Why the film and TV adaptations of Pride and Prejudice get Mr Bennet so wrong

In both the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and Joe Wright’s 2005 film, Mr Bennet is cast and played as essentially a lovable and cuddly fellow, with a twinkle in his eye, and a winning sense of humour. Yes, he has a few foibles and weaknesses but basically both Benjamin Whitrow (BBC, 1995) and Donald Sutherland (Joe Wright 2005) are quirky teddy bears. Just look at them:Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 12.07.31

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Even today a Mr Bennet would probably be good company – if you like drily witty verging on sarcastic (which I kind of do). But though I might enjoy a conversation with him, I wouldn’t like to be his friend. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be intimate or dependent on him.

But it’s not just that he’s “so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice”; he has more serious faults and Jane Austen cares very much about those failings. We’ve seen how he treats his wife – yes she’s annoying, but he’s really not nice to her and continues to punish her for not being who he thought she was. And his neglect of his children is highlighted in this scene, in which Lizzy begs him not to allow Lydia to go to Brighton. This is not just about whether he’s a nice person or not ( – not). What is demonstrated here is how his laissez-faire attitude is simply a rationalisation for his indolence. Lizzy adds more pressure to try and get him to act:

“Oh! my dear father, can you suppose it possible that they will not be censured and despised wherever they are known, and that their sisters will not be often involved in the disgrace?”

Mr Bennet saw that her whole heart was in the subject; and affectionately taking her hand, said in reply,

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known, you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of — or I may say, three — very silly sisters.”

He seems to understand Lizzy’s distress and is warm for a moment, but his response is to appeal to Lizzy’s vanity by simply comparing her favourably to her sisters. He is fobbing her off with flattery. This is now a more serious failing. It’s not just about whether he’s a nice person or not: what he avoids is the principle – the fact (of the time) – that reputation mattered to the respectability of the family, and that he was responsible for the moral character of his daughter. The overriding principle of his role as father at the time was to uphold the mores of society. He slithers out of his responsibility by turning a matter of principle into a personal matter.

Jane Austen sums him up through Elizabeth’s thinking:

Elizabeth however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.

But she had never felt so strongly as now the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife.

Austen’s disapproval couldn’t be clearer.

So why is it that the adaptations let Mr Bennet off the hook by both the casting and the script-writing?

I think partly they prioritise the humour of making him a foil for Mrs Bennet – polarising her silliness and his rationality. But Austen doesn’t do that in the same way – yes, her Mrs Bennet is silly and hysterical, but her Mr Bennet is a much more nuanced, ambivalent character than the film people convey. Austen allows and encourages us to disapprove of him, whereas both adaptations make him the good guy, the emotional heart of the house; more of a lovable rogue than a weak, selfish and indolent man who has not looked after his family as he should.

But I think there may also be a historical problem: Jane Austen’s values are not today’s values. A man of that time who did not uphold the moral principles of society, a man who did not do his duty by his family was a reprehensible character. The values of Jane Austen’s time are not romantic values – they are moral and they are pragmatic. Love does not conquer everything, principles matter, character matters. The principles of Jane Austen’s time are not the principles of our time – and for the filmmakers to be upholding 19th-century morality would make them look like disapproving fuddy-duddies of perhaps their own fathers’ generation. We are nowadays generally much more ambivalent about authority, and have a lot more freedom and variety in our definitions of morality.

In some ways, the adaptations say more about the problems of today in being a man and a father than they do about the original text. What is a father today? How does a basically decent man aspire to be as a father? If you uphold principles, act as the representative of the wider world, does that still allow you to show kindness, affection, understanding? Is a father’s job discipline? Is it a father’s job to come between a mother such as Mrs Bennet and her children?

Certainly Mr Bennet has opted out of all these responsibilities, and Jane Austen is fully aware of both his attractiveness as a wit, and his failures of principle, and of duty of care to his family.

I think the adaptations slide away from confronting the moral and emotional problems that Mr Bennet poses to a modern audience, and they go for the easy option, of making him cute and lovable. In this day and age, we really don’t know how to think about Mr Bennet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Unlikely blogfellows: Jane Austen, Brian Williams (the NBC guy) and love

Because it’s Valentine’s Day, I’m not going to write about romantic love.

