Does Mrs Bennet need to be unreconstructed now?

To celebrate Mother’s Day: Mrs Bennet – the mother we love to hate

Every film or TV series of a novel set in the past recreates the novel through the lens of its own time.

Hence all these different Mrs Bennets. In the earlier adaptations she was strident, silly and money-grabbing, the coldness between her and Mr Bennet easily understandable – his cool rationality set against her hypochondria and hysteria.Mr-and-Mrs-Bennet-jane-austens-couples-14290545-499-281

These early incarnations of Mrs Bennet were misogynist creations, close to the mother-in-law stereotype, the Hyacinth Bouquet figure, the classic ridiculous middle-aged woman, beloved of sit-coms and old-school stand-ups, with her risible clinging to her lost youth, her faded looks, her ‘nerves’ and her slow brains, easily outwitted by her smart-arse husband and daughters (see…. this blog post…for my deconstruction of Mr Bennet – no more Mr Nice Guy).

Then in the more recent adaptations – the 2005 film, and also Lost in Austen – the reconstruction sets in. A feminist take on history is evident in the characterisation – Mrs Bennet’s venality and obsession with getting her daughters married is now to be sympathised with from a 21st-century standpoint: after all, what choices did women have in those benighted times?

Brenda Blethyn has some of the silliness, but she is also earthy, fully conscious of the social position of women, and surprisingly has a full sexual relationship with her husband, and even gets some love from Lizzy.lizzy and mrs b 2005

In the highly knowing Lost in Austen, a time-travel take on the novel, we get the most powerful, the most politically aware, and definitely the most genuinely sexy Mrs Bennet in the storming Alex Kingston

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But what of Jane Austen herself? Jane Austen was not sentimental, she was not a feminist and in my view she wasn’t really romantic, even though her books are all love stories that end happily ever after.

All the characters, even the romantic leads, are seen through her piercing eye. She is interested in the lives of her female characters but she has no sympathy to spare for Mrs Bennet and her fate. In fact, women of a certain age often suffer badly from Austen’s sharp satire: Miss Bates in Emma, Mrs Musgrove in Persuasion with her “large fat sighings” (over the death of her son mind you – that’s how sympathetic Jane Austen was).

Despite the prince/pauper match-up of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane Austen does not question the structure of social class of her time. She doesn’t pity Mrs Bennet’s dilemma and possible fate, she simply creates a believable caricature and skewers her with pithy dismissive remarks. (“She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”)

The Mrs Bennet of the book is not a struggling realist, she is not a devoted mother or a sexually active wife: she is a caricature – she is vapid, empty and cruel, a neglectful mother, narcissistic, irresponsible, hypocritical and – well, just stupid.

I can understand why recent adaptors have wanted to flesh Mrs Bennet out: mothers today have careers, incomes, we read books, we even read Jane Austen. Middle-aged women are bound to be a big chunk of the audience for any Pride and Prejudice adaptation, and middle-aged women today do not care to see ourselves depicted as silly, greedy and hysterical. Also, in our post-Freudian world, we are all interested in motivation, in why people are the way they are. In my Mary Bennet sequel, I took an even more caricatured character and decided to turn her into someone real. And of course my novel is informed by my contemporary understanding of and obsession with psychology and child development.

It doesn’t ultimately matter whether the adaptations are true to the book: in fact, they can’t be. The context in which Austen lived and thought is almost completely foreign to us now. The wonderful scene in Lost in Austen, when Mr Darcy suddenly finds himself in modern Piccadilly Circus gives a sense of how far apart our societies are, despite some superficial similarities. (I wish there was a pic that showed the shock on his face)lost-in-austen-episode-four-mr-darcy-in-2008-sonya-heaney

Despite my purist tendencies, I pretty much love all the P&P adaptations, including P&P and Zombies, though I can probably dispense with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. I look forward to what the adaptors of the 2020s come up with. After all –

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The whole Mr Darcy wet shirt thing: why ‘Becoming Mary’ isn’t about that.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that Mr Darcy wet shirt thing. In fact I love it so much, here’s a photo of it.

