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Like Aunt, Like Niece: Generational Patterns of Marriage in Pride and Prejudice

The five Bennet sisters are so unlike each other that it is difficult to imagine that they were raised under the same roof by the same parents. Jane is tolerant to a fault, and Elizabeth is quick to judge, but they share an inseparable bond. Lydia and Kitty have little in common beyond an affinity for attending balls and flirting with officers, but Lydia’s assertiveness and Kitty’s acquiescence yield a convenient alliance. Mary, the middle daughter and “the only plain one in the family” (Austen 25), is at once scholarly and vacuous, preferring to spend her time collecting “observations of thread-bare morality” (59) to recite at inopportune moments. By the end of Pride and Prejudice, these differences have only become more pronounced: Jane and Elizabeth are happily married to distinguished men, and Lydia finds herself with an irreparable reputation and an ignoble husband. The remarkable disparities in the marriages of the Bennet sisters trace back to another set of dissimilar siblings: Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Gardiner. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s marriage is founded on impulsive infatuation and pecuniary pragmatism, and though they eventually settle into a stable relationship of toleration and cooperation, the underlying flaws of their marriage resurface in the next generation. Lydia repeats their mistakes to a greater extent and with a far more disastrous outcome, but Jane and Elizabeth are cognizant of these deficiencies and wisely model their ideals of marriage after another couple: their aunt and uncle. The Gardiners exemplify affection and compatibility in marriage, but they also become surrogate parents to their nieces, providing advice and guidance where Mr. and Mrs. Bennet fall short. The Bennet sisters inherit the marriage patterns of the previous generation through indirect influences and direct encouragement, and looking to the older generation offers an explanation for the differences in the marriages of the younger generation.

Jane Austen introduces the world of Pride and Prejudice with a scene that captures the nuances of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s marital dynamic. Hoping to engineer a marriage between one of her daughters and the eligible bachelor newly settled at a nearby estate, Mrs. Bennet attempts to coax, guilt, and browbeat her husband into visiting Mr. Bingley (5). To her great consternation, Mr. Bennet declines each of her appeals with feigned ignorance and measured indifference (5). Exasperated, Mrs. Bennet protests that he has “no compassion on [her] poor nerves,” an accusation he glibly denies: “I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least” (7). Such exchanges are characteristic of their marriage. Mrs. Bennet prattles endlessly about the principal objectives of her life: to “get her daughters married” and keep up with the latest neighborhood gossip (7). Mr. Bennet is often “fatigued with the raptures of his wife” (10), but he has long since accepted the futility of annoyance. He endures her incessant nagging by making wry quips at her expense, privately amused that she lacks the acuity to comprehend his veiled mockery.

Initially, readers know very little about Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s marriage besides that they could hardly be less compatible in intellect and temperament. Mr. Bennet is a quaint mixture of “quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice,” while Mrs. Bennet is a woman of “mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” (7). The dissonance between Mr. Bennet’s wit and Mrs. Bennet’s senselessness is magnified by his sedate passivity and her excitable officiousness. Mr. Bennet prefers to read alone in his library (14), where he finds refuge from the “folly and conceit” of his family (70). In contrast, Mrs. Bennet delights in playing matchmaker and meddling in her daughters’ lives, smugly announcing to anyone within earshot “her expectation that Jane would soon be married to Mr. Bingley” (97) even though no such proposal has yet been made. Not until later in the novel do readers learn the history of this unlikely union. Decades earlier, Mr. Bennet was enchanted by Mrs. Bennet’s “youth and beauty” and the “appearance of good humour” (228). Blind to her “weak understanding and illiberal mind” (228), he marries her in a moment of illusory passion but loses all “respect, esteem, and confidence” (228) once her superficial allure evaporates and her vapidity becomes glaringly obvious.

Mrs. Bennet may be no match for Mr. Bennet’s keen wit, but she exhibits more foresight in selecting a spouse. This unexpected discernment is rooted in her desire to elevate her social and economic status. Mrs. Bennet’s father was a country attorney in Meryton (29), and she was born squarely in the middle class. Unlike her sister, who is content to marry their father’s clerk (29) and remain “in the same level of society in which she was raised” (Thaler), Mrs. Bennet sets her sights on joining the gentry by marrying Mr. Bennet, a gentleman by right of land ownership. Mrs. Bennet is acutely aware of the practical advantage she stands to gain from their marriage, but she rashly gambles on the expectation that she will have a son to “join in cutting off the entail” (Austen 292) that will bequeath Mr. Bennet’s estate to a “distant relation” after his death (29). The unfounded anticipation of a son causes Mr. and Mrs. Bennet to view frugality as “perfectly useless” (292) until it is “too late to be saving” (292). Once it becomes clear that no heir is forthcoming, Mrs. Bennet realizes that she and her daughters will have no home, no savings, and very little income upon Mr. Bennet’s death. Both parties are guilty of imprudence: Mr. Bennet mistakes infatuation for love, and Mrs. Bennet neglects to save money as a precaution against the unpredictability of genetics. Despite an inauspicious beginning and a conspicuous lack of “all real affection” (228), Mr. and Mrs. Bennet create a functional partnership with traces of genuine fondness. Mrs. Bennet reminds her daughters “what an excellent father [they] have” (10), and despite his teasing, Mr. Bennet often obliges—and occasionally abets—her matchmaking schemes (9). Though their marriage is not one of enamored bliss, they reach a mutual understanding and raise a beautiful family together.

