What Is A Mother To Do?
By Lucy Marin, author of Mrs Bennet Makes A Match
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen introduces us to Mrs Bennet by saying that, “[t]he business of her life was to get her daughters married”. Any casual reader of the novel knows this to be true, and in Mrs Bennet Makes A Match, I played up this fact. Mrs Bennet encourages Mr Bingley to finally marry Jane when he returns to the neighbourhood in autumn 1812, but the novella is centred around her attempts to get Elizabeth and Mr Darcy married after she realizes he has an interest in her. Yet for all that Mrs Bennet wanted to get her daughters married—going so far to rejoice when Lydia marries Mr Wickham, despite her young age and the scandalous path to matrimony she took—does she actually help her daughters find good husbands and be prepared for their lives as wives and mothers?
In Austen’s time, mothers were responsible for raising and educating their daughters, at least until they went to school, which many of them did not. Once daughters entered society, mothers would be responsible for their daughters’ interactions with gentlemen and ensuring they made good matches. Simply put, mothers were expected to ensure their daughters were prepared for their future lives, and for women of the Bennets’ social station, that meant getting married, keeping their husband’s home, and raising his children.
A variety of women besides the biological mother might fulfil some of the ‘maternal’ role: aunts, grandmothers, stepmothers, governesses, and possibly even servants, such as nannies and housekeepers. Thus, we might imagine a motherly role for the Darcy children being played by Mrs Reynolds after the death of Lady Anne Darcy.
In wealthier families, a governess might be hired to instruct all the young children in a family, including the boys, until they went off to school. Thus, they would take on the role of teacher to daughters. If the girls remained at home, their governess might remain with them to oversee their development until they were ready to enter society. The education provided by governesses tended to be more general in nature, and a variety of masters might be hired to supplement what she could do for her charges, particularly to teach subjects such as music, dancing, and drawing—all useful for attracting male attention and to help women pass the long hours spent at home with little else to occupy their time. In the absence of a governess, the burden of overseeing all of this would fall on the mother.
What would—or should—Mrs Bennet have taught her beloved daughters?
Proper etiquette would certainly have been an important subject for all young ladies. What is interesting in Pride and Prejudice, and in other Austen novels, is the differences we see in daughters from the same family. The three Elliot girls in Persuasion are dissimilar, and while some of it is undoubtedly due to their natures, it seems likely part of it is because of how they were raised. In Pride and Prejudice, we can comprehend just how different children from the same family can be. Why do Jane and Elizabeth seem so much older, respectable, and
sensible than their three younger sisters? There is not that much of an age gap, and with all five daughters being out in society—to Lady Catherine’s astonishment—they are all supposed to be adults; after all, being out signals a young lady is ready for marriage. Mary, Kitty, and Lydia all show that they have not learnt proper etiquette, meaning the rules of proper behaviour in society. Did Mrs Bennet simply give the older two more attention, perhaps growing less and less interested in her children, and more prone to nerves, as each new baby was another girl rather than the longed-for boy? Mrs Bennet shows no sign of understanding (or Mr Bennet of caring) that the behaviour of three of her children raised eyebrows. Indeed, I can imagine Mrs Bennet believing she had done a fine job with Kitty and Lydia; after all, they have plenty of dance partners and both are very popular with the officers (especially Lydia).
Given the importance of getting her daughters married, a mother would want to ensure her girls met eligible gentlemen. Village life, such as that experienced by the Bennets, did not allow for meeting many new people, which explains why Mrs Bennet rejoices when Netherfield Park is let by a single, wealthy young man. He is a potential husband for one of her girls! She informs her husband that, “You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.” But waiting for a Mr Bingley or Mr Darcy—or even a camp full of officers, who were unlikely to have the means of marrying—to come into the neighbourhood was taking a significant risk. At the time, there were more young women looking for husbands than there were men to marry them, thanks in part to the ongoing war with Napoleon, and in the countryside, encountering potential spouses would be far more difficult than doing so in a large town or city. Thus, when possible, families would want to take their daughters to town for the Season. The Bennets could not afford that, but even outside of high society, London afforded far greater opportunities to meet new people than did the countryside. Going to a resort town would be another option. By not exposing at least Jane and Elizabeth, already twenty-two and twenty, to a wider society, the Bennets are decreasing their chances of marrying. Fortunately, two wealthy, single gentlemen come to Meryton and recognize the quality of the eldest two, despite their disorganized, neglected education.
