It’s no secret that until Mr. Darcy had revealed his more sensitive side, Mr. Bennet was Elizabeth’s ideal standard of manhood: an “odd mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice” (3). He was the male image of herself, naturally, since she had been his favorite child and was groomed into being his intellectual protégé. However, for all his likability, wittiness, and cool composure – especially when contrasted with his wife – it was Mrs. Bennet who sought more to protect and increase the wealth and value of the Bennet estate. The first lines of Pride and Prejudice open alluding to the very fact that marriage is a social construct meant to manage natural inclination (physiological and emotional), and more importantly, had grown into an institution of legal and economic contract. “[A] single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” followed by “he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters” spares little room for misinterpretation. As Austen points out in her first two paragraphs, whether it be the male or female, property and ownership – economic stability and continuity – are at the crux of the matter.
Successful relationships hinge upon more than mere hormones. Taking a Marxist view, the social institution of marriage would hold little sway if it weren’t for the potential of economic benefit, legally recognized as a means to secure that economy. If each marriage is a company affixed a specific monetary worth, the family name as the brand meant to market the value, then the children of such a marriage are the simultaneous products (prior to marriage) and stocks (during courtship and after marriage) meant to aggregate brand wealth. For the purposes of this paper, I will be equating the Bennet daughters more to stocks than a consumer good for sale, chiefly because the worth of stocks (and consequently the worth of a public company) is dependent upon the perception of how those stocks will increase wealth. Mr. Bennet’s failing is in the complete mismanagement of his company portfolio, or the lack of energy he takes in creating a perception of valuable market translatable worth in his daughters: ranging from his neglect to indifference, he formed the Bennet brand into a risky venture in which to invest. This riskiness rests solely upon his shoulders and it is by sheer luck that worthwhile investors in the forms of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy ever came calling at all.
“Mr. Bennet had very often wished, before this period of his life, that, instead of spending his whole income, he had laid by an annual sum for the better provision of his children, and his wife […] Had he done his duty in the respect, Lydia [and it is worth emphasizing Mr. Bennet] would not have been indebted, […] for whatever honor or credit could now be purchased for her” (261). Lydia’s scandalous running-away with Mr. Wickham was a definite Bennet public relations emergency. When Lizzy broached the subject with him, upon his return home, and hoped to assuage his distress, he stated, “ ‘ Say nothing of that. Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it’” (253). However, in this sentiment, Mr. Bennet is incorrect. He isn’t the only one to suffer. Lydia, by depreciating her own worth, caused the stock of her sisters to also plummeted. If the Bingley sisters chafed at the thought of their brother – worth five thousand pounds per annum – to invest and attach himself with Jane Bennet prior to any scandal, what hope had Jane or any of the others after it? If Mr. Bennet was fully ready to acknowledge this bleak reality, the realization of each daughter as a commodity of market value had come too little, too late.
Wishing to provide a settlement, wishing to create the family as a mode of profit is not enough, unless accompanied by action. “When first Mr. Bennet married, economy was held to be perfectly useless; for, of course, they were to have a son. This son was to join in cutting off the entail […] and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for” (261). Clearly, the Regency period placed greater economic worth on male instead of female progeny. So, his first hopes to keep and expand Bennet net worth by way of a son is nothing reprehensible. However, his lack of foresight is. When producing a male heir failed, Mr. Bennet ought to have placed greater investment in marketing his daughters. As a company whose only product is of lesser value compared to the production of other families, addressing and showcasing the quality of the product ought to have been his one and only priority. In her irritating way, Mrs. Bennet stressed the necessity often enough; hence her constant scheming. When Jane fell ill – as Mrs. Bennet had hoped – and was forced to stay at Netherfield, rather than take Mr. Bennet’s scolding of her scheme to heart, she grew more determined and hopeful. “She will be good taken care of. As long as she stays there, it is all very well” (26). In no way did Mrs. Bennet have Jane’s health in mind, when she declared “it is all very well.” The longer her daughter could be within the reach of a particular share-holder, the better all their outcome.
