Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet and her Father

Father-daughter relationships are sometimes important in Jane Austen’s novels. Think of Emma and Pride and Prejudice and – in an indirect way – of Sense and Sensibility: Mr. Dashwood is dead before the novel begins but his will has such an impact on his daughters. Mr. Morland is remarkable for being unremarkable. Mr. Woodhouse's devotion fails to conceal his selfishness.

The teasing, ironic Mr. Bennet, with his perceptiveness, values and sense of the absurd finds his perfect partner not in his wife but in his daughter Elizabeth. In total contrast is Sir Walter Elliot: his daughter Anne emerges as the most lovely and selfless of heroines, despite having to be loyal to this vain and foolish man. Jane Austen's ideal father would appear to be self-respecting, restrained, genuinely kind and affectionate to all his children, and well-informed. Her own father was such a man. The bleakest paternal relationship is provided by Mr. Price, the Lieutenant of Marines. Burdened by poverty and a large family, he takes no interest in his daughter Fanny. When she returns to her parents in Portsmouth after several years being brought up in the family of his sister-in-law at Mansfield Park, Price can scarcely be bothered to notice or welcome her. He is dirty and gross. He swears and drinks. But Elizabeth's relation with her father is the backbone of Pride and Prejudice. It sets the tone, combining realism, morality and laughter. They perfectly understand each other. Elizabeth is the child who most resembles her father in taste, sense and wit.

Mr. Bennet has relentless clear-sighted realism – a quality shared by Elizabeth and by Jane Austen. His forte is not action; it is commentary. It is he who holds the story together. He has the best lines. The intelligence and sense of humour shared by father and daughter is well seen in their response to Mr. Collins. Having heard his first letter read by her father, she asks, 'Can he be a sensible man, sir?' Mr. Bennet replies, 'No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse.' We can see where Elizabeth's relishing of the foibles of mankind comes from.

In agreeing to visit Charlotte in Kent, the only pain Elizabeth feels is 'leaving her father'. She knows he will miss her. He urges her to keep in touch by letter and 'almost' promises to reply.

There is a wonderfully comic scene in which Bennet tries to share with Lizzy his amusement at the apparently misguided letter Collins has sent him, warning against a marriage between Darcy and Elizabeth. Bennet chuckles at such a thought relating to Darcy 'who never looks at a woman but to see a blemish, and who, probably, never looked at you in his life!' Elizabeth, who struggles to appear amused, is astonished at her father's 'want of penetration'. To be fair to him, however, she has scarcely publicized her altered feelings.

Occasionally, Bennet stirs himself to attend a social event: he is present at the Netherfield Ball. There is a telling moment of unspoken communication between father and favourite daughter. Elizabeth gives her father a look to entreat his interference during Mary's interminable, embarrassing singing. He takes the hint and asks Mary to let someone else have a turn.

To counteract the effects of the entail on the family property, some fathers would eagerly have married off a daughter (perhaps Mary?) to Mr. Collins. Not so Mr. Bennet. During the commotion following Elizabeth's rejection of Mr. Collins, he sits quietly in his library. When his help is sought by the frantic Mrs. Bennet, he shows 'calm unconcern' but agrees to give Elizabeth his opinion. He tells her: 'An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.' We are told that Elizabeth 'could not but smile’.

When Elizabeth accepts Darcy, her father seriously tries to make her reconsider. It matters more that his daughter should be happy than that she should be married to one of the richest men in England. 'Are you out of your senses to be accepting this man?' he asks. 'Have you not always hated him?' In Bennet we have a heroine's father who, despite his flippancy, loves his daughter deeply. His fondness for Elizabeth (and Jane) is clear whenever he is deprived of their company. Bennet warns his daughter that she would be unhappy if she did not truly esteem her husband, for her 'lively talents' would cause her misery. His advice is poignant, revealing his love for her and the tragedy of his own marriage. The chapter ends with the high comedy of Mrs. Bennet's raptures over Elizabeth's engagement to Darcy, but its kernel is the serious interview between father and daughter. (Typically, at the end of the interview, he tells Elizabeth: 'If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at leisure'!) At the end of the novel, we hear of Bennet that he delights in visits to Elizabeth at Pemberley, 'especially when he was least expected'. He misses her 'exceedingly’.