disadvantage to us all

Category: Education | Type: Discussion | Title: Pride and Prejudice (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Ch: Chapter 41

This statement goes to the novel's core and directs our attention back to "respectability," which is contingent upon an entire family's behavior.

The conduct of an imprudent child, especially a girl, stigmatizes both siblings and parents. For were they not all raised by the same parents and in similar circumstances? The supposition is that a combination of poor breeding and negligent child-rearing caused the behavior, and what applies to one then applies to all.

Elizabeth's disagreement with her father that begins, "Indeed you are mistaken" (itself a forceful statement to her father) and alludes to "our respectability in the world" is an indirect criticism of his lazy, negligent practice as a parent and as a husband whose responsibility it was to improve his wife. Yet his interest has always been "peace at Longbourn," which is to say his being left in peace in his library, blithely indifferent to what is going on anywhere else in the house. His defense that Lydia "cannot grow many degrees worse, without authorizing us to lock her up," sounds playful enough but is nearly criminal in a parent.

How, in fact, did Lydia get to be that way? Austen, without directly criticizing Mr. Bennet (she has a soft spot for most fathers), asks us to think through the motives, responsibilities, and ramifications of his behavior as the pater familias (as Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park, facing a somewhat analogous situation, must do). This is all the more important because Austen's novels center on marriage, which will likely result in children. Affection is the occasion for marrying, but the purpose is the having and raising of children who will perpetuate the best values of a stable social order and who in turn will make sensible marriages and raise their children responsibly.

In Austen immoral conduct is only in a limited sense innate. Children are fundamentally amoral, which means they must be shaped and improved, lest amoral become immoral in the public world. Mrs. Bennet, seeing in Lydia a reminder of her own youthful sexuality, has condoned it, and Lydia has been happy to model herself on her mother's recollected self. There appear to be innate differences among Jane, Elizabeth, and Mary (Jane's sobriety and selflessness, Elizabeth's intelligence, Mary's bookishness) that incline them to good sense. Lydia's "exuberant spirits" (her native "animal spirits") and fatuous interests have gone unchecked.

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