’s failure has its roots in the past. Regrettably for the reader, Longbourn has not really been given a past, nor Elizabeth (and her sisters) a childhood (Auerbach 340). We are given a few scraps of knowledge: Carried away by his future wife’s lively youthfulness and beauty, Mr. Bennet married knowing little of her character (Austen 236). He had counted on having a son to defeat the entail, and thus he (and his wife) failed to save money to provide for the future of a widowed Mrs. Bennet and daughters (308). The daughters had teachers but no regular governess, were encouraged to read, and were allowed to be idle if they chose (164-65). Little enough information. However, there are enough hints in their affinities and disaffinities to their father and mother that one may risk a few speculations about early parent-child dynamics. Doris T. Robin suggests that initially Mr. Bennet was an actively involved father, drawn to little Jane by her beauty, serene benevolence, and self-discipline (conspicuously like and unlike her mother), and drawn even more to little Elizabeth by her quick intelligence (very like his own). The motivation for his attentions would have been self-gratification. In the early days, he would also have been supported by hope that the crucially necessary boy was just around the corner. Robin holds that it is thanks to his involvement that the first two daughters thrived and became secure personalities, in spite of their hopelessly childish mother.
I cannot be sure whether he was ever deeply involved with Jane, since by the time the story begins he does not relate to her actively, though he respects and values her (231-32). But Elizabeth consistently receives conspicuous favoritism from him in what is undoubtedly a long-established pattern.
Mary’s arrival, however, was undoubtedly a severe blow to his hopes: not only yet another girl, and a physically unattractive one, but one soon showing a solemn and plodding mind that aroused his contempt. As indolent and self-centered as Mr. Bennet clearly is, virtually from the beginning he would have made no effort to reach out to Mary or meet her needs. He would probably have often mocked her, subtly or otherwise, as he does the only times we hear him address her in the first all-family conversation (7), and at the Netherfield ball (101). With a personal style disagreeable to both of these undisciplined parents, not only would Mary have been starved of nurturance by both, she would have had to endure years of seeing Elizabeth and probably also Jane enjoying the approval and warmth that were denied her.
Coming after the heavy disappointment in Mary, Kitty’s and Lydia’s arrivals probably found their father completely closed to any genuine communication. For Lydia, the vacuum is filled by the influence of her mother, from whom she takes her signals; from about the time the story opens, her mind and Kitty’s are empty of all but balls, pranks, and flirtations that recklessly flaunt social proprieties. Not only is Mr. Bennet careless of the probable social cost for them; even his shrewd guess that the older girls’ suitors are being driven away by the younger girls’ behavior does not arouse him to responsible action (231). He has abdicated virtually all parental responsibility. Without showing the slightest awareness of his part in the development of their characters, he dismisses Kitty and Lydia, and Mary with them, as “‘three very silly sisters’” (232).
Though her father sees only silliness in Mary, a case can be made that she is potentially intelligent; recall her comment during the Lucas family’s first visit to Longbourn (20) on the difference between pride and vanity, which in fact reflects accurately on several of the characters including herself (Butler 333-34). (Mary and Lydia have little pride but much vanity; Darcy and Mr. Bennet have much pride but no vanity; Elizabeth has considerable pride and some little vanity). It is true that few of Mary’s other observations are worth making; but there may be reasons other than a dull mind to account for this fact, as we shall see.
Having never been inclined to pattern herself after her mother, who by Mary’s lights is impossibly frivolous, it is her father she takes as a model. He is indolent, living in his head, largely detached from life; she is also wary of physical exertion and emotional involvement. For example, she responds to Elizabeth’s eager resolution to walk to Netherfield with the comment that “‘every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason; and . . . exertion should always be in proportion to what is required’” (32). Mr. Bennet takes refuge in books from the frustrations of failed relationships, so Mary also turns to books, her only friends.