This comparison of his daughters as stock in need of protection and positive appreciation rather than each a good to be marketed in unrelated venues comes especially clear in Mr. Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth. As one of the highest ranking members of the peerage, Mr. Darcy was aware of his worth, as well as his duty to protect and wisely invest the Darcy brand value. When Elizabeth rebuffed his advances, he made sure to explain his position with clarity and purpose. “Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?” (165). Perhaps pointing out her inferiority was harsh, seeing as her market value is not entirely in her own hands to manage. However, Mr. Darcy’s meaning is clear. If marriage is a contract to increase connection and wealth, to assign even greater perception to a family brand stock, then marrying her is an utterly nonsensical business act.
In his letter hoping to address the various accusations of pride and arrogance Elizabeth ascribes to him, Mr. Darcy explains the business nuances he had to consider when first seeking her hand. He reminds her that as consumer products, she and Jane “ have conducted [themselves] so as to avoid any share of the like censure [towards her other family members] is praise no less generally bestowed on you and your elder sister, than it is honourable to the sense and disposition of both” (169). But, alas, she and Jane are members of a family, and the value of each member influences the value of another – much like stock shares. This management of the Bennet brand’s perception, and not necessarily its origins, is what Mr. Darcy takes most umbrage with. “The situation of your mother’s family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father” (169).And whom does he blame? The one whose responsibility is is to control all of the stock options: Mr. Bennet.
So how could have Mr. Bennet better managed the family brand? How could he have appreciated his stocks so they would be more enticing, more sound of a business venture? For all of Elizabeth’s irritation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s meddling, condescending manners, it can’t be denied that Lady Catherine is one of the most powerful and valuable shares in the country. She managed to keep and increase the wealth of the de Bourgh estate, and did all possible to ensure her own daughter – her health issues aside, and maybe all the more because of them – remain a valuable commodity well worth an investment. Managing such a large estate and popular brand meant knowing the business rules of the marriage market. Rules, like musical education, guidance from a governess, and following the proper “coming out” procedure, are the demands of the market.
In probing Elizabeth why the rules had been so flaunted, over and over Elizabeth assigned responsibility to her father. “Why did not you all learn?” she asks. “You ought all to have learned. The Miss Webbs all play, and their father has not so good an income as yours”(141). The income disparity between Mr. Webb and Mr. Bennet, disguised as a compliment, displays Lady Catherine’s censure of Mr. Bennet’s remiss sense of responsibility. When admonishing Mrs. Bennet for not taking her daughters to London for further education, Elizabeth responds by saying “My mother would have had no objection, but my father hates London” (141). With each inquiry into her lack of proper education, Lady Catherine becomes more assured of how very little market value the Bennet girls offer. Knowing it’s a man’s world, and having expressed ever so subtly already in their conversation, the blame for the family depreciation rests upon Mr. Bennet.
Lady Catherine’s astonishment at the Bennet sisters’ lack of polish (and thereby market appreciation) may come from a place of snobbery, but is no less honest in its assessment of them. Her astonishment is not a lone sentiment, as Mr. Darcy, Miss Bingley, Mrs. Hurst, and even Mr. Collins, had felt and expressed in one form or another. In and of themselves, the Bennet sisters could not, legally, add wealth or value to the Bennet family brand. Only in and through marriage could Bennet value increase. However, by connecting with an “upstart pretentious […] young woman without family, connections, or fortune” (304) – an insult laid at Elizabeth’s feet but applicable to the other four, as well – the value of the man’s family brand had potential to depreciate.
Lady Catherine emphasized that particular point of the marriage market when pleading her nephew and daughter’s marriage case. “Unfeeling, selfish girl! Do you not consider that a connection with you, must disgrace him in the eyes of everybody?” (305). Lady Catherine’s motives were selfish, but rested on the business principle of the buy-out. Purchasing highly valuable stock increases wealth and stock of the buying company. In Elizabeth, and every woman’s case in Austen’s novel, stock value comes from market perception. Market perception is influenced by rules governing value: education, connection, propriety. This perception in managed by those with the power and means to increase brand wealth and value: the father or male heir. Fortunately for Mr. Bennet, Mr. Darcy was both powerful and wealthy enough to invest in an “upstart” without bringing damage to the Darcy brand. It is because of Mr. Darcy and not Mr. Bennet that all Bennet sisters stock values increased, and the Bennet brand could turn successful.