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:
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.