But Mr. Bennet never seems to notice that Mary is paying him the compliment of imitation; he does not invite her into his library, guide her reading, or discuss ideas with her. Left to her own devices, she immerses herself in the sort of heavy-handed “improving” books considered suitable for young ladies. Furthermore, having received no help from either parent in developing the social awareness and interpersonal skills so important in the marriage market, Mary habitually talks like one of her books (Robin), bringing down upon herself still more contempt rather than the admiration she longs for. Of this contempt she seems only half aware; unconsciously she may be cultivating her social insensitivity in order to dull the pain of her loveless life. Like Charlotte with Mr. Collins (156), Mary sometimes manages not to hear.
Music is an acceptable means of expression for young ladies; Mary has some limited talent, and she works diligently at the piano in hopes of gaining social approval. Had her father cared that her style was embarrassingly affected and her singing voice weak (100), he could have hired a music teacher for her, or at least offered her some elementary feedback himself; her mother was doubtless incapable of seeing the problem. But he does not trouble himself. It is his neglect that has essentially set her up for her self-sabotaging performance at the Netherfield ball, for which he then in effect punishes her with the humiliating “‘You have delighted us long enough’” (101). This even the thick-skinned Mary cannot manage not to hear.
Mary shares with her sisters serious harm from her father’s major sin of omission. Mary is an unattractive young woman without suitors, and her social standing is below theirs, but even such comparatively low status as she has in the neighborhood is wiped out for a time as a result of her father’s failure to guide Lydia, leading to the notorious elopement. Mr. Bennet’s efforts to mend the situation are as ineffective as his stance (hardly efforts) leading up to it; respectability is only restored by Mr. Darcy’s rescue.
Mary also suffers along with her sisters from the ill effects of actions her father does take, namely, his treatment of her mother. One can sympathize with Mr. Bennet in his deep marital disappointment, and commend him for turning for consolation to books rather than to extramarital affairs. But that he should brighten his days by needling his wife into amusing inanities is not matter for commendation. Not only does he leave the responsibility for their daughters’ uncertain future in her incompetent hands, he increases the strain on her by his manipulative games. Muddle-headed though she usually is, when she says, “‘You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves,’” (5) she is entirely right. (It could be protested that he does his paternal duty by visiting the newly arrived Mr. Bingley, but the visit does not actually benefit his daughters. At the Meryton assembly it is Bingley who takes the initiative and makes sure he gets introduced to Jane and others, while Mr. Bennet sits home with a book.) The double stress on Mrs. Bennet very likely contributes substantially to her embarrassing behavior, no doubt making hers the chief contribution to the “total want of propriety’ (198) motivating Darcy’s (and thus Bingley’s) flight. As the narrator comments, Mr. Bennet probably could have done little to enlarge his wife’s mind (237); but had he maintained a stance of courtesy toward her, and shared parental responsibilities, her worst excesses might well have been avoided. And the daughters might not have had so disastrous a model; as it is, the three younger especially are at a complete loss about how to live as a woman in their society.
Mr. Bennet’s most egregious failure regarding Mary in particular takes place during Mr. Collins’s visit. Mr. Collins’s hints that he means to seek a wife among the Bennet daughters are broad enough that there was no need for Mr. Bennet to miss them (certainly Mrs. Bennet did not). But what he notices about his cousin’s letter and dinner conversation are only the prospective delights of an exhibition of folly (64, 68). By the time the first evening was half over, any Regency parent with a dram more perceptiveness than Mrs. Bennet could have seen that Mary had more in common with Mr. Collins than any of the others did, and would have realized that she was the only one of the five who might accept him. Since Mary had neither seniority nor beauty, Mr. Collins would not have chosen her of his own accord. In this situation Mr. Bennet’s paternal duty was unmistakable: to take Mr. Collins aside, turn the subject to his intentions, and inform him that he did not have five candidates among whom to choose, for there was only one possible wife for him at Longbourn. But the potentials of the situation do not even occur to him. He leaves the advising of Mr. Collins to a woman who fully expects the witty and perceptive Elizabeth to accept her cousin’s lumbering suit. Such neglect by Mr. Bennet of those financially dependent upon him amounts to a betrayal. But coming as it does after years of complete psychological neglect, particularly of the friendless Mary, it is not even cause for remark, either by the characters or by most readers. Mary has been indulging in fantasies of Mr. Collins as an agreeable future companion (124), but she gives no sign of awareness that any intervention by her father was owed and denied her.
