PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.29, NO.1 (Winter 2008)

Mrs. Bennet’s Legacy: Austen’s Mothers in Film and Fiction



June Sturrock


June Sturrock (email: is an Emeritus Professor of English at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, and continues to teach occasionally in their Graduate Liberal Studies Program.  Her publications include about sixty articles and book chapters, Heaven and Home: Charlotte Yonge’s Domestic Fiction, and the Broadview Texts edition of Mansfield Park.


For the last year or so I have been working on Jane Austen’s families—not the Austens, the Austen-Leighs, the Leigh-Perrots, or the Knights, but the Bennets, the Dashwoods, the Elliots and so on—the many fictional families whose dynamics are crucial both to Jane Austen’s plots and to her explorations of ethical complexities.  Austen chooses to write about heroines in the context of their families.  In avoiding the orphaned heroine, her novels contrast strongly both with those of her orphan-loving female contemporaries, such as Ann Radcliffe (Emily St. Aubert) and Maria Edgeworth (Belinda), and those of her female successors, Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre, Shirley Keeldar, Caroline Helstone, Lucy Snowe) and George Eliot (Dorothea Brooke, Dinah Morris), and so on—and on.1  “Orphan” narratives are convenient for the novelist, allowing a young protagonist to experience the shocks of the world without the usual parental buffers.  For the early novelist writing of young women, this was an especially useful narrative device, as a middle-class young woman in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would normally be sheltered from the kinds of adventures necessary for the usual eighteenth- or nineteenth-century plot.  Austen, though, had different criteria in fiction from most of her contemporaries.  As a novelist, she cared intensely for the representation of what is natural, possible, and probable.2  And the most common (natural, possible, probable) early experience—the experience of surviving family life without too much damage—provides her with rich material.


Austen’s views on the usual role of parents in fiction are implied at the beginning of Northanger Abbey, where Catherine Morland’s lack of the proper qualifications for heroine-status are immediately established:  “Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her” (13).  Catherine, that is, is neither exceptionally beautiful nor exceptionally brilliant.  Her father is, unsuitably, alive, reasonably prosperous, and not even given to locking up his daughters.  As for Catherine’s mother—and mothers are my principal subject here—Mrs. Morland is evidently quite wrong for her role as heroine’s mother, being


a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution.  She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more—to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself.  (13)


The parents of a “proper” heroine would be at least sickly or hostile—or preferably dead.


Even in Austen’s novels, despite her avoidance of orphans, the only good mother is a dead mother.  That may not be precisely true, but the temptation to say it is so great that I cannot believe that I am alone in this exaggeration.  But if mothers are either dead or inefficient in their maternal role in these novels, there is a good reason, relating to what I have said about the popularity of orphan narratives.  If parents in general frustrate possible narrative developments by sheltering their daughters from adventure, mothers in particular provide an even stronger barrier.  As Susan Peck MacDonald writes, “The absence of mothers [from women’s fiction] . . . seems . . . to derive not from the impotence or unimportance of mothers, but from the almost excessive power of motherhood; the good supportive mother is potentially so powerful a figure as to prevent her daughter’s trials from occurring, to shield her from the process of maturation, and thus to disrupt the focus and equilibrium of the novel” (58).


So Austen, while giving her heroines family lives, rarely provides them with a “good supportive mother.”  Anne Elliot’s mother was clearly, as the narrative voice says, “an excellent woman” (4), but she dies when Anne is fourteen.  Eleanor Tilney’s obviously splendid mother dies when Eleanor is only thirteen.  (And the adult Anne and Eleanor both still seem like mourners.)  Emma Woodhouse loses her mother even earlier, and, as Mr. Knightley says, “‘In her mother she lost the only person able to cope with her.  She inherits her mother’s talents, and must have been under subjection to her” (37).  In all three cases it is the absence rather than the presence of the mother that is significant.  As for the living mothers, the sensible, equable, and healthy Mrs. Morland is, all the same, hardly developed as a character.  Mrs. Dashwood excels as a companion and an educator of her intelligent girls, but she spoils and misleads Marianne and undervalues Elinor.  And poor Fanny Price is maternally over-provided, with two inadequate mother figures in Mrs. Price and Lady Bertram, and one nightmare wicked stepmother in Mrs. Norris—who well deserves J. K. Rowling’s demotion of her into the form of a malevolent cat.


