What is the nature of Mrs. Bennet's relationship with her children, especially Elizabeth and Lydia?

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Mrs. Bennet is often criticized for her less-than-maternal behavior toward her daughters. And while she deserves some of that criticism, it is important to note the unique position in which she exists within a historical context. Mrs. Bennet has five daughters and no sons; due to an entailment, only a...

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Mrs. Bennet is often criticized for her less-than-maternal behavior toward her daughters. And while she deserves some of that criticism, it is important to note the unique position in which she exists within a historical context. Mrs. Bennet has five daughters and no sons; due to an entailment, only a male can inherit the family property, and her daughters will eventually be homeless and penniless without the aid of a husband. Mrs. Bennet desperately needs to secure marriages for five daughters and hopefully match them with men who can provide a favorable social standing as well: and potential husbands, let alone wealthy ones, aren't exactly in high supply living out in the country. Thus, she pushes and prods, intervenes and manipulates, trying to find one match after another for one daughter after another. Judging her solely from a 21st century lens isn't fair to the context of her situation. Perhaps she could have been a little less scheming in her methods, but she saw it as her duty to aid her daughters in successfully acquiring men who could provide for each of them.

Lydia is the youngest but enjoys the affections of her mother most. She is allowed to be out entertaining officers as long as she has a chaperone, and her mother comments that Lydia has "high animal spirits, and a sort of natural self-consequence." She and her mother have some similar personality traits (e.g., vanity, a strong sense of self-importance) that likely win her mother's affections.

Elizabeth and Mrs. Bennet are more often at odds, because Elizabeth won't bend easily to her mother's will. Mrs. Bennet's feelings toward her second oldest daughter are captured well in these comments found in chapter 20:

I have done with you from this very day. I told you in the library, you know, that I should never speak to you again, and you will find me as good as my word. I have no pleasure in talking to undutiful children.

Because Elizabeth isn't willing to mindlessly follow her mother's directives, Mrs. Bennet threatens to dismiss her entirely. Her comments are petty and threatening, unwilling to compromise with her daughter whom she sees as "undutiful." Elizabeth is probably the daughter least like herself and strong-willed (like her mother) in ways that her mother doesn't approve of. She doesn't value a daughter who is forward thinking and individualistic; she needs a daughter who will simply follow the path she's provided to the marriage she's chosen for her.

Mrs. Bennet's intentions are helpful, but the personality differences in her daughters affects her ability to form meaningful relationships with them individually. She prefers docile daughters who are most like herself.

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Mrs. Bennet's relationship with her daughters is not a close mother-daughter relationship. She does not care much about knowing them. Instead she sees them mostly as tools to fulfill her own self-interests. Her one and only concern is to see them married well. One reason is that wealthy marriages will ensure that the girls have fortunes after the estate is entailed and that both she and her daughters will be provided for after her husband's death. The other reason is that wealthy marriages, while increasing her daughters' social statuses, will also increase her own social status.

While Mrs. Bennet is fond of Jane, she makes it evident that her true favorite is Lydia. Mrs. Bennet is only fond of Jane because she is the most beautiful. Hence, she believes that Jane's beauty will increase her chances of marrying a wealthy man.

Lydia is described as a "favourite with their mother." She is tall, with a lovely complexion, and good-natured face. Because she is their mother's favorite she was allowed into society at the age of 15 (Ch. 9, Vol. 1). Mrs. Bennet's indulgence led to Lydia's lack of principles and disgrace. 

Although it is made clear that Elizabeth is Mr. Bennet's favorite because of her intelligence and wit, the narrator states plainly that Elizabeth is the "least dear to her[Mrs. Bennet] of all her children" (Ch. 18, Vol. 1). That is one reason why she has no objection to Elizabeth marrying Mr. Collins. Mrs. Bennet believes that he is "quite good enough for her(it)" (Ch. 18, Vol. 1).

Hence, Mrs. Bennet's relationship with her daughters is governed by her treating them as instruments to wealth and social status. Jane is the loveliest instrument, Lydia is her favorite, and Elizabeth is her least favorite.

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