Best Mrs. Bennet (Aided by Dress, Sets, and Props)
For years Mary Boland was the Mrs. Bennet against whom I measured all other Mrs. Bennets. Except for her Civil War era wardrobe, Mary's interpretation of the character was spot on. In fact, she is one of the few reasons why I tolerate seeing that movie more than once. Film buffs will possibly remember Mary as Countess De Lave in 1939's The Women. Anne Rutherford defended the use of Civil War clothes in the film in a JASNA interview: "But I must say, that when the studio, in its infinite wisdom, when they changed the wardrobe from the wet-nightgown look, that empire look, to the ship-in-full-sail [Victorian] – they did such a wise thing. Because the sight of Mary Boland [Mrs. Bennet] bustling down the street with all of her little goslings behind her in their huge voluminous skirts, and all of them chattering at once – it wouldn’t have been nearly as delightful a sight-gag if we had all been in little, skinny wet-night-gown-type things." I beg to differ with A.R., but you might agree. The Bennet's house, Longbourn, is an eleborate M-G-M stage set and reminds me more of a 1930's American Colonial style home than a Georgian country house.
Priscilla Morgan, Mrs. Bennet 1980
This 5-part series is the first BBC Jane Austen adaptation that I recall seeing on television. According to Sue Parrill in her critical studies of Pride and Prejudice, Priscilla's Mrs. Bennet has an unpleasant and shrill voice, which serves her well in her interpretation of the role. Compared to the 1995 P&P version, Priscilla's Mrs. Bennet receives the most chances to verbalize her foolishness, for she seems to have more speaking lines than Alison Steadman (see below). Of all the Mrs. Bennets, Priscilla's performance is comparatively restrained and less farcical. Small, compact, with an admirable little figure, her Mrs. Bennet is dressed rather simply and plainly, no doubt to allow her daughters to shine in her presence. Some fans find Priscilla's interpretation of Mrs. Bennet to be the best thing about this version of Pride and Prejudice. The props are a bit staged, but they represent the house of a gentleman of Mr. Bennet's means, and Longbourn suits his stature. During this time the BBC specials began to move from the staged sets to more natural locations, but realism in setting, acting, and direction was still being perfected and had not yet "arrived".
Alison Steadman, 1995 Mrs. Bennet
Overly dressed in frills, filled with spasms, and as silly as her younger daughters, Alison's turn as Mrs. Bennet is as unforgettable as it is over the top. Steadman was already known for her portrayals of loud and vulgar characters, so her performance was no surprise to fans and critics alike. About her interpretations of her characters, Alison says: "If we were all terribly wholesome, portraying people who are upright and safe, it would be so boring. You can make people laugh and move them and make them think, all at the same time." 1996 was a memorable year for Alison, one in which her mother died, her marriage ended, and in which she played the vulgar Mrs Bennet. In this 6-part film, whose settings were natural and elaborate, Longbourn contains a park with a prettyish wilderness area, and is filled with the latest accoutrements in Georgian era furniture, drapes, and china. Thankfully Mrs. Bennet never saw Colin's dip in the pond, for I believe she would have turned ballistic, yanking Lizzie away from our wet-shirted hero.
Brenda Blethyn, 2005 Mrs. Bennet
Brenda's Mrs. Bennet was dressed in the clothes that were fashionable when Jane Austen wrote the first draft of P&P, and thus her dresses are given waists and fichus. In an interview, Brenda said about Mrs. Bennet: " Well to tell the truth I hadn’t seen [Pride and Prejudice] before, although when I mentioned to people I was going to be playing this they said, oh, a wonderful, cartoony person...I said, what, no she’s not. Stop it! They said, oh, no, it’s usually like a figure of fun. I’ve read the book and I know her daughter’s description of her, but that has to come from some place real - she’s the only one taking the problem seriously. Mr. Bennet’s all right, they’ve got a roof over their heads all the time he’s alive - it’s when he dies that they’ve got the problem when the money goes down the male line. As it turned out, I think she’s the only one speaking up for her daughters and trying to solve these problems so I won’t hear a word said against her..." In this lavishly produced film with its breathtaking outdoor scenes, Longbourn is a rather rustic and stripped down house - rather too earthy for a gentleman's family. Pigs wander about, mud is tramped in and soils hems, and floors are (accurately) bare and carpetless. Although the family lives in the country, I somehow do not think that Jane meant the Bennets to be living alongside their cattle. You, gentle reader, may very well disagree.
Alex Kingston, 2008 Mrs. Bennet in Lost in Austen
Alex plays the youngest Mrs. Bennet, yet I suspect she is the closest to Mrs. Bennet in real age than the other actresses. About her character Alex said: "In playing a young Mrs Bennet it allowed me to explore, at least inwardly, the possibility of her still holding on to her childishness. She is a mother, who understands the desperate situation the family are in due to a lack of a son and heir, and tries accordingly to engineer the futures of her daughters. I also found a chance for her to live vicariously through the experiences of her daughters. Her husband gives her no joy, so why not enjoy the thrill of a dance or ball or invitation to a grand house." In this adaptation Longbourn is larger than I expected, though quite suitable for a gentleman's family, and has a nice prospect and lawn. This house also has a portal to the 21st century in its attic, which makes it different.