My focus here, though, is on the contribution of Mrs. Bennet to the pains and pleasures of her family and to the novel’s concern with marriage and with parenting.  I examine how Austen presents Mrs. Bennet in the light of how the various screen adaptations re-present her.  At least ten screen versions of Mrs. Bennet exist, but for the sake of my own sanity and my argument, I shall concentrate on three versions only:  on Mary Boland’s version in the 1940 MGM film (directed by Robert Z. Leonard, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier); on Alison Steadman’s Mrs. Bennet in the 1995 BBC/A&E miniseries (directed by Simon Langton, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth); and Brenda Blethyn’s performance in the 2005 Focus Features adaptation (directed by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen).  Two of these adaptations (1940 and 2005) present Mrs. Bennet as an affectionate mother and emphasize the warmth and unity of the Bennet family.  The third Mrs. Bennet (1995) seems perpetually on the verge of hysteria and is an obvious embarrassment to the more perceptive members of her family.  The similarities and contrasts between these recreations of Mrs. Bennet direct attention to their original as well as to the complex function of Austen’s Mrs. Bennet within the novel, my main concern in this paper.


The latest of the three versions discussed here provides what is surely the most sympathetic of all Mrs. Bennets on screen.  Because the audience’s, or reader’s, response to Mrs. Bennet is so important, I begin with her, by focusing on a brief scene that occurs in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice after Jane has become engaged to Bingley.  Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are comfortably in bed together and engage in a discussion about Jane and Bingley’s prosperity and how they will handle it, Mr. Bennet taking an ironic and Mrs. Bennet an optimistic approach.  In the novel, this dialogue occurs in public, with Jane as a participant.  Here, though, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s marital and parental affections are paramount.


© 2005 Universal Studios


In the scene of Longbourn at night, Joe Wright provides a charming moment, quite literally showing a united household, appropriate enough for a film that stresses family affection and family unity throughout.  For instance, in this adaptation we see the elder Bennets kissing and Elizabeth cuddling her mother.  Although at the Netherfield Ball, as in the novel, Mr. Bennet is shown abruptly telling Mary to stop her piano-playing, here we see him affectionately comforting her afterwards.  And, as Barbara Seeber notes, the “Special Feature” that follows the DVD includes a “Bennet Family Portrait” that emphasizes family love and unity:  the film’s producer, Paul Webster, says of the Bennets, “Love . . . runs this family,” a sentiment that is echoed in some form or another by all the speakers. 3


More especially, both cast and crew tend to emphasize Mrs. Bennet’s role in the family.  The writer of the screenplay, Deborah Moggach, talks about how much “Mrs. Bennet loves her daughters” and even describes her as “a heroic character.”  Director Joe Wright speaks of Mrs. Bennet as “an amazing mother” (meaning obviously “an amazingly good mother”).  Keira Knightley, Wright’s (if not Austen’s) Elizabeth, points out the economic pressures on a mother in Mrs. Bennet’s position to marry off her daughters.  She—or her scriptwriter—has, it seems, been reading such Austen critics as Claudia Johnson and Susan Wolfson, who argue, “Mrs. Bennet may seem only foolish, vulgar, myopic, and hysteric, but she knows that an unmarried woman is a social abject” (xix).  Accordingly, Moggach’s screenplay has Mrs. Bennet say to Elizabeth, ”When you have five daughters, tell me what else [besides marrying them off] will occupy your thoughts, and then perhaps you will understand.”  Mrs. Bennet, then, is both sweetened and justified in this particular adaptation, and Brenda Blethyn portrays this sympathetic Mrs. Bennet perfectly.


