The Lovable Mrs. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice
The general impression of Austen's novels, which critic D. W. Harding says relieved him of any desire to read them, is that they offer readers a humorous refuge from an uncertain world. In his article "'Regulated Hatred': An Aspect in the Work of Jane Austen," Harding claims that this impression is misleading and that Jane Austen is actually very critical of her society, covertly expressing downright hatred for certain members of it by means of caricature. Mrs. Bennet, from Austen's Pride and Prejudice, is one of these "comic monster[s]". Harding claims that in order to view Mrs. Bennet as anything other than utterly detested by Austen one must ignore this Austen's summary of her at the end of Chapter One: "She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and an uncertain temper."1 Actually, Austen's Mrs. Bennet is much more complex than Harding acknowledges. Austen's initial summary notwithstanding, Pride and Prejudice even looks at Mrs. Bennet forgivingly. Her behavior is often provoked by her environment: both her society and her family. Because she helps, or tries to help, her family, Mrs. Bennet's ludicrous actions can even be seen as lovable.
Mrs. Bennet's society and family condemn her to a series of conventional roles. Mrs. Bennet snags a husband by playing the role of the good-humored, pretty young woman. Mr. Bennet also believes that good looks will make a good wife, and he marries her. However, once she and Mr. Bennet take off their courting masks and Mr. Bennet discovers her "weak understanding and illiberal mind, [which] had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her" (155), the marriage turns sour.2 Initially, this description may seem to support Harding's point of view: we could safely blame Mrs. Bennet for the failures of her marriage. But if we view the beginning of her marriage in Mrs. Bennet's terms, Mr. Bennet turns out to be as disappointing a husband as she is a wife. Unlike her husband, Mrs. Bennet was not looking for strong understanding or a liberal mind in her partner. She was looking for affection and financial security; she has been denied both. Mr. Bennet has chosen to withdraw his affection (Mrs. Bennet likely does not understand his reasons) and, the family lacking sons and his estate being entailed to the nearest male relative, he cannot promise his wife permanent security.
Mrs. Bennet is not one to hold back her feelings. Mr. Bennet even makes sport of her ever-present nerves: "They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least" (4). Yet, Mrs. Bennet's society pressures women to be emotionally effusive. It is self-control that almost costs daughter Jane Bennet her marriage. While Jane remains unsure of her feelings for Bingley, she holds back-"as yet, she cannot even be certain...