Anne Stott writes about Mr. Bennet at Normblog:
Jane Austen is a tough moralist. She believes that Mr Bennet should have made the best of a bad job. Unhappiness is no excuse for opting out of duties. He ought not to have been guilty of…
… that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.
Taking refuge in irony, he has misused those ‘talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife’. The girls’ laissez-faire education happens to suit Elizabeth and Jane, who are able to motivate themselves to study, but is disastrous for their three younger sisters. Poor pedantic Mary might have been guided into learning to think for herself rather than spout the stale truisms of the conduct books. Kitty and Lydia – ‘ignorant, idle and vain’ – badly needed the discipline of being made to learn something to fill their empty heads. Their father sees this with his usual clarity but does nothing about it. He has written off his three youngest daughters.
We are normally a bit impatient with critics of Mr. Bennet, but though we still love him as a character, we think Professor Stott gets it right here. Do check it out.