Young ladies needed to learn an assortment of practical skills. What these were varied depending on their social and economic status, but mothers would teach them feminine pastimes such as needlework, basic literacy, and the rudiments of household management. No doubt even Kitty and Lydia learnt to read and do some arithmetic—if only because it was important when shopping for new bonnets—but for anything beyond this simple education, we are left to wonder. Elizabeth’s conversation with Lady Catherine when they first meet becomes particularly interesting when considering this point. Upon hearing the Bennets had no governess, Lady Catherine says, “Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.” In response, Elizabeth only smiles and assures her it wasn’t so. Was this because Mrs Bennet simply spent little time on it? I suspect yes. I cannot entirely blame her; we are told she was of ‘mean understanding and little information’, likely indicating she had received little education herself. How could she be expected to properly educate her daughters? Mr Bennet supplied them with books and all the necessary masters—according to what Elizabeth tells Lady Catherine—but having these available if they were wanted is not the same as being encouraged or expected to take advantage of them.
A final aspect of the education a mother would give her daughters related to keeping the house. In terms of the actual housework, what the mistress was required to do would naturally depend on income. When possible, the most tiresome, disagreeable tasks would be delegated to servants, but other essential skills for maintaining the house included cooking, cleaning, laundering, gardening, dairying, and sewing and repairing clothing. In families that could afford servants to take care of all the physical labour required, a woman would need to know how to manage servants and ensure that guests—and her husband—saw a well-ordered, well-maintained home. We never see Mrs Bennet undertake any actual housework; Mr Bennet’s income was sufficient to relieve his ladies of needing to cook or clean. Indeed, Mrs Bennet is offended when, on the day of his arrival, Mr Collins praises the dinner and asks which of his cousins helped prepare it.
What I find interesting in this example is that just nine days after Mr Collins’s arrival, Mrs Bennet insists Elizabeth accepts his offer of marriage. We know all the reasons why—he is heir to Longbourn and it is an eligible match for any of her girls—but thinking about it in light of a mother’s responsibilities to her daughters, there are a couple of clear objections. First, would Mr Collins be a good husband for Elizabeth (or any of the Bennet girls)? Would they be happy with him? Mr Bennet certainly does not think so, and neither do I (I do have one of the girls marry him in A Matter of Prudence, but it is only after changing his history a bit). Second, would any of her girls be prepared to be a successful wife to a man in Mr Collins’s position? I suspect Charlotte Lucas was more directly involved in housework than Mrs Bennet was at Longbourn, and as just mentioned, it is a source of pride to her that her daughters are free of occupations such as cooking the family’s dinner.
How well would Elizabeth have been able to manage everything expected of her as the wife of a man without an income similar to that of her father? Did Mrs Bennet prepare her daughters for the possibility of having to do actual housework? Despite Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia not needing to know how to clean, cook, tend to the kitchen garden, etc., did Mrs Bennet instruct them on how to do so? I would not be surprised if she learnt these skills as a girl, but having married a gentleman, she might have been content to forget them and imagine her girls would never require them either. (Yet, we know Lydia lived on a small income with Wickham, and Kitty’s marriage to a clergyman and Mary to one of her uncle Philip’s clerks likely meant they had greater housework responsibilities than either Jane or Elizabeth did.)
The messages our dear Jane Austen wished to impart to her readers are ones modern readers might easily overlook. When it comes to girls and education, she is less subtle. For instance, in Northanger Abbey, we can see her disapproval of the disorganized education given to the Morland children, and that theme is even more developed in Pride and Prejudice, which was written later despite being published earlier. Elizabeth is judged by her father to be less ignorant than her sisters, and she is rewarded with the biggest prize: Mr Darcy. The most ignorant daughter—the one who seems to have received the least amount of education—is Lydia, who is doomed to life as Mrs Wickham.
I do not doubt that Mrs Bennet loved her daughters, and I have tried to show that in Mrs Bennet Makes a Match, where she begins to admit some of her failures as a mother, at least to herself. But, likely due to the deficiencies of her own upbringing, she has not prepared them as well as she might have for their future roles as wives and mothers.
Adkins, R. and Adkins, L. (2013). Jane Austen’s England. Viking.
Isabelle M. Motherhood in Regency England
Mortimer, I. (2020). The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain. The Bodley Head
Olsen, K. (2008). All Things Austen. A Concise Encyclopedia of Austen’s World. Greenwood World Publishing
Hugh Thomson illustration
Charles Brock iillustration
Le Traviail, Jean-Baptiste Jules Trayer (Wikipedia Commons)
Jane Austen Centre
Gabriel Joseph de Froment, Baron de Castille (1747 - 1826) with family, unknown painter (public domain)