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Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice': Elizabeth Bennet's Embarrassing Parents!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that young people seeking to attract the opposite sex find their parents embarrassing. Perfect though mothers and fathers may be, there come times when sons and daughters are convinced their parents' behaviour seems ridiculous to their friends. In most cases, as with Adrian Mole, events prove there was no need for such fears. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet has some justification for uneasiness. Matters are made worse because Darcy, the man to whom she is attractive, openly criticizes her parents.

When at Hunsford Elizabeth has just learned that Darcy prevented Bingley from marrying Jane, she considers what objections there could possibly be to her family. She thinks nothing may be said against her father, who, though with some peculiarities, has abilities which Mr. Darcy himself need not disdain and respectability which he will probably never reach. However, after rejecting Darcy's proposal and receiving his letter, she amends these views. Darcy's criticism of her family does not exclude even Mr. Bennet, whose failure to restrain his wife and daughters he had noticed.

Reflecting on the matter, Elizabeth decides her family is hopeless of remedy. Her father, contented with laughing at them, would never exert himself to restrain the wild giddiness of his youngest daughters. Her father's behaviour is causing her embarrassment; and she thinks he is wrong to be constantly exposing Mrs. Bennet to the contempt of her own children.

But the embarrassment caused by her mother is worse and at times excruciating. Mrs. Bennet is rude to Darcy at Netherfield when he points out that there must be limited scope in the country for Elizabeth's hobby of studying character. Lizzy has to intervene. Similarly, when her mother boasts of the likelihood that Jane will become engaged to Bingley, Lizzy blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation because Darcy overhears.

When the militia move to Brighton, Lydia desperately wants her father to take the family there for the summer. It would be such a delicious scheme, and I daresay would hardly cost anything at all. Mamma would like to go.... (Elizabeth believes such a plan would completely do for us at once). She finds her father had not the smallest intention of yielding, though he cantankerously torments his wife with vague and equivocal answers on the subject. However, Lydia's 'gloom' is relieved when Mrs. Forster invites her to Brighton.

Following Lydia's elopement, Mrs. Bennet laments her own sufferings and takes to her room, blaming everybody but the person to whose ill-judging indulgence the errors of her daughter must be principally owing; but even then one of her principal thoughts is that, if Wickham can be made to marry Lydia, she must help choose the wedding clothes.

Possibly the education Mr. Bennet gave his daughters, allowing those who chose to be idle to be so, accounts in part for two of them growing up empty-headed. This is an implicit criticism of him as a father.

With her background and haphazard education, it is hard to discover where Elizabeth gets her notions of propriety. She can see that the university-educated clergyman, Mr. Collins, five years her senior, is taking an impertinent freedom in speaking to Mr. Darcy without an introduction. At the Netherfield Ball she cringes with embarrassment at the behaviour of her mother, of Mary and of her cousin Mr. Collins (partly because it gives Mr. Darcy the opportunity of ridiculing her relations). Her usual amusement at the folly of others deserts her in these circumstances, even though her father retains his sense of fun.

Some of Elizabeth's sense of propriety comes from her father, no doubt, some from reading, some from discussion with Jane, some from the Gardiners and much (by the end of the novel) even from Darcy. Interestingly, however, whenever she sees members of her family behaving badly and feels embarrassed, it is because Mr. Darcy is given ammunition to despise her.

A conflict between Elizabeth and her father - one which ultimately shows her judgement as superior to his - concerns Lydia's trip to Brighton. Elizabeth regards the invitation from Mrs. Forster as the death-warrant of all possible common sense for Lydia. She urges her father not to let Lydia go, warning him of the 'improprieties' of Lydia's past behaviour and the 'temptations' to face her in Brighton. (The town was gaining a reputation for lax morality.) As usual, Mr. Bennet treats even such a possibility as a joke: Lydia will never be easy till she has exposed herself in some public place or other, and we can never expect her to do it with so little expense. Elizabeth does not give up the argument. She hints that a 'disadvantage' may arise - indeed has already arisen - to all of them because of Lydia's behaviour. Her father perceptively guesses: What! Has she frightened away some of your lovers?... Such squeamish youths as cannot bear to be connected with a little absurdity are not worth a regret.

Although Elizabeth denies any particular resentment, her arguments and the length of her reply indicate how well she has taken Darcy's words to heart. Elizabeth now regrets her hasty rejection of him.