A Villain from the Pages of Literature : Elizabeth Bennet’s Father
Surely not, you protest? For Mr Bennet of Longbourn is initially an extremely appealing figure. Cultured and educated, we see immediately that he is shackled to a wife seemingly designed to make any man of refinement squirm. While feeling deeply sorry for him, we are amused by his quick wit. By his dry, acerbic humour. And by his frequent retreats from family life into the eighteenth-century man-shed of his study, with its much-loved books and a decanter of the finest Madeira.
‘No more lace, Mrs Bennett, I implore you.’
‘If he had any compassion for me, (Mr Bingley) would not have danced half so much! For God’s sake, say no more of his partners. Oh! that he had sprained his ankle in the first dance!’
At the same time, we admire his acute social perception and good humour.
‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them, in return.’
Yet this is also a man who is publicly dismissive of his wife, frequently in front of their children and, as we come to know him better, his sarcasm – coldness even – begins to grate. What twenty-first-century wife would not chuck a heavy china ornament at a partner who delivers such careless rejoinders to legitimate concerns about the future of their girls, and what will happen when she and they are eventually evicted from their home?
‘You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.’
‘Let us flatter ourselves. I may be the survivor.’
Eventually, however, considering Wickham’s treatment of the Bennet daughter, Lydia, – seducing a sixteen-year-old and only making an honest woman of her after being handsomely paid off by Darcy – we see how badly his moral compass is skewed:
‘Wickham’s a fool, if he takes her with a farthing less than ten thousand pounds. I should be sorry to think so ill of him, in the very beginning of our relationship.’
Pride and Prejudice, as Jane Austen signals from the beginning, points a beady eye at marriage and how essential mutual respect is to marital happiness. Through dissecting the Bennet’s own shaky partnership – based, we learn, on little more than youthful passion and imprudence – Austen highlights, as evocatively as only she can, the realities of marrying in haste and repenting at leisure.
Disappointment has made Mr Bennet cruel and results in making this reader sigh for the man he might have been, had he either chosen a more compatible wife or made an effort to be more understanding of the fallible woman to whom he has tied himself.
Even Elizabeth, the closest of his daughters to her father, has ‘never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband.’ He loves her (being at least prepared to stop a marriage to the ridiculous Collins), and she him, but the soundest lesson he is able to pass on to her is that love alone is rarely enough. And that being a bad father can have dire consequences.
Oh, to be able to create such complex characters as Mr Bennet!
The villain speaks
At least that simpering whining little thing has gone to London. She’s out of my sight, thank goodness – I can’t bear to see her creeping round this house, this lovely mansion that isn’t hers and never will be. I do get some pleasure in tormenting her and frightening her but that doesn’t make up for the ache I get when I think of the real mistress.
But the master has gone to London with her. Why does he stick with her? And why marry her in the first place? His wife had been dead for only a year. How could he fall for her in Monte Carlo? I suppose he was lonely. Maybe she just happened to be there and simple male desire made him go for her – men are so stupid that way. But I can’t think that she would satisfy him in that respect – you can’t imagine her doing anything but just lying there and waiting for it to be over. Now the real mistress, she’d be lively, adventurous, exciting in bed! I bet she taught the master a thing or two, for all his debonair man-of-the-world appearance.
Was it because this one is so different? She’s got no spirit: she doesn’t stand up to me, and she lets that overseer Crawley take advantage of her. Timid, she is – one example: she hasn’t even asked me what happens to all the food that’s not eaten at breakfast – I know she’s curious about that, but she just hasn’t got the nerve to ask! How feeble. And when I showed her her writing desk, where she’d be writing her letters – well, the look of dismay on her face! The real mistress, she had friends in high society, in London, in foreign places, everywhere. But this one doesn’t know anyone. No-one to write to.
The master has to see that he’s made a dreadful mistake in trying to bring this one here. She’ll never take the place of the old mistress in this house. I’m seeing to that. I thought I’d managed to drive him away from her at the ball, tricking her into trusting me and wearing the real mistress’s gown: the look on his face, that was magnificent! The shame, the horror on hers! I really thought I’d broken them then.
But it didn’t work. He still seems to want her. She should’ve got rid of me after that. But she’s not brave enough. So I’m still here. I’ll have to do something else, something that will drive her out even if it doesn’t make him kick her out. This may take a little time, I must plan something even better than the ball gown trick. I know she’s afraid of me, but I’ll become her friend again, then she might be so pleased, I could do anything. I’ll do nothing for a few weeks, lull her into a false sense of security. Yes, that’s it. Be all smiles when they get back, and for a couple of months …
Can I smell burning … ?
The trouble with fictional villains is that they don’t always translate to the screen.
Moriarty is a straight bad egg in the books, a moustache-twirling crazy-clever enemy of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle designed him expressly to meet the need to challenge the ridiculous intellect of Holmes. We respect and fear Moriarty, but don’t have much in the way of mixed emotions about him….in the books. Put him on screen, and cast Andrew Scott, and we are confronted with a boyish, gentle psychopath, one with a soft Irish accent and melting eyes…and we kind of want to mother him as well as run away from him. We see his genius, we admire his suits…we slightly fancy him. I thought Scott was awful casting when he first appeared, but gradually I grew to adore him. He wasn’t the villain. He was the star attraction. He was hardly a villain at all.
I haven’t read the Villanelle novels that arrived on screen as ‘Killing Eve’. Perhaps Villanelle is written just as Jodie Comer plays her, but I can’t imagine anyone could get down on paper what Comer does on screen. She’s the coldest sociopath, who kills on a whim for mischief, in hideous (but often blackly hilarious) ways. Yet she’s also wonderful, a riot of convincing accents and disguises, who find endless pleasures in life, who is by turns childlike and hostile with her handler Konstantin. We understand why Eve is so fascinated with her. We don’t want to be fascinated ourselves, but somehow, appallingly, we are.
But the most unsuccessful translation of a villain from book to screen, for me, remains Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’ Diary. In the book he’s an out-and-out sh*t. We feel his villainy ooze from every paragraph. Dump him, Bridget! we silently implore. Run to Mr Darcy! But on screen, they had Renee Zellweger forced to choose between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. Both utterly butterly, I’m sure we agree. But Daniel’s charm was supercharged by Grant. Watching him, I felt I could almost overlook his dishonesty, ruthlessness and lechery. The producers didn’t think this through. After all, there’s not much chance any of us will ever need a suitor to spring us from a Thai prison. But a man who can make us laugh and fancy us because of our Big Pants? A man who makes us feel sexy at all times?
You begin to understand the attraction of Wickham.