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In Defense of Mrs. Bennet (of All People) | By Maureen Ellen O’Leary


It is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Austenites like me need no bicentennial celebrations to send us back to the novel; the number of times I have read it rivals the number of years it’s been around. My husband has become a fan of the story as well. We own the famed A&E adaptation, with Jennifer Ehle as the enchanting Lizzy Bennet and Colin Firth as the proud but adorable Mr. Darcy, and indulge ourselves throughout the year with doses of it. Our deepest pleasure is our shared disgust with the continually fretting Mrs. Bennet. Her life is devoted to marrying off her five daughters to suitable (aka rich) husbands, and she brings to that mission the minimum of wisdom and the maximum of silliness—to our great delight. Even her beleaguered husband, Mr. Bennet, a martyr to his wife’s nervous palpitations and general hysteria, finds some amusement in her wildly disproportionate fears about what will become of their daughters.

“Tell [Mr. Bennet] what a dreadful state I am in,—that I am frightened out of my wits; and have such tremblings, such flutterings, all over me, such spasms in my side, and pains in my head, and such beatings at heart, that I can get no rest by night nor by day.”

Sometimes, watching Mrs. B launch into one of her fretting sessions, I sense my husband’s eyes slicing in my direction. He denies it, of course, but I think that he sees a little of Mrs. Bennet in me. Reader, he is not wrong. I, too, am a fretter. Like her, I have flutterings of the heart and find my head so full of worries that I often can get no rest at night.

I read in a magazine in some doctor’s office (there for my heart palpitations, no doubt) that, if one is kept awake because worry performs continual acrobatics in one’s brain, one should devote some time earlier in the evening to confronting and reflecting on one’s worries. Good idea. But how long before bedtime? And how much time should be devoted to the exercise? On a bad day, I either have to start ridiculously early or go to bed ridiculously late. And should I concentrate on all the usual suspects or only the ones pressing on me that particular day?

In regard to the nature of my worries, I cast a wider net than Mrs. Bennet. While she, by virtue of her gender, class (a “gentlewoman”), and historical period (cusp of the 19th century) is confined to domestic concerns, I have my feet and thus my worries in two worlds, professional as well as private—struggling students, challenging committee work, and writing projects, for example. Sometimes my worrying is useful. Concerning myself with what might go wrong can prompt me to take action that sidesteps trouble.

But the worry that really banishes sleep and that makes me close kin to Mrs. B is that devoted to my children—what has, what is, what might befall them. Before my daughters were born, I was blissfully clueless regarding the thousands of sleepless nights ahead of me. The early days of infancy with the night-feedings and colic and teething, I expected all that. But years, decades of worry—who knew? My children are competent, successful adults now and I still fret about them. As a busy professional, I can’t make a full-time job of it as Mrs. B does, but I make the most of my avocation, indulging in all kinds of exaggerated fears regarding the ways in which they might not be fine. My worry is useless to them. If it relates to their professional and personal lives, well, they are more than capable of managing it themselves. If it relates to things dictated by the fates, well, my worrying is not going to wrest control from the gods and goddesses of the universe.

My husband tries hard to dispel my Mrs. Bennet-like gloomy fancies. He reassures me, declaring that the one daughter will figure out the problem she’s dealing with, that the other will certainly get home safely, that two or three days’ silence does not mean disaster. “Worrying does not help,” he points out helpfully. “It doesn’t do anyone any good.” Well, certainly not me. I know that I do not choose to worry; indeed, I work hard to “un-choose” it. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “some are born worried, some achieve worry, and some have worry thrust upon them.” I get it all ways. And, although I am wary of gender stereotyping, it seems undeniable that the “some” doing all the worrying are primarily of the female persuasion. The tendency of many women to waste energy, emotion, and imagination—not to mention sleep time!—on a preoccupation with what might befall those they love is easy to make fun of. It seems “silly.”

Perhaps it is. But I can’t help thinking that the kind of worry I engage in is work that needs to be done. Through my worrying, I am calling the world’s attention to the things that concern me, the things that need fixing or forestalling. My deep-in-the gut conviction that something bad might happen if I do not consecrate or devote time to worrying about an issue goes beyond superstition or neurosis. Maybe my worrying is a substitution for praying. In fact, that is exactly what it is. It is a kind of praying, a kind of calling out to all angels and deities, to all the natural and unnatural, visible and invisible forces and spirits of the universe and saying, “look here, look at these beings that I love so well. Keep them safe. Make them happy.” Worry is this infidel’s kind of prayer.

Maybe that is true of Mrs. Bennet as well. Next time I watch her driving herself and others crazy, I’ll pity as well as laugh at her. And I will fantasize a different ending to her story, one that will please both of us. Mr. Bennet will dash in to Mrs. Bennet’s study, all in a tizzy about what will become of the two daughters still at home. He will cry and wring his hands with worry. “Enough, Mr. Bennet!” Mrs. B will insist. “Do not bother me with such silliness! Ask Martha to bring me a glass of sherry and close the door behind you. I am reading and will not be disturbed!”

Maureen Ellen O’Leary’s essays have appeared in numerous national and local publications, including, she is happy to say, previous issues of The East Bay Monthly. She lives in Oakland and is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College.

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Photo montage by Andreas Jones.