Both the family unity of the Bennets and the close relation between the Bennet parents are also emphasized in the 1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice (again, Seeber makes this point).  At the beginning of the film, Mrs. Bennet and her five daughters are seen running together through Meryton to get home with the news about Mr. Bingley’s arrival.  This was an especially successful screen-filling “sight-gag,” according to the Lydia of this version, Ann Rutherford, given that all six women were wearing anachronistic spreading crinolines, but it also indicated a unity of purpose between mother and all five daughters (Turan, “Interview” 144).  This united purpose is made plain by the film’s notorious advertising slogan:  “Bachelors Beware!  Five Gorgeous Beauties are on a Madcap Manhunt!” (Brownstein 14; Turan, “Informal History” 141).  At the end of this film, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are seen hand in hand and rejoicing in their different ways over the marriages of their daughters.4  As Ellen Belton says, this film stresses “middle-class family solidarity” (183).


As I have suggested, however, not all the screen adaptations soften the presentation of Mrs. Bennet.  In contrast to Blethyn’s “heroic” Mrs. Bennet and Mary Boland’s affectionate mother, Alison Steadman and her scriptwriter, Andrew Davies, insist on the comic dimensions of the character.5  For instance, in the scene in which Mrs. Bennet rejoices over the news that Lydia is to be married, script and actor alike stress her silliness, materialism, and inconsistency throughout, as she focuses on Lydia’s clothes, dismisses the expenses Mr. Gardiner must have incurred, and alternately berates him as “most high-handed” and praises him as a “kind brother.”


© 1995 British Broadcasting Corporation


Steadman’s energetic performance matches this adaptation’s overall emphasis on activity, movement, and vitality, but some viewers find its consistently manic quality wearing.


Before turning for a time from these three Mrs. Bennets to the novel, I should observe that I do not expect any adaptation to be precisely faithful to its source text.  A change of medium makes this impossible, as Aldous Huxley, the rather surprising co-author of the 1940 version’s screenplay, observed:  “the very fact of transforming the book into a picture must necessarily alter its very quality in a profound way” (qtd. in Brownstein 13).  And every adaptation will in some way or another, however inadvertently, reflect the historical period in which it is produced.  The 1940 and the 2005 versions of Pride and Prejudice appeared at periods of international crisis; the 1995 adaptation is the product of a period of apparent (and comparative) calm and prosperity in the West.  Any adaptation, however serious or trivial, is a cultural work in itself.  As Linda Hutcheon writes, “the morally loaded discourse of fidelity is based on the implied assumption that adapters aim simply to reproduce the adapted text.  Adaptation is repetition, but repetition without replication” (7).  Yet adaptations invariably, if we know the originating text, are seen through the lens of the originating text and direct our attention to ways in which that text can be and has been read.  We see the shadow of the original text below the substance of the adaptation.  All three of these adaptations of Pride and Prejudice have consequently led me to contemplate more closely what is happening in Jane Austen’s text in regard to the dynamics of the Bennet family and, more especially, in regard to their mother.


On the practical level of plot, the Bennet family’s failure to provide proper mutual support is crucial to Pride and Prejudice.  The Bennet family failings—all of which are, directly or indirectly, the responsibility of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet—are apparent throughout the novel.  These faults become most publicly and embarrassingly evident at the Netherfield Ball, an episode in which the comedy is acutely painful.  Mrs. Bennet speaks loudly and without shame of her designs on Bingley, Mr. Bennet restrains Mary too unkindly and too publicly, Mary displays her lack both of musicianship and of proper modesty, and Mr. Collins inevitably makes a fool of himself and his family.  We are left to imagine the outrageous rompings and flirtations of Lydia and Kitty.


These various failings are the chief “‘causes of repugnance’” (198) that concern Darcy enough to make him hesitate over Elizabeth and drive him to discourage the amenable Bingley from pursuing his courtship of Jane.  In other words, family failings delay the marriages of Jane and Elizabeth long enough to provide the novel with the necessary narrative impetus.  Elizabeth is forced to realize that “Jane’s disappointment had in fact been the work of her nearest relations” (209)—of their “folly and indecorum” (213).  In underplaying the family’s “folly and indecorum,” the narrative logic of both the 1940 and 2005 adaptations inevitably, if inadvertently, stresses the more distasteful aspect of Darcy’s pride.  Their plots rely not on his moral scruples but on the arrogance and class consciousness that make him shy away from the “Cheapside” relations of Elizabeth’s, the Gardiners, whom he will eventually come to love.


