Marriage and literary fatherhood
I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage … My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
One cannot have a week’s focus on fathers in literature without a mention of Mr Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Though he is not the nicest of men – in fact his relationship with his wife is downright dysfunctional – Mr Bennet does love does love his daughter. The problem is however, that Lizzy (Elizabeth) Bennet is one of five daughters, and he doesn’t particularly care for the others. And he is fairly honest about this fact.
When Mrs Bennet, in one of her more hysterical moments exclaims that he is “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving [her] the preference”, he replies matter-of-factly:
They have none of them much to recommend them…they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.”
For this and many other reasons, of all the fathers I’ve talked about this week, Mr Bennet is the one most unlike my father. For example, Mr Bennet merely tolerates his marriage, which seems to have been undertaken in haste – a choice he has regretted ever since. Mrs Bennet, he feels, has a “weak understanding and illiberal mind” and it seems that her youth and beauty have faded fast. My father still adores my mother and respects her intellect – and they’ve been married since 1970.
Mr Bennet has also not put much faith in economy. Having expected that a son would pull the family out of financial pressure, he is most put out to have only had daughters. It’s not surprising, really, that his wife is so set on marrying them off to secure financially beneficial alliances, even Lizzy to her unctuous cousin Mr Collins. Mr Bennet’s response to this ploy?
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.”
This reaction, perhaps, is his saving grace – that he is not prepared for his daughter to travel the same road of an unhappy marriage. And so when she decides she wants to be with Mr Darcy, he has the perfect response:
I cannot believe that anyone can deserve you… but it appears I am overruled. So, I heartily give my consent. I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy.”
My father’s reaction, on the hand was long-distance, as my husband proposed to me in Australia in Coober-Pedy, but that’s another story.
With regard to fathers I talked about this week William, Daniel LeBlanc and Atticus Finch, Mr Bennet is the only one who is still with his partner, and it doesn’t seem to have worked out too well for him. He survives mostly by reading a lot of books and using sarcasm. Despite this, he is a memorable and comical character who ultimately wants the best for Elizabeth.
What other Regency period literary fathers caught your imagination?