Conscious that her parents cannot provide “a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort” (228), Elizabeth turns to her aunt and uncle. She judges her parents’ marriage “unsuitable” (229)—a ruling reinforced by direct contrast to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner’s “suitableness as companions; a suitableness which comprehended health and temper to bear inconveniences—cheerfulness to enhance every pleasure—and affection and intelligence” (231). The stark opposition of these marriages illuminates fundamental differences between Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Gardiner. Mrs. Bennet conspires to climb the ranks of society by marrying upward and appropriating her husband’s status and fortune. Once her wish is fulfilled, she “seeks no further development of her mind” (Thaler) and makes no effort to rectify her lack of education and refinement. In contrast, Mr. Gardiner, whom Austen describes as “greatly superior to his sister” (137), leaves the countryside on his own initiative and moves to London to forge a career through hard work (137). Though Mr. Gardiner is not a landowning gentleman, he epitomizes a “gentlemanlike man” (137) by every other metric. In contrast, Mrs. Bennet lawfully ranks among the gentry, but her uncouth conduct belies her middle-class origins. Elizabeth often blushes with “shame and vexation” (97) at her mother’s indecorum, but she admires her uncle’s “easy and pleasant” manners (237). Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Gardiner’s choices of partners are emblematic of these inherent differences. While Mrs. Bennet marries for socioeconomic advantage and expects to attain esteem and wealth through her husband, Mr. Gardiner prioritizes compatibility, marrying an “amiable, intelligent, elegant woman” who becomes a role model and a “great favourite” with Jane and Elizabeth (137). When Elizabeth and the Gardiners encounter Mr. Darcy, she revels in the triumph of proving that she has “relations for whom there was no need to blush” (244). She cannot help but contrast Mr. Darcy’s courtesy toward the Gardiners with his open disdain for her parents’ “mortifying” conduct (202). This encounter further emphasizes the inadequacy of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in comparison to the “well bred and agreeable” (137) Mr. Gardiner and his estimable wife. While spending time with the Gardiners, Elizabeth observes affection, compatibility, and decorum—attributes notably absent in her parents.

The Gardiners shape Elizabeth’s conceptions of marriage simply by setting an aspirational example, but they are more than merely a foil to the Bennets. As the Bennet sisters navigate romance and crisis, the Gardiners are also confidants and counselors to their nieces. For example, Jane becomes despondent when Mr. Bingley departs Netherfield with no farewell and no indication of returning. Upon learning of Jane’s dejection, Mrs. Gardiner invites her to stay with them in London, suggesting astutely that a “change of scene might be of service—and perhaps a little relief from home” (138). Mrs. Gardiner’s sincere compassion is a welcome contrast to Mr. Bennet’s cruel insensitivity. He sarcastically congratulates Jane on her heartbreak, announcing that “a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then” (135). Mrs. Gardiner also acts as an adviser: upon hearing Elizabeth’s “warm commendation” of Wickham, she cautions Elizabeth to “be on [her] guard” and reminds her of Wickham’s “want of fortune” (142). Mrs. Gardiner recognizes that marrying a man who cannot support a family would be “very imprudent” (142), but she encourages Elizabeth to consider character and compatibility as well as economic condition (151). Jane and Elizabeth confide in Mrs. Gardiner because they trust her to deliver sound advice—just as they trust Mrs. Bennet to react with unseemly theatrics.

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner’s influence on their nieces is nowhere more apparent than in Lydia’s elopement. Upon learning of Lydia’s disappearance, Jane immediately writes to the Gardiners: “I know my dear uncle and aunt so well, that I am not afraid of requesting it . . . my uncle’s advice and assistance would be every thing in the world” (262). Jane knows the Gardiners are capable and level-headed, and their swift response justifies her trust: “though Lydia had never been a favourite with them” (267), they do not hesitate to terminate their vacation for her sake. Throughout this debacle, the contrast between the Bennets and the Gardiners becomes even more striking. Mr. Bennet is unanimously acknowledged to be a “most negligent and dilatory correspondent” (279) and the Bennet family relies on Mr. Gardiner to negotiate Lydia’s marriage. As for Mrs. Bennet, she was “not to be expected” (262) to exert herself at all except to incriminate others and disclaim culpability, even though she is “the person to whose ill judging indulgence the errors of her daughter must be principally owing” (273). Once Lydia is found, Mrs. Bennet is more alarmed at Lydia’s “want of new clothes” (294) than at “any sense of shame at her eloping” (294). Mrs. Gardiner must substitute as a responsible maternal figure, endeavoring in vain to make Lydia comprehend “all the wickedness of what she had done” (307). Lydia’s plight is the consequence of her parents’ negligence, and what remains of her reputation is salvaged only by her aunt and uncle’s diligence.