A further delay in the two principal marriage narratives is the result of Lydia’s elopement.  Austen directly associates Lydia’s behavior, which leads to her marriage to “one of the most worthless young men in Great Britain” (308) and might well have led to her ending up on the streets, with the complete lack of parental control that results from Mrs. Bennet’s indulgence and Mr. Bennet’s inertia.  Again, this connection is largely occluded in both the 1940 and 2005 versions, where Lydia’s escapade seems more the result of her youth and thoughtlessness than the inevitable outcome of her lax upbringing.  In fact, the whole plot of Pride and Prejudice can be seen as dependent on the dysfunctionality of the Bennet family.6  In changing the family dynamics, the adaptations change both plot and character.


But it is not in plot alone that Pride and Prejudice gains from the discomforts of its principal family.   Austen’s novel is deeply concerned both with the nature of marriage and (a closely related subject) the obligations of parents:  in choosing a mate one chooses one’s children’s parent.  The unsuitable marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and the uneasy interactions of the Bennet family as a whole are central to both these concerns and especially to the discussion of marriage that subtly permeates the novel.  If at the end of Pride and Prejudice Austen presents Elizabeth and Jane as justified in their expectation of married happiness, in the body of the novel she has certainly demonstrated that such a state is not easily or thoughtlessly achieved.


Jane Austen’s comedy never quite allows the satisfaction of the dreamwork’s desires,” writes Isobel Armstrong (78), and here in Pride and Prejudice, the “dreamwork’s” desire is kept in check by the sense that pervades this novel that marriage is infinitely difficult and debatable.  Charlotte Lucas’s entire function in the novel seems to be to further the discussion of marriage, and, as she is established as probably Elizabeth’s intellectual equal, her thoughts and behavior are worth our consideration.  She argues with Elizabeth over the importance of knowing one’s future spouse well before marriage, averring that “‘[h]appiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’” (23).  She herself marries Mr. Collins purely for the sake of “‘a comfortable home’” (125), and she manages her own distaste for her “irksome” (122) husband with remarkable competence.


Elizabeth’s conversations with Mrs. Gardiner also feed into the debate about sexual attraction, money and marriage:  should Elizabeth encourage the penniless (but handsome) Wickham?  Should Wickham court the rich (but freckled) Mary King?  “‘Pray, my dear aunt, what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive?’” asks Elizabeth (153).  Elizabeth’s two rejected proposals address similar concerns.  Both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy assume that Elizabeth will happily accept such a favorable position as they offer, while Elizabeth is determined not to marry without respect.  This respect she eventually comes to feel for Darcy as she realizes how happy they might have been together:  “It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved, and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance” (312).  At this point she concludes gloomily, “But no such happy marriage could now teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was” (312).  And connubial felicity, for Elizabeth, is evidently in large part (by no means entirely) a matter of intellectual, moral, and social exchange.


Austen’s representation of the Bennets’ marriage is crucial to the discussion of the nature of marriage in Pride and Prejudice.  One of the most important passages about marriage concerns Elizabeth’s feelings about her parents’ relationship.  The narrator informs us that after a marriage based entirely on sexual attraction, at least on his side, Mr. Bennet’s “[r]espect, esteem, and confidence” (236) in his wife quickly vanish, reducing her in his eyes to a mere source of amusement for her “ignorance and folly” (236)—as well as, presumably, a sexual partner.  His loss of respect for her seems to involve a loss of respect for himself. 7  Such a loss of respect may be the inevitable result of his choice; but the choice in itself was faulty, while his failure to conceal his contempt is a much less excusable fault, involving as it does a degree of cruelty.  Elizabeth recognizes “the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband,” as well as “that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible” (236).  Austen implies that marriage should be based on respect, esteem, and confidence, all of which, she suggests, come about from a degree of intellectual equality.  Marriage also demands a “decorum” that precludes making a fool of one’s spouse in front of other people, especially one’s own children, however foolish that spouse may be.  Mr. Bennet’s shame and unhappiness become apparent in one his very few serious speeches, the touching appeal to Elizabeth not to marry without love and respect:


I know your disposition, Lizzy.  I know 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.  You could scarcely escape discredit and misery.  My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.  You know not what you are about.”  (376, Austen’s emphasis)


This speech is the only direct indication Austen provides of Mr. Bennet’s unhappiness, and it is all the more touching because it shows his deep affection for Elizabeth.  It also shows the same sense of the requirements for happy marriage—intellectual equality or similarity, esteem, respect—that Elizabeth has already come to see as essential.  Love, sexual love, is vital to the narrative, but love, properly understood, includes these qualities necessary for a good marriage.


