Will the Real Elizabeth Bennett Please Stand Up?

Anyone can be Eiizabeth Bennett

I attended a lecture yesterday given by the Jane Austen Society of North America North Carolina Chapter. The speaker was Inger Sigrun Brodey, who teaches comparative literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I am attaching her Curriculum Vitae because it is so impressive. It was a fun lecture focusing on Jane Austen’s impact on pop culture, primarily through film adaptations, both foreign and domestic as well as the recent rise in violent portrayals of the books as exhibited by the Zombie books such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. These zombie adaptations leave me cold, but are fun to leaf through at a book store since 80% of the book is Jane. Altered, but still mostly Jane such as, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

There was one great point made during the lecture which I keep thinking about. No one KNOWS what any of Austen’s heroines look like. She never describes them, except for the occasional sparkle in the eye (we do know Elizabeth Bennet had dark eyes but dark what? brown? hazel? blue?) Each heroine is a  sort of blank canvas. ANYONE, ANYONE can be Elizabeth Bennett or Emma or the Dashwoods. Any type. Any girl can put herself in Elizabeth’s muslin dress and become Mrs. Darcy. We can each insert ourselves into the plot. Facebook has, as was pointed out to me yesterday, 29 ‘quizzes’ that attempt to pinpoint “which Jane Austen Heroine are you?” (I am always Fanny Price, by the way.)

One of the take away messages I received from the lecture was this ‘blank slate’ theory makes it possible for other cultures to identify with and adapt her novels as well. The Japanese, apparently, adore her as do the Indians. In India, Jane Austen was required reading for years. Now, Bollywood is turning out one Jane Austen knock off after another: Bride and Prejudice (Pride and Prejudice) Aisha (Emma) etc.

As part of her program, Inger Brodey showed pictorial collages of all the actresses who have played Elizabeth Bennet and no two are the same. She then showed a similar collage of the Darcy’s and they all look alike! I pointed out they all had a “Heathcliff’ look about them – brooding, tall dark handsome. It was an interesting cultural note – we assume what ‘that sort of man’ must look like – but there is no consensus on ‘that sort of” heroine. Fascinating. Will the real Elizabeth Bennett please stand up?

7 thoughts on “Will the Real Elizabeth Bennett Please Stand Up?

  1. This is indeed interesting and thanks for sharing it.

    There is a tradition stretching back into antiquity and across many cultures of women being perceived as blank slates and empty vessels, and this data seems to support that – one thought.

    It is also interesting to note that there is much more cultural consensus about what Darcy looks like; and is there as scanty a clue for that in Pride and Prejudice also? I’d have to look back to check.

    It is very motivating as a reader not to have a lot of detail about what the heroine looks like because, as you suggest, that gives the reader licence to create the picture or sketch that works for him or her.

  2. England’s birth, marriage, death and census documents record a number of young Elizabeth Bennetts contemporary with Jane Austen’s heroine. Of those, there was exactly one who lived a short horse-ride from Jane’s first home in Hampshire; she was born sometime between 1795 and 1798 in Berkshire, just across the nearby county border .

    No Fitzwilliam Darcy is to be found, and the nearest William Darcy was too far removed to be the crypto-hero of Pride and Prejudice. There was, however, a Joseph Darcy, born in Hampsire in 1780, and residing in Milford, Hampshire in 1841.

    The real Elizabeth Bennett married late: she was between 32 and 35 years of age when she married Moses Piper of Newbury, Berkshire. I sense a great relief at the opportunity to escape the inevitable misidentification with Jane Austen’s fictional character, as she was quick to restyle herself as “Betty Piper”.

    1. This is really fascinating information. I am a fanatical ‘Googler” and it never dawned on me to google this. Very fun facts. Thank you Geoffrey!

      1. I know of the Elizabeth Bennett of Berkshire through genealogical research on account of her being my second cousin Peter’s mother’s mother’s … mother.

  3. A slight correction: Newbury is where both Moses and Betty Piper are recorded as being at the end of their lives (in 1866 and 1875, respectively). Moses Piper was born in Carridge, and the Pipers married and lived in Chieveley from 1830 through 1861.

    1. According to one source who is tracing the Pipers, Elizabeth Bennett of Berkshire was a widow when she married Moses Piper. An estimate of when she may have married her first husband turns up TWO Elizabeth Bennetts marrying in western Berkshire at that time. The plot thickens!

      This is no surprise, actually, as “Elizabeth Bennet(t)” was a very frequent name in England in that generation, which is perhaps why Jane Austen chose it for her favourite heroine.

      Pursuing this argument and supposing that my second cousin’s ancestor Elizabeth Bennett is not necessarily the inspiration for the novel, then we must look further afield.

      Jane Austen set the Bennett family near the fictional town of Meryton in Hertfordshire; the Wikipedia article on that county suggests (among other options) that Meryton may represent Hertford and that Jane may have imagined the Bennett family home as being in the real town of Wear.

      Mrs Bennett’s maiden name was Gardiner. Searching for a Mr Bennett marrying a Ms Gardiner, turned up four cases, in London (1779), Wiltshire (1711), Berkshire (1830) and Hertfordshire (1866). Of these only the London marriage (of Abraham Bennett and Mary Gardiner) has the correct timing.

      If Bennett is a true name, but Gardiner is fictional, and if Elizabeth Bennett were born in Hertfordshire, then there is, for example, Elizabeth Bennet born c 1786 in Hertfordshire who married William Eyers. Other candidates were born on 7 Nov 1790 in Barley (parents Daniel and Sarah), 26 April 1795 in Hunsdon (father John), and one lady born in 1801 who was living in Buckland (respectable hobbits lived here) in 1841.

      It seems therefore that in the search for the real Elizabeth Bennett, there is an embarrassment of riches.

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