What a great question and thanks to Sarah Macdonald for her opinion piece on this issue. (See below for a link to the original article.)
But the question I want to ask is, are we confusing happiness with ambition? And has Austen got something to say here? (Sorry dear reader but you knew I would find something!)
Nightmare-Wife-Mrs Bennet, from Pride and Prejudice is unashamedly ambitious for her girls. If she can only have her girls married, “she will have nothing to wish for”. Here our sympathy is understandable. Women had few choices and as daughters were
rarely independently wealthy they needed to marry to ensure security. And we cannot forget the famous entail that stipulates that on the death of Mr Bennet Longbourne will be lost. Mrs Bennet is a comic character fussing over her girls. Due to the limited opportunity for women, Mrs Bennet must confine her ambitions to the marriage market. But surely she is no different from the myriad of motivated mothers today driving their charges from swimming lesson, to music class, to extra tuition in a bid to jockey for position in the ladder of life? While Mrs Bennet’s obsession with seeing her daughters married is understandable it does not excuse her manipulative ways.
We can understand Mrs Bennet’s desire for financial independence for her daughters. A match between her daughter Jane and Mr Bingley would secure this. Austen is satirising such mothers when she has Mrs Bennet send Jane to his house on horseback (in threatening weather with the hope of her catching cold and having to stay at Netherfield) in a bid to bring Bingley and Jane together. This type of behaviour is indicative of the the overly ambitious mother who places status above all else. Is it comparable to mothers today scheming to get their children into the elite squad or school, with the right group of friends, or into the high status university course by multiple bouts of tutoring? Just because it is commonplace does not mean it is not still slightly dubious.
It is easy to laugh at Nightmare-Wife-Mrs Bennet and her antiquated, scheming ways but when we translate her into the modern world, behind the 4wd ferrying her progeny from A to B we should feel slightly uncomfortable. Alas there are many pushy Mrs Bennets lurking in our neighbourhood and the past is not such a foreign country after all.