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(hmm shirt is actually dry here, but never mind)

You know what, looking for that inspired me to post this one too – the “look of love” across the drawing-room at Pemberley

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(God I love that moment. Can’t actually count how many times I watched it.)

So yeh, I really loved the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, had a massive crush on Colin Firth, and he and Jennifer Ehle remain my preferred actors for Darcy and Elizabeth (having said that I loved Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadyen too and that whole film).

But. But. (Sorry back to the point….) I have also loved the book ever since it ruined my life when I was 13 years old. (Yes Jane Austen, thanks, thanks a bunch for ruining my life. I mean it. Ruined. Totally. Ruined.)

And like so many people out there, I really couldn’t bear that the book was over. So I decided I’d better write a sequel. I think  probably the only way for me to write is to write the book I want to read that I wish someone else had written. I still wish someone else had written it, dammit.

So back to the wet shirt thing. It is my contention that it is the wet shirt scene in the 1995 BBC adaptation of P and P that spawned the whole P and P sequel industry. Of which I have read and enjoyed much.

However, the book I wanted to write was less about sexual fantasies, enjoyable as they are, and more about what happens after “happily ever after”. When I was first thinking about it, I was in a cynical mood, probably at the tail end of one of my marriages, and I had mean thoughts about the Darcys, along the lines of ‘yeh, well, they may love each other now, but we’ll see what happens when the honeymoon period’s over’ etc etc. However, when I started to write, I realised that however much of a realist (read cynic) I am, I could not spoil the Darcys relationship, even in fiction. So that’s when the idea gradually came to me about how Mary might try to do so, seeing as she suffers from the same envy and bitterness that I was feeling at the time.

I suppose I wanted to explore how Mary goes from that  state of envy and bitterness to something even more painful, a realisation of the cause of her own envy, the lack of love in her own life, and then a realisation of the horrible and potentially destructive thing she has done to disguise and relieve her feelings. It’s an age-old sequence: if you can’t have something, first of all pretend you didn’t want it anyway, and then try to ruin it for the people who do have it.  Ouch.

Sound vaguely familiar to anyone else?

Here’s a scene from near the end of the novel, when Mary is full of remorse and is discussing it with “someone”. Hopefully no spoilers.

I took a deep breath and spoke in a rush. “I have destroyed the marriage of Mr and Mrs Darcy!”

“Mary, no! How can you say so? If ever there were two people who loved each other and will love each for ever, it is your sister Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. They could not be more devoted.”

“I know, I know! They were! But you have observed, I know you have, the cold looks he has given her. I have done this; I have poisoned his ears with lies. At least, I did not know they were lies, but I have filled his head with slander and untruth about Lizzy, and now he does not love her any longer, and their lives are ruined and it is all my doing.”

I yielded to a burst of sobbing that lasted at least five minutes.

“But Mary,” Mr Someone said when I had calmed somewhat,  “if you were genuinely mistaken about these lies, then of course that will be understood. If someone has misled you, it is not your fault.”

“No! No! I was not misled! Nobody lied to me; it was my own imagination, my own black and distrustful mind that invented it all. And now my poor sister will never be happy again!”

“Oh dear, this is certainly all very terrible. But I know Darcy, have known him for years, and a fairer-minded man does not exist. He will not blame you for your errors, and he will certainly be reconciled with Mrs Darcy, if indeed they have become seriously estranged, which I beg leave to doubt.”

I shook my head. “I know you are trying to comfort me, but it has gone too far for forgiveness – and anyway, I do not wish to be forgiven. I do not deserve to be. I only hope they can find a way to recover, so that the damage I have done can be repaired.”

He took my hand and held it. “Well, Mary, I think you may be proved wrong, and you will find that these misunderstandings can be cleared up by such rational people as your sister and brother. Meanwhile, if they do cast you off and you need shelter, I have been told that old Mr Jackson’s grandson who works the bellows on a Sunday no longer wishes to do so, so there is a vacancy there for a strong young person such as yourself.”