If Mr. Bennet is unhappy in his marriage, it is unlikely that his wife finds it perfectly fulfilling.  Mr. Bennet’s intellectual habits encourage him to contemplate and analyze the roots of his discomfort, thus providing a degree of solace.  Mrs. Bennet has no such resource so that her sense of unease is expressed in a more dispersed and inarticulate way, through her “‘poor nerves’” (113).  John Wiltshire sees her nervous bouts as “the correlate of her anxiety over her five unmarried daughters” (Body 20).  His arguments are convincing, but surely her (perhaps unconscious) discomfort in her marriage is an equally important source of her “‘nervous complaints’” (113).


Austen’s novel presents happiness in marriage as both highly desirable and as feasible through the achieved happiness of the Gardiners as well as the promised happiness of Jane and Bingley and Darcy and Elizabeth.  Yet, largely through the representation of the elder Bennets, happiness in marriage is also shown as a matter of difficulty and uncertainty.  This aspect of Pride and Prejudice is entirely lost in the 1940 adaptation and almost disappears in the 2005 version.  In the 1995 version, however, Andrew Davies cleverly uses the Anglican marriage service at the final double wedding to suggest, very briefly, the complex nature of marriage.  As the officiating priest speaks the words “[Holy Matrimony] . . . is not by any to be enterprised lightly or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites,” we see Mr. Bennet, who has indeed entered into marriage lightly, conscious of his wife by his side.  Then Mrs. Collins looks sideways at her husband.  The Gardiners exchange the smiling glances of a happy pair.  At the words “for the procreation of children,” the scene changes briefly to Rosings, where Lady Catherine and her daughter sit miserably together.  Again the scene changes, with the words “a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication,” to a rather sleazy bedroom, where Lydia reclines in a rumpled bed while Wickham swallows down a glass of wine.  Finally we return to Longbourn church and the two happy couples, with the words “the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.”  In the BBC/A&E adaptation, this brief scene communicates the varieties of possibility in marriage that the novel is able to explore in more detail.


© 1995 British Broadcasting Corporation


Like the nature of marriage, the related issues of parental obligation and parental failure are recurrent concerns of Pride and Prejudice.  Mr. Darcy comes to realize that his parents, good though they were, “‘allowed, encouraged, almost taught [him] to be selfish and overbearing’” (369).  Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s surplus of confidence, energy, and willpower seems to have reduced her daughter to a silent and feeble cipher.  Mr. Collins’s natural inadequacies have explicitly been made worse by “an illiterate and miserly father” (70).  But again, it is the older Bennets, naturally, whose parental faults receive the most careful scrutiny.  Their failures as parents are placed in relation to their marital failures, their lack of “conjugal felicity [and] domestic comfort” (236), in a marriage without “[r]espect, esteem, and confidence” (236).  Elizabeth is well aware of “the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage” (236).


Austen represents Mrs. Bennet’s parental weaknesses in a fairly conventional way, as the stuff of comedy.  Austen is dealing here with a known trope of the period.  Thomas Gisborne, a conduct writer whom Austen admired (30 August 1805), writing in 1797, deplores “a scheming eagerness” of parents “respecting the settlement of their daughters in marriage” (388) and, more specifically, warns that “the forward advances and studied attentions of the mother to young men of fortune whom she wishes to call her sons-in-law, are often in the highest degree distressing to her daughters as well as offensive to the other parties; and in many cases actually prevent attachments, which would otherwise have taken place” (392-93).  Pride and Prejudice presents a comic enactment of this generalization.  Despite the fact that she has made their marriages “the business of her life,” as Roger Gard says, “Mrs. Bennet’s behaviour has almost cost both her older daughters their future husbands” (116).  A third daughter—her favorite—is affected by her bungling attempts to marry them all off.  Given the middle-class mores of the period, she jeopardizes Lydia’s marriageability in endangering her respectability.


