Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What Mr. Bennet Read All Day

The monkeys have become attached to watching the 1980 BBC dramatization of Pride and Prejudice (to my mind, by far the best of the various dramatizations). It's certainly better than most things kids get into watching, though it results in some interesting questions. (In response to questions about Lydia's running off, I've explained to them that it's always very bad to run away from your family with a stranger.)

Lately, this got me into wondering what exactly it was that Mr. Bennet spends all his time reading. He always seems to be hiding out in his library, book in hand. It seems out of character for him to be reading novels, and besides, Austen was writing in the very earliest days of the English novel: there weren't many to read. So what was he reading? (Pride and Prejudice was written in the late 1790s and published in 1813, so I'm putting the time period as about 1800.)

There are a few things I've read which I know were fairly popular at the time. Samuel Johnson's The Rambler (a series of periodical essays originally written in 1750-1751, which became highly popular once collected in book form) is a very enjoyable read, and seems Mr. Bennet's style. Also fun to read (and still popular though nearly 100 years old by 1800) were the collected essays of The Spectator.

The best thing I could hit on was doing a search on Advanced Book Exchange with the publication date range of 1750 to 1813 and using the vaguest possible keywords (I used "leather" cover and "good" condition). Here are the results. (There are 16,000+, so enjoy. But a few pages worth give a good feel.)

So what looked like good Mr. Bennet reading? Well, collections of essays seem to have been quite popular, the less famous cousins of The Spectator and The Rambler.

Histories also seem quite plentiful, such as this one: THE HISTORY OF MODERN EUROPE WITH AN ACCOUNT OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE: AND A VIEW OF THE PROGRESS OF SOCIETY, FROM THE RISE OF THE MODERN KINGDOMS TO THE PEACE OF PARIS, IN 1763. IN A SERIES OF LETTERS FROM A NOBLEMAN TO HIS SON. That sounds like the right sort of thing for Mr. Bennet.

You also have collections of letters and published diaries such as Letters of the Late Lord Lyttleton or Letters [Lettres} of the Marquise du Deffand to the Hon. Horace Walpole, afterwards Earl of Oxford, from 1766 to 1780. To which are added Letters of Madame du Deffand to Voltaire, from 1759 to 1775.

There are quite a few collections of sermons and general theological works (even a fair number of copies of the Imitation of Christ, mostly printed in Ireland) but I don't see Mr. Bennet as going for those as much, though I'm sure Mary read sermons of the more dull sort.

There's also quite a bit of poetry, but again, I don't see that as Mr. Bennet's cup of tea, unless it was satirical, translations of the classics, or perhaps a trifle ribald.

One also sees a certain number of biographies, some more or less colorful-sounding (of both real and imaginary people), which I could definitely picture as something Mr. Bennet would enjoy. Memoirs of Frederick and Margaret Klopstock or LIFE OF LORENZO DE' MEDICI, Called the Magnificent.

And finally, we see others among the early novels, such as the Vicar of Wakefield. I'm not sure this would have been Mr. Bennet's normal reading, though.

2 comments:

Donald R. McClarey said...

William Robertson's History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V was quite popular during this time period. It can still be read with profit today if one can overlook the anti-Catholic bias.

CMinor said...

I think Miss Austen made reference to a couple of those dull sermonizers by name in the book. I can't recall if Mr. Collins got to do any reading in the BBC version, but in the Kiera Knightley film Mary is heard reading aloud from what I'm pretty sure is one of them in one scene.

I like to imagine the girls, particularly bluestocking Mary, dipping into Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but I suspect that even if Mr. Bennett had deigned to read that scarlet woman's book, he would have kept it well hid from his daughters.