Writing Mr Bennet
It has been posited that of all Jane Austen’s characters, in life she was most like Mr Bennet. Although Jane could be as girly as the next woman, and is seen to be so in the surviving letters to her sister Cassandra, scholars see much of Mr Bennet’s detachment and enjoyment of human folly in Jane Austen’s keen observations of her fellow creatures. Jane took great joy in standing aside and watching personal dramas unfold. Something in life or her nature gave her a tendency to cynicism, and she could, if sufficiently provoked, express a hearty sarcasm for the foibles of others, and even herself.
Many authors of Jane Austen Fan Fiction have taken a thorough dislike to Mr Bennet, but I cannot. I adore him. Yes, his desultory attitude towards his younger daughters, and his tormenting of his wife (oh, c’mon…she deserves it), are annoying to some, but he adores and appreciates Elizabeth, and for that alone I am always disposed to regard him favorably.
Because The Red Chrysanthemum draws inspiration from both the canon as well as the 1995 BBC production’s screenplay, readers should keep the shrewd and bright-eyed performance of Benjamin Whitrow in mind as they read my Mr Bennet. There we see a Mr Bennet who has accepted his lot in life, that he married because his head was turned by a pretty face and one presumes he proposed to Frances Gardiner, as she was born, impulsively and romantically, and perhaps with more eloquence than could be appreciated by his betrothed. I like to think Mr Bennet swept his wife off her feet as they courted, and himself into the bargain!
Given enough time undisturbed in his library, Mr Bennet can bear the vagaries of a female household with amused equanimity. His dearest daughter achieves the same result by taking long, vigorous walks. What he cannot bear is that his Elizabeth find herself in a predicament similar to his…making due and hiding from the unpleasantness of a passionless marriage.
In TRC we see Mr Bennet at his best through letters, which were great fun to write. Although described in the canon as a lackluster and unambitious correspondent, in this story he must respond quickly, and does. We get to witness his thoughts as he receives two unexpected letters from Pemberley, as well as a surprising letter from his brother-in-law, Edward Gardiner. In formulating his answers, Mr Bennet is well aware the happiness of his two eldest daughters hangs in the balance, and in one case more than the other, knowing the right thing to say is not obvious. In taking Jane into his confidence, we have a chance to hear Jane’s loving but clear-eyed opinion of Lizzy, and Mr Bennet’s eyes are opened to the inherent wisdom lurking behind Jane’s steady sangfroid.
So as you read TRC, remember Mr Bennet is represented here by an author always ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, as long as Elizabeth’s happiness is his foremost goal.