As I have shown, the 2005 adaptation recognizes the undeniable fact that Mrs. Bennet has an economic reason for her scheming.  However, in her anxieties over this one concern—possibly exacerbated by Mr. Bennet’s economic irresponsibility—she grossly over-simplifies both her daughters’ needs and her own responsibilities as a parent.  Moreover, she acts on this solitary perception very ineffectively.  Certainly she has at the end of the novel “‘Three daughters married!’” (378), but at various points in the novel it has looked as if two of those daughters would remain unhappily unmarried and the third end up as a prostitute—largely because of their mother’s over-eagerness.  While Mr. Bennet’s flaws as a father are equal to those of his wife as a mother, they are less conventional, less conventionally treated, and less explicit than hers are.  But his negligence and selfishness are beyond my scope in this paper.


Pride and Prejudice ends joyfully with the happiness of Jane and Elizabeth in their marriages, but neither marriage nor parenting is a simple matter in this novel.  Austen’s high comedy allows her to present this important part of human life as a serious matter.  The uneasy marriage of the Bennets and the resulting divisions within the family provide both laughter and food for thought.  The 2005 and the 1940 adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, partly through their treatment of Mrs. Bennet, emphasize both married happiness and family happiness.  They also underplay the changes that happen within Elizabeth’s own mind:  there is no occasion when she exclaims, “‘Till this moment, I never knew myself’” (208).  The result is that the choice of a mate never seems as serious a matter as it does in the novel.  Earlier I quoted Isobel Armstrong’s comment that Austen never quite allows us “the satisfaction of the dreamwork’s desires.”  The 1940 and 2005 adaptations seem to me to allow as fully as possible “the dreamwork’s desires”—the very common dreamwork of a fate that places one in a large and happy family with loving parents and provides a perfect mate.  Perhaps in time of war and uncertainty, such as the 1940s or the beginning of our own unhappy century, the dream of domestic stability is especially attractive.


As for the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, it certainly does not sweeten Mrs. Bennet, and to that extent it can be regarded as taking a more Austenian approach to the question of marriage and parenthood.  However, the “dreamwork” of this adaptation, though it differs from that of the other two, is still present, and it provides a very different understanding of marriage from the novel’s.  Ellen Belton sees the very ending of this adaptation—the long-awaited kiss between Elizabeth and Darcy—as confirming “the primacy of the romantic relationship over other claims and valoriz[ing] the drive toward individual fulfillment and gratification,” and as typical of “the decade that produced Bill Gates” (186).  Perhaps:  the producer of this version, Sue Birtwistle, said of Pride and Prejudice, “it’s principally about sex and it’s about money; these are the driving motives of the plot” (v).8  And these are, or were, certainly the means of “individual fulfillment and gratification” in the 1990s.  Certainly the ending matches the emphasis in this adaptation on the physical and the sexual and especially on the desirable bodies of Jennifer Ehle/Elizabeth and Colin Firth/Darcy.  In the novel the attraction between Elizabeth and Darcy is implicit in every exchange between them, but it is only part of a relationship that brings about great changes in both their lives, socially and intellectually as well as personally.9


All three adaptations discussed here have their own charm, both visual and narrative.  Austen’s novel, however, unlike these adaptations, addresses the intellect and the moral sense as well as the emotions, and it does so in part by appealing to its readers through central characters—Elizabeth and Darcy—who have lively intellects and a sensitive and developing moral sense.  Austen’s Mrs. Bennet significantly lacks these qualities.  An adaptation, such as those of 1940 and 2005, that, for whatever egalitarian reason, occludes this fact or dismisses it as irrelevant creates a meaning quite different from that of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  Equally different is the meaning of an adaptation such as that of 1995, which, while underlining Mrs. Bennet’s folly, diminishes the viewer’s sense of Elizabeth as a young woman whose mental and moral energy is as great as her physical vitality.  Crucially in this novel Elizabeth both is and is not her mother’s daughter—as we all both are and are not the offspring of our own parents.




All clips used in this essay satisfy the criteria for fair use established in Section 107 of the Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code.