Of course, it is quite possible that even if Mr. Bennet had spoken up on Mary’s behalf, Mr. Collins, obtuse as he was, would have rejected the advice and courted Elizabeth anyway. Mr. Bennet would then have had to content himself with the knowledge of having done his duty. But if Mr. Collins had heeded him and had succeeded in procuring the good opinion (to use Charlotte’s euphemistic phrase) of Mary, not only would Mary’s financial future have been secured, it would probably have been difficult (though not impossible) for Mr. Collins when he inherited the house to evict his mother-in-law and any unmarried sisters. All would then have had a roof over their heads.
Had Mary in fact become engaged and married to Mr. Collins as speedily as Charlotte did, her vanity would certainly have been highly gratified at being the first among her sisters to attain to the much-desired estate. She would have imagined that she was finally receiving the admiration she was always seeking, and might even have imagined herself to be in love with Mr. Collins. This is not to say that she would have found real fulfillment. Imaginary love is very likely all she would ever have known, for Mary has been so completely deprived of love that she has virtually no idea what it is. And she would certainly not have learned anything about it from Mr. Collins.
I have described Mary as a pathetic creature, so greatly wronged as to have become dehumanized. Viewers of the 1996 BBC/Arts dramatization will recognize the influence of its interpretation of Mary. But, it might be protested, the narrator herself has little sympathy for Mary; she tells us that Mary “wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how” (7), was given to threadbare observations and was eager for display, and had “a pedantic air and conceited manner” (25); the last we hear of her, “she could still moralize over every morning visit” (386). The superior, self-congratulatory tone and the high-flown language in which Mary almost invariably speaks make her nearly as ridiculous as Mr. Collins. From this point of view it is questionable to go beyond the text, as I have done, to speculate about her childhood relationship to her father and about probable pain that has led her to turn herself into an improving book.
However, Mary makes one atypical speech that I think shows that she is still human, that she is shocked by the catastrophe of Lydia’s elopement into a brief awareness of her feelings, and that she is even motivated to try to open genuine, caring communication. At the dinner table the day of Elizabeth’s return from Derbyshire, Mary gravely whispers to her, “‘This is a most unfortunate affair; and will probably be much talked of. But we must stem the tide of malice, and pour into the wounded bosoms of each other, the balm of sisterly consolation’” (289). Mary has not been able to break out of her ponderous style, but the content of this statement is quite different from the stuffy moralism of her usual deliverances. It is an appeal for mutual comfort—exactly what all four sisters need. Had she been able to put it simply—“This terrible thing will make people despise us. We are all suffering. We must protect and comfort each other,” Elizabeth might have responded (recall that she did feel a pang of sympathy for Mary at the Netherfield ball). But traumatized as she is by a doubled grief and unable to hear anything but her sister’s familiar heavy-footed style, Elizabeth remains silent.
Mary need not have given up. Had she tried again with the kindly Jane, she would have received the desired sisterly consolation; the degree of Jane’s sympathy for her is evident in that throughout the crisis Jane has been shielding her from the exhausting duties of attending on their hysterical mother (292). But Mary does give up, and at once retreats into a self-congratulatory Moral: “‘Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson; that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable . . .’’ etc., etc. The moment passes, and we see the outcome of her father’s years of neglect and her own failure of nerve: not receiving real consolation from a real person, “Mary . . . continued to console herself with such kind of moral extractions . . . ” (289). As far as we know, Mary the person capable of genuine feeling is gone for good, and only the empty persona is left.
Auerbach, Nina. “Waiting Together: Pride and Prejudice.” Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Donald Gray. New York: Norton, 1993. 336-348.
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
Butler, Marilyn. “Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.” Pride and Prejudice. Ed.Donald Gray. New York: Norton, 1993. 328-336.
Drabble, Margaret. “Introduction.” Pride and Prejudice. New York: Penguin, 1989. v-xv.
Pride and Prejudice. Writer Andrew Davies. Director Simon Langton. With Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. BBC/A&E, 1996.
Robin, Doris T. Private communication.