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I’m thinking about another kind of love. I’m thinking about the love that comes from celebrity, and what it can do to a person. In the back of my mind is the story of Narcissus, falling in love with his own reflection. I promise this will relate to Jane Austen, eventually.

The story of the NBC journalist Brian Williams who lied about his time in Iraq caught my eye this week. In an article in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote:

There’s something sad in Brian Williams’s need to puff up his Iraq adventures.

The sad part is the reminder that no matter how high you go in life and no matter how many accolades you win, it’s never enough. The desire for even more admiration races ahead. Career success never really satisfies. Public love always leaves you hungry.

I was really struck by this – especially the phrase “public love always leaves you hungry”.

It made me think about the different kinds of love that we need, and the different kinds of love that we crave.

Recently I had a miniscule taste of that celebrity feeling. When I launched my book Becoming Mary on Amazon there was quite a rush on sales, and I got extremely over-excited, casting the film, quitting my day job, lying awake all night with my heart pounding, checking my sales figures every few minutes (that’s actually not an exaggeration).

Inevitably the number of sales tailed off somewhat, and I found myself really missing that excited feeling. I’d been floating high in a fantasy balloon, and reality had punctured it, and the withered balloon was drifting back down to earth with me inside it. Boo hoo.

[On the plus side, I’m now sleeping better and eating less chocolate.]

Despite the smallness of my 15 minutes of fame, what I observed in myself was a hit of this craving for the excitement of being admired, that had got stirred up in me. I wanted more and more of it, and when it went, I felt deflated and a bit gloomy. I wondered how I could get it back.

Something then resonated with me on hearing about Brian Williams and his stupid lie.

I could imagine how he might allow himself to make that lie. I think any of us might recognise that moment of slippage – you’re telling an anecdote, and you embellish it just a little bit, add some hyperbole, make yourself look a tad better, overstate your part in something, add that fabulous one-liner as though you’d actually said it at the time.

Gradually you could forget the true story, because the new one is funnier and more interesting. It’s so tempting to believe the myths we tell about ourselves. In Brian Williams’ case the myth was that he was as courageous and active as the soldiers.

I think it’s hard to let go of celebrity love – this “public love”. The feeling of receiving it is intoxicating. It’s delicious – but unfortunately it’s delicious in the way that junk food is delicious – tasty, fatty, sugary and ultimately unsatisfying. It leaves you full but hungry, and in your heart of hearts (now lined with cholesterol), you know it isn’t nourishing, and you know it won’t last.

That’s the kind of love that any of us might crave – in small ways and not so small ways. It makes us feel good, big and clever and exciting.

But there’s another kind of love that we need. It’s a much more ordinary thing – more sustained and more sustaining. It’s not about worship and adulation, it’s open-eyed, realistic, aware of the good, the bad and the indifferent but reliably there nonetheless. If the narcissistic love is junk food, the other kind of love is the one that comes with hot-dinners and eat-your-greens.

When I thought about Mary Bennet, and why she’s like she is, both in Pride and Prejudice, and in my continuation, it seems to me that she craves her version of that celebrity love – she seeks satisfaction in admiration and praise, which she wants to garner by her musical performances and her displays of erudition. The myth she constructs about herself, is that she is wise, knowledgeable and a seriously good musician – and rather superior to others.

In her case, she turns to this narcissistic love, because there is such a shortage of the other kind of love. She really doesn’t know what else to do to get something. She has nothing that either of her parents value – no wit, no beauty – she’s not even very good at music. Her sisters have paired off, Jane with Lizzy, Kitty with Lydia, and there is nobody in the family for her. She’s lonely, neglected and thoroughly unlikeable.

What I did in my novel was take this Mary, and bring her to the point where she realises that she has been chasing a shadow, that what she was seeking was not the love that she truly needed, and she has to start the painful journey of self-knowledge, which, no doubt like Brian Williams, will include much remorse and heart-searching.

But because it’s Jane Austen fan fiction, she will also find true love and live happily ever after. So that’s romantic after all.