1. Jane Nardin, among others, points out the absence of this common narrative device in Austen’s novels (73).


2. In a letter to Cassandra, Austen writes about Mary Brunton’s Self-Control as “an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it.  I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does” (11-12 October 1813).


3. My critique of the 1940 and the 2005 screen versions is similar to Seeber’s, but while her argument stresses how they “undo Austen’s critique of the patriarchal family,” I am more interested in how they present a simplistic version of marriage and parenthood.


4. For discussion of the 1940 adaptation see Belton (177-86), Brownstein (13-15), and both brief items by Turan.


5. I find it interesting that Steadman and Blethyn, two of the many superb actors who have worked closely with the brilliant British director Mike Leigh, provide such different readings of this character.


6. Paula Bennett has also described the family as “dysfunctional” (134).


7. Karl Kroeber sees Mr. Bennet as suffering from “psychological self-injury” and “profound self-disgust” (153).


8. John Wiltshire quotes this comment in Recreating Jane Austen (99).


9. For discussion of the erotics of Austen’s fiction, see McMaster (passim).




Armstrong, Isobel.  Sense and Sensibility.  London: Penguin, 1994.

Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

_____.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1997.

Belton, Ellen.  “Two Film Versions of Pride and Prejudice.”  Jane Austen on Screen.  Ed. Gina Macdonald and Andrew F. Macdonald.  Cambridge: CUP, 2003.  175-96.

Bennett, Paula.  “Family Plots: Pride and Prejudice as a Novel about Parenting.”  Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice  Ed. Marcia McClintock Folsom.  New York: MLA, 1998. 134-39.

Birtwistle, Sue, and Susie Conklin.  The Making of Pride and Prejudice.  London: Penguin, 1995.

Brownstein, Rachel.  “Out of the Drawing Room, Onto the Lawn.”  Jane Austen in Hollywood.  Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield.  Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1998.  13-21.

Fergus, Jan.  ”Sex and Social Life in Jane Austen’s Novels.”  Jane Austen in a Social Context.  Ed. David Monaghan.  London: Macmillan, 1981.  66-85.

Gard, Roger.  Jane Austen’s Novels: The Art of Clarity.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1992.

Gisborne, Thomas.  An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex.  Ed. Gina Luria.  New York: Garland, 1974.

Hutcheon, Linda.  A Theory of Adaptation.  New York: Routledge, 2006.

Johnson, Claudia L., and Susan J.Wolfson.  “Introduction.”  Pride and Prejudice.  New York: Longman, 2003.  xiv-xxiv.

Kroeber, Karl.  “Pride and Prejudice: Fiction’s Lasting Novelty.”  Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays.  Ed. John Halperin.  Cambridge: CUP, 1975.  144-55.

Langton, Simon, dir.  Pride and Prejudice.  DVD.  BBC/A&E, 1995.

Leonard, Robert Z., dir.  Pride and Prejudice. DVD.  MGM, 1940.

MacDonald, Susan Peck.  “Jane Austen and the Tradition of the Absent Mother.”  The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature.  Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and E. M. Broner.  New York: Ungar, 1980.  58-69.

McMaster, Juliet.  Jane Austen on Love.  Victoria: U of Victoria P, 1978.

Nardin, Jane.  “Children and their Families.”  Jane Austen: New Perspectives.  Ed. Janet Todd.  New York: Holmes, 1983.  73-87.

Seeber, Barbara K.  “A Bennet Utopia: Adapting the Father in Pride & Prejudice.”  Persuasions On-Line 27.2 (2007).

Turan, Kenneth.  “Interview with Ann Rutherford (Lydia), Marsha Hunt (Mary), and Karen Morley (Charlotte Lucas).”  Persuasions 11 (1989): 143-50.

_____.  Pride and Prejudice: An Informal History of the Garson-Olivier Motion Picture.”  Persuasions 11 (1989): 140-43.

Wiltshire, John.  Jane Austen and the Body: The Picture of Health.  Cambridge: CUP, 1992.

_____.  Recreating Jane Austen.  Cambridge: CUP, 2001.

Wright, Joe, dir.  Pride & Prejudice.  DVD.  Focus Features, 2005.

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