Birth Order and the Bennet Sisters
Dr. Kevin Leman, leading social scientist says that “Birth order is the science of understanding your place in the family line…Wherever you landed, it has affected your life in countless ways” (Leman 14). In a family of five sisters, each of the Bennet girls has her own role to play that is specified by her position in the family, Mary in particular, and in comparing each of the girls to their birth order profiles, it is easy to see just how often they match the expected role.
Because there are five girls, it is easiest to understand their roles if they are put into groups. Jane and Elizabeth share many characteristics of the oldest child, their dynamics dividing their personalities. Kitty and Lydia may be combined even more easily into the perspective of the youngest, particularly in their binary development around each other. Finally, Mary is left in the undesirable role of the middle child, not really fitting in with any of the rest of her sisters.
The Eldest - Jane
First borns traditionally take the role of the perfectionist, the emulator of the parent. Jane takes on the role of her mother so much, though certainly not her silliness, that she is often thrust into that place over her mother. One notable instance of this overstepping is after the news comes that Lydia has run off with Wickham. When Mrs. Bennet hears that her favorite child (for Lydia is most certainly like her mother) has run off in a way that will surely disgrace herself, she flings herself into her bed and becomes quite ineffectual. Jane must then pick up the slack her mother has left behind to such an extent that Elizabeth comments she can see it on her face, that it is indeed affecting Jane’s health (Austen 190).
Jane is the nurturer, the care-giver of the family, but unlike her mother in that she supports her sisters and gives them encouragement toward the correct path, while simultaneously attempting to shield them from the responsibilities she has taken upon herself, such as when she does not allow Mary or Kitty to help her take care of their mother. She retains a sense of responsibility in being a sister that the younger girls can look up to, but separates herself from the idle fancies of her mother. This is probably because as the first child, she would have had the undivided attention of her father in a way that was entirely absent by the time Lydia was born. When Jane is first interested in Mr. Bingley, she is very careful in saying anything about it because she has to make sure that her family will find her intentions acceptable. Jane is so responsible that, had her attention not been drawn by Mr. Bingley, it is doubtful that she would have rejected Mr. Collins’ proposal in the way Elizabeth did. She would have believed the security that such a marriage would have given her family trumped any thoughts of love, as she only discovers the potential for love after she meets Bingley (15).
Second Girl - Elizabeth
Elizabeth, on the other hand, displays a different mark of oldest born status, that of the over-achiever. Of her family, she is poised as the only one to have gained more than a modicum of intelligence. The Bennet parents had been hoping for a son, as all families did at that time period and continue to do to a lesser extent. When Jane was born, Mr. Bennet was probably disappointed, but his interest was kept by her beauty. After their second child, Elizabeth, turned out to be another girl, Mr. Bennet must have been doubly let down. Though his first child was a girl, he had to have been hoping that at least his next would be a son.
Elizabeth, in fact, fits Wilson and Edington’s model of the second daughter. They believe that, regardless of any kind of closeness with her father, the oldest daughter’s position is shifted when a second daughter is born. After this time, the oldest daughter will be “subjected to all manner of ‘feminizing’ tactics while [the younger] sister is permitted – and sometimes even encouraged – to be tomboyish” (Wilson 217). This holds true in the Bennet family, where Mr. Bennet acknowledges Jane’s beauty, but is much more interested in Elizabeth’s intelligent mind. When she was younger, Mr. Bennet treated Elizabeth as the son he never had, especially after the births of the later girls, when he was sure no son was ever coming. Additionally he would have encouraged the development of her mind through reading, as it is the one pastime he truly seems to enjoy. This encouragement undoubtedly caused Elizabeth to turn to books, an act that is greatly to her advantage in the future. When Mr. Collins proposes to her and she does not accept him, Mr. Bennet supports Elizabeth, still encouraging his favorite to excel (Austen 67). To summarize, two alliances would have been formed, with Jane and Mrs. Bennet on one side and Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet on the other.
The Youngest - Kitty and Lydia
The youngest girls, on the other hand, were born long after Mr. Bennet had withdrawn actively from his daughters’ development. The youngest child, in general, tends to be attention-seeking and independent. This tendency is amplified in Kitty and Lydia, who are left wholly to the attentions of their mother. By this point, Mr. Bennet has given up on ever having sons and takes no interest whatsoever in his younger daughters other than to laugh at their follies. The father in this case was the balance with his older daughters, allowing them to grow up with some degree of their mother’s femininity while still setting an example by his sensibility.
Lydia and Kitty share the same interests that their mother had when she was young, an attraction to the well-cut suit of a military officer. However, unlike Jane and Elizabeth, “their minds were more vacant than their sisters’, and when nothing better offered, a walk to Meryton was necessary to amuse their morning hours and furnish conversation for the evening” (20). Instead of knowledge and learning, Kitty and Lydia fill their heads with learning about the officers in the same way modern girls can recount the details of the lives of their favorite celebrities. Kitty does show slightly more promise than her sister, however. Though she is likely to let Lydia dominate her, and in fact slips almost entirely into the background as a sort of extra appendage, she is affected by her father’s rebukes, even when Lydia pays no attention and continues her vapid conversation. It is not surprising that Lydia, particularly, is the one to run off with Wickham, given her upbringing, which could politely be described as selfish and foolhardy, an inflated conceptualization of the youngest child. She doesn’t go with him because she loves him, which would be slightly more admirable, but mostly because she thinks it would be fun to see the looks on her sisters’ faces. This is classic youngest child, always trying to be noticed.
