MR BENNET IN BATH
Ladies and gentlemen, admirers of Jane and lovers of literature, please be upstanding as I propose a toast to the true hero of Pride and Prejudice - and of possibly the entire Austen canon. Yes, I give you … Mr Bennet!
Indeed. For who else can compare with the Sage Seer of Longbourn, that Witty King of Herts, that most rueful of husbands, fathers and philosophers?
No character from the pen of Miss Austen is a mere cypher or convenient foil. Even the haughty stuff shirts and dissembling charmers have beguiling depths. But for rueful complexities, admirable strengths and regretful weaknesses, Mr Bennet is surely as alone as he likes to be in his library.
I have long been his admirer, mostly for the delicious wit, but it wasn’t until I decided to star him in a short story that I properly worked out the attractions of as rounded a character as you will encounter in fiction, portrayed by Miss Austen with an affection that triumphantly survives her beady acknowledgement of his failings. I would add that you don’t have to be a father of a certain type yourself to admire Mr Bennet, but it certainly helps.
In my story, Mr Bennet is reluctantly persuaded by the constant chorus of his wife and varyingly importunate daughters to abandon the happy quiet of his library in favour of a visit to Bath.
This is my summary of the great man, with copious apologies to the great lady:
“Some called him a cynic. But like most of the type, he used his world-weary and well-worked witticisms to conceal a deep sentimentality, especially about himself. He thought the world most remiss in not recognising his singular merits despite making no efforts to promote them. He thought he had been most unlucky in his wife, whose interests and intellect were not as his, even though it had been his own free choice to marry her because she was so damn sexy.
“He thought his daughters less than loving even though he kept them at a distance with his teasing and mock-despair of them. He thought his estate disappointingly unproductive when he took no measures to improve it. And so he spent most of his time in his library, waiting for he was not sure what, while working occasionally on various projects yet to be properly pursued.
“Nevertheless, he had his merits. He was clever, with an unusual turn of mind. He could indeed be witty. He was loyal, given to acts of quiet kindness, and surprisingly tolerant of his wife, who could be in turns repetitive, irritating, irritating and repetitive; for her part, she tolerated his mockery because she remembered his tenderness in private and still hoped to enjoy it again, even though she was now not so damn sexy.”
Given such a character, it is another feature of Miss Austen’s wizardry that, when the great crisis of Lydia and Wickham erupts, she contrives to make his feebleness not only a surprise, but also makes us feel sorry for him. And how much easier and predictable it would have been to transform him into the hero of the hour! Not for the first time you wonder how much of the Reverend George Austen there is in Mr Bennet.
It was those feelings of sympathy aroused that decided me to give Mr Bennet some fun in Bath, to take him out of the room with books where he has so predictably closeted himself, and to provide him with an adventure.
But first there is the remembrance of another, earlier incident, of when he was young. Obviously I cannot give too much away, but among the characters he encounters are Dr Johnson, James Boswell and that notorious Bath highwayman, Sixteen String Jack Rann.
From there we move to his present day, and an escape from the back window of the house - unsurprisingly in Gay Street - and back down to the famous Pelican inn, which stood where now the Hilton Hotel still waits for us to learn to love it.
Of his mixed emotions, surprise, delight, bravery and sensibility, I can assure you; as I can of his narrow escape from a dreadful fate even worse than having to make small talk with Fitwilliam Darcy, take tea a deux with Lady Catherine de Bourg, or witness Mr Collins meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Mention of Fitzwilliam reminds me to confess to a further outrageously impudent piece of interference: I have given Mr Bennet a first name! Gordon and Alan had their merits, but in the end I plumped for Anthony, which has a nice euphony and the advantage of suggesting the debonair charm of the noted popular singer of standards. Also, it entertained me to imagine the perceptible uplift of Mrs Bennet’s husband's eyebrows at such a liberty. And Miss Austen’s, together with, I hope, the trace of a smile.