All fans of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are well aware of the legal tangle of the “fee tail” that Lizzie and her sisters are in — as brotherless daughters of an elderly father, they are doomed to homeless destitution in a few years if they don’t marry. The single ones will inevitably become burdens on the married ones.
None of this could have possibly taken Mr. Bennett by surprise. He’s undoubtedly known about the “fee tail” all his life — obviously, because he owns one. He seems to understand that he can’t live forever. Somewhere around the time Wickham runs off with Lydia, he makes a reference to how his brother (the girls’ uncle) has already had to rescue him at least once, from financial disaster in the past.
Whatever his profession, he doesn’t seem to be very interested in it. It’s critical for a modern audience to understand this: today’s viewers look at him owning a farm with servants, and assume he’s well-off — they look at his obsession with insect collection and assume he’s some kind of Renaissance Man or “gentleman scientist”. He’s not. He’s the Regency equivalent of a 35-year-old man living in his mother’s basement playing World of Warcraft all night and all day. Actually, he’s the Regency equivalent of a 60-year-old man doing that. Actually, he’s the Regency equivalent of a 60-year-old man doing that while giving no thought to a problem he’s seen coming for more than twenty years, certain to bring his five marriageable daughters crippling misery for the majority of their lives unless he does something.
No, wait, there’s more. We must remember that in the Regency period, the girls are far less able to affect their fates than women in their twenties (or even their teens) in modern America. At least, Kitty and Mary certainly are! So where does that leave us?
Here it is: Mr. Bennett is the Regency equivalent of a 60-year-old man living in his (dead) mother’s basement, playing WoW all day with headphones, wilfully ignoring a problem he’s seen coming for more than twenty years, while his five infant daughters run amok upstairs in filthy diapers with nothing to eat but moldy Milk Duds and nothing to drink but whiskey. And it’s not even single malt whiskey.
No, wait! My analogy fails because WoW is at least a somewhat social game. Mr. Bennett hates socializing, and does it poorly — OK, replace World of Warcraft with Windows Solitaire.
No, wait! Well, never mind . . . you get the idea.
Then there’s the stupidity of marrying a woman like Mrs. Bennett. The man could have married for money (which would have been regarded as sensible). He could have married someone he could have been personally happy with — maybe not the richest or prettiest lady, but someone at least emotionally compatible and perhaps even his intellectual equal — this would not have been judged quite as sensible, but at least we could sympathize with it. We have every reason to believe he knew just how important his decision was of whom to marry, but he screwed it up anyway for no apparent reason other than, perhaps, laziness. I also suppose this whole thing might be mitigated if Jane Austen had indicated to her readers that Lizzie’s mother was smokin’ hot in her youth. But again, there is no indication of that.
As Lady Catherine DeBurgh points out: Mr. Bennett utterly failed to promote the girls’ “education” in any way. . . remember, this is something that, as an educated man himself, he would have had a solid understanding of how best to accomplish! I’m sure he couldn’t afford the very best, but as the owner of a prosperous farm he could have at least gone through the motions. As Mrs. Bennett points out: he does very little to actually try to steer them in directions that might, at least, slightly increase their chances of happiness. (Or, failing that, steer them in directions that are somewhat safe.) Who can forget Mr. Bennett’s nonchalance about his sixteen-year-old daughters partying with drunken soldiers in their twenties (and beyond!) on leave, with no supervision? He rationalizes this on the ultimate basis of lazy parenting: he didn’t want to hear any complaining!
To a modern audience, of course, this may seem peripheral: no one watches “Pride and Prejudice” for Mr. Bennett. But consider the spirit and times in which Jane Austen wrote the story. A critical part of it is the problems that Austen puts in front of the Bennett girls. These problems were put in the context of the times, so Austen could connect with her readers.
Austen wasn’t the only person of her time aware of the pitfalls of the “Fee Tail”. But unlike Austen, most people in that society rationalized the problem away (the way most people, then and now, rationalize most social problems away). People of Austen’s time surely said: “Daughters won’t be left destitute all their lives very often — after all, their parents (particularly the father, given his greater privilege) are there to provide support and guidance”.
Austen dared to ask: “What if an intelligent, capable, kind and pleasant woman — deserving of happiness by anyone’s standards — is saddled with a worthless father?”
She asked the same question in Persuasion. England had no good answer.
This critical role in the story, the role of the person directly at fault for the heroine’s problems, was played in the 1995 version by Benjamin Whitrow — he truly captures the essence of a man who, just now, is starting to recognize how stupid he’s been, how helpless he is, and how much he’s failed his beloved children. My intellectual response to the character on paper is that I want to whack him around with a 2×4. But watching that man’s performance, I feel shreds of regret, and I’m torn between whether to scorn him or pity him. By comparison, Donald Sutherland was a hole in the air.