Mrs. Bennet is a comical figure in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), a novel that explores marriage in Regency England. Thanks to recent film adaptations, the one thing modern audiences remember about Mrs. Bennet is her expectation of wealthy suitors for her five daughters. At the Netherfield ball, she tells Mrs. Lucas that “Jane’s marrying so greatly must throw them in the way of other rich men” (chapter 18).
Is Mrs. Bennet a greedy mercenary or practical realist? Someone must think of money. Mr. Bennet does not, and never has. He squandered the family’s wealth in easy living instead of saving for his daughters’ futures, while he hoped for a son who would annul the entailment to his cousin Mr. Collins. As a result, the Bennet sisters do not have the resources to be independent women. Unless they find employment as governesses they must marry, preferably for money. Food, clothing, and shelter require money. The looming entailment in the event of Mr. Bennet’s death only magnifies the family’s financial crisis. Since Mr. Collins is under no obligation to let them stay at Longbourn, Mrs. Bennet often envisions the family being evicted whenever her husband dies. She seeks wealthy suitors for her daughters so they will have homes.
The family is fortunate that Mr. Bennet did not die while his daughters were still children. If Mr. Collins or his parents did not mercifully provide for them, then the widowed Mrs. Bennet would have had to seek work or live with her brother Mr. Gardiner in Cheapside. Some widows in 19th-century London worked in factories or became prostitutes to provide for their children. Such lives guaranteed early deaths for the mothers, workhouses for the sons and daughters. If Mr. Bennet had died prematurely, his daughters may have become female Oliver Twists!
Reality is ugly, but facing it means survival. Unfortunately, except for Mrs. Bennet no one in the family does. They do not think of economic survival at all. The idealistic Mr. Bennet jokes about their financial crisis and his idealistic daughters ignore it, a type of insanity. The middle-class Austen does not face economic reality either. Who is the object of her satire: Mrs. Bennet or her family? People with long-term financial problems become grounded over time. They are practical and realistic out of necessity and are not deceived by appearances. Silliness takes flight.
The Bennets are an exception and Mrs. Bennet is the worst. As with her youngest daughters, she is still charmed by officers in redcoats like the penniless rogue Mr. Wickham. A practical mother would have seen his financial situation and steered her daughters clear of him. Like Elizabeth initially, Mrs. Bennet also prefers Mr. Wickham to the proud Mr. Darcy. His £10,000 a year means nothing to her. A practical mother would not have cared. Without maternal guidance, Elizabeth must receive help from Charlotte to see Mr. Darcy’s moral worth. Mrs. Bennet’s nerves take the brunt of Austen’s satire, but they are only natural for someone thinking long and hard of entailment. So who is to blame for this characterization, Mrs. Bennet or Jane Austen?
Only with Mr. Bingley and Mr. Collins does Mrs. Bennet show real sense. Mr. Bingley has £5,000 a year. That he is handsome and kind is proverbial icing on the cake, tasty but unnecessary. Forcing Jane to go to Netherfield in the rain, on a horse, seems cruel. But someone must think of money. Mrs. Bennet also thinks of the entailment.
Of course Mrs. Bennet tries to marry Elizabeth to Mr. Collins. If she is successful, then the family will not be evicted. Any worthy mother would have done the same thing and many daughters other than Elizabeth would have obeyed. Unfortunately, Mr. Collins is a silly man so she refuses him. Elizabeth is like her idealistic father, who agrees with her choice. She wants to marry for love and refuses to be blinded by greed. These desires are honorable but impractical. In the end, Charlotte Lucas wins Mr. Collins. She does not love him, but unlike Elizabeth she is sensible about her financial situation. Mr. Collins is a choice prize and the practical Charlotte does not let him get away. Mrs. Bennet despises the Lucas family for what she considers a trick. Maybe she also wishes her daughters were more like Charlotte. Yet Austen forces her readers to see Charlotte’s wise choice through the eyes of Elizabeth, who considers her foolish.
In the end, love seems to win. Jane marries Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth Mr. Darcy, and Lydia Mr. Wickham. Unlike Charlotte, all three women marry for love and all three are truly happy. Still, money wins too. Mrs. Bennet now has two daughters married to wealthy men. Their futures are secure and the family’s financial crisis has been averted. Lydia’s happiness does not last because of Mr. Wickham’s financial situation. Her marriage needs more than love if it is to survive. Still, Mrs. Bennet is free to enjoy her daughters’ good fortune. At least someone thought of money!