Lydia’s marriage reflects and distorts the flaws of her parents’ marriage. She commits a similar lapse in judgment as her father, but the repercussions are far more severe and irreversible. Mr. Bennet marries in a fleeting moment of passion, and Lydia is similarly intoxicated by childish obsession: “there is but one man in the world I love,” she vows, “I should never be happy without him” (276). Mr. Bennet recognizes “the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on” (228) and modulates his expectations for Mrs. Bennet and their marriage accordingly. This self-awareness allows him to find peace and contentment, and they build a gratifying life despite their differences. In contrast, Lydia is oblivious that her disgraceful elopement is “brought on by the strength of her love” (301). She willfully denies Wickham’s infamy and indifference, insisting that “he did every thing best in the world” and “no one was to be put in competition with him” (301). Unsurprisingly, any affection Wickham might have once felt soon dwindles into indifference (366). Lydia’s passion is extinguished almost as quickly, and they enter an interminable cycle of “moving from place to place” and “spending more than they ought” (366). Though Mr. and Mrs. Bennet may not epitomize an ideal pairing, they demonstrate that with deliberate dedication, joy can be found even in an unsuitable match. Lydia mirrors her father’s impulsivity, but her immaturity and incorrigibility yield an irredeemable marriage.

While Lydia falls into the pattern of Mr. Bennet’s vice and suffers the consequences of Mrs. Bennet’s indulgence, the “very particular regard” (136) Jane and Elizabeth establish with Mrs. Gardiner counteracts adverse influences. Mr. Bingley was smitten with Jane’s beauty, and her interest was piqued by his affability and prestige, but their mutual attraction develops into genuine understanding. Their compatibility is patent to those around them: Elizabeth is confident that they are “violently in love” (138), and even Mr. Bennet must admit their “tempers are by no means unlike” (329). Elizabeth’s relationship with Darcy is considerably more turbulent. By the time she realizes after months of animosity and misunderstanding that “[Darcy] was exactly the man, who, in dispositions and talents, would most suit her” (295), she despairs that “all love must be vain” (264). Yet when Mrs. Gardiner professes her high opinion of Darcy and insinuates her suspicions of his sentiments, Elizabeth allows herself to hope once more:

She read over her aunt’s commendation of him [Darcy] again and again. It was hardly enough; but it pleased her. She was even sensible of some pleasure, though mixed with regret, on finding how stedfastly both she and her uncle had been persuaded that affection and confidence subsisted between Mr. Darcy and herself. (309)

Mrs. Gardiner’s judgment encourages Elizabeth to finally confess her love, and she later credits the Gardiners as “the means of uniting [her and Darcy]” (367). Jane and Elizabeth share a resolve to “do any thing rather than marry without affection” (353)—a clear sign of Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner’s influence on their conceptions of marriage.

After their weddings, Jane and Elizabeth move to escape “so near a vicinity to [their] mother” (364), but they remain on “the most intimate terms” (367) with their aunt and uncle. The sincere friendship between Mrs. Gardiner and her eldest nieces outlasts the vicarious relationship between Mrs. Bennet and her daughters. Even Lydia, who previously reveled in the privileged status of being the “favourite with her mother” (45), is forgotten the instant Mrs. Bennet learns of Jane’s engagement to Bingley: “Jane was beyond competition her favourite child” (329). Mrs. Bennet’s partiality is provisional—her favorite daughter at any given moment is the one with the most promising marriage prospects. This conditional affection is a critical fault in marriages built on impermanent attraction to material characteristics such as youth, beauty, status, wealth, or even pure convenience. When the initial conditions inevitably diminish, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet make the best of their unsuitable marriage, but Lydia is not as fortunate. In contrast, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner prioritize longstanding compatibility and holistic considerations. The self-possession they instill in Jane and Elizabeth pays off: the eldest Bennet daughters find enduring happiness and true love. Through these intricate patterns of marriage that repeat, reform, and reverberate as they pass from parent to daughter and aunt to niece, Austen explores the continuance and evolution of different models of marriage across generations.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Penguin Books, 2014.
  • Thaler, Joanna L. “Re-discovering the Gardiner Family.” 2009 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner College/University Division. Accessed 12 Jan 2023.
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