From the Jane Austen Society of North America:
The Classic Middle Child - Mary
Mary, the middle child, is the Bennet daughter who most closely follows the trichotomy of birth order. Between the beauty of her older sisters, and the silliness of her younger sisters, Mary is often lost in the shuffle. The middle child has the difficulty of being not quite old enough to be one of the older sisters, but not quite young enough to fit in with the younger ones either. Mary has no inclination for the silliness of her younger sisters, but Jane and Elizabeth are a tightly knit duo that has never shown any inclination to accept Mary into their group. In fact, the one time Mary really tries to reach out to Elizabeth, encouraging the sisters to bond together to help each other get over the shame of Lydia’s defection, Elizabeth completely ignores her because all she can hear is her younger sister’s textbook language yet again. When Mary receives no encouragement, she reverts back to her comfort zone, delivering another one of her well-known morality statements (187-188). Though she is probably yearning for the acceptance of her older sisters, it seems that it is Elizabeth in whom she feels she has more in common, but Elizabeth, not having Jane’s degree of compassion, is actually less likely to acknowledge her.
Mary also receives no encouragement from her parents. Gracia Fay Ellwood believes that Mr. Bennet would have seen Mary as, “not only yet another girl, and a physically unattractive one, but one soon showing a solemn and plodding mind that aroused his contempt” (Ellwood). In Mary, her father is not able to see either of the traits that invested him in his older daughters, as well as the growing unlikelihood of every having a son.
Though Mary cannot help being quite plain, she does try to improve her mind in order to gain attention, as well as working at accomplishments of which neither of her older sisters are proficient, such as playing the piano. She believes that a proficiency at music will set her apart to her parents’ notice. Unfortunately for Mary, her anxiety to gain attention causes her performance to suffer. When she performs, her vanity “would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached. Elizabeth, easy and unaffected, had been listened to with much more pleasure, though not playing half so well” (Austen 17). Mr. Bennet must know that she lacks skill, but instead of getting her a music teacher so that she might improve, as an encouraging father would have, he simply exposes her to more ridicule. At the Netherfield ball, when Elizabeth hints to her father that Mary might be endeavored to give up the piano bench, as the performance is uncomfortable to most of those in attendance, Mr. Bennet stops Mary from playing rather bluntly. Instead of going up to her and speaking to her quietly, he admonishes her loudly in front of the entire party, much to her embarrassment (69).
There are many instances in which Mr. Bennet does not do his fatherly duty toward Mary, but a notable instance of this is in the opportune visit of their cousin, Mr. Collins. As an unattractive young woman, Mary does not have any prospective husbands, and has less chance of getting one than her prettier sisters, but she has marked similarities to her cousin. Considering their shared interest in readings of morality particularly, along with Mary’s desire to be noticed first among her sisters, a proposal to her would surely have been answered favorably. Austen agrees directly to this fact, noting that:
She rated his abilities much higher than any of the others; there was a solidity in his reflections which often struck her, and though by no means so clever as herself, she thought that if encouraged to read and improve himself by such an example as her’s, he might become a very agreeable companion. (Austen 85)
It is obvious from this passage that, unlike the rest of her sisters, Mary was likely to have accepted an offer of marriage from Mr. Collins. As a good father, Mr. Bennet should have realized this. When Mr. Collins arrived, it was clear that he meant to make one of the Bennet girls his wife. It was Mr. Bennet’s duty to speak to Mr. Collins, to steer him toward Mary, as, unlike Mrs. Bennet, he would have no illusions about Elizabeth’s accepting him.
Mary, however, in that continual role of misplaced middle child, is completely forgotten. This near perfect match does not occur to anyone in the Bennet household, though it has occurred quite quickly in the minds of the readers. Now, certainly, Mr. Collins would not have thought of this match himself, as he obviously thought all of the girls were likely to accept him, but the Bennet parents should have. What is interesting is the way that Mary is so used to being ignored that she doesn’t even realize how she has been slighted by her father’s defection (Ellwood). Because Mary is not even thought of, Mr. Collins defects from the household. Ironically, he then ends up proposing to a girl who is likely just as plain as Mary, but without Mary’s inner happiness toward the task.
Mary has always wanted to be noticed by her parents. Often, the middle child in this scenario will go one of two ways. Either she will leave the family or she will stay behind as the rest of her siblings go toward their separate adult lives. Mary, in this instance, chooses the second option, which is of course the only option a girl in her time would have really had upon not finding a husband. Austen says of Mary that, “As she was no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters’ beauty and her own, it was suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without much reluctance” (Austen 252).
Mary is the best example, the classic middle-child syndrome, but all the Bennet girls are affected by their positions in the Longbourn household. Perhaps if the girls had recognized these characteristics in themselves, they might have been better equipped to deal with the inequalities between them. Still, as Dr. Kevin Leman says, “Understanding some basic principles of birth order is not a formula for automatically solving problems overnight. Changing oneself is the hardest task any human being can attempt; it takes lots of work” (Leman 339).
I've added links along the page for the books I used, with the exception of First Child, Second Child... Your Birth Order
Profile by Bradford Wilson, which Amazon doesn't seem to sell except through used copies.
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A Couple More In-Depth Articles on Birth Order Theory
- Does Birth Order Make a Difference in Traits?
Psychologists believe birth order can determine many aspects of a persons personality. Whether they're first born, in the middle, the youngest, or the one and only, children all have personality characteristics associated with their birth order.
- How Birth Order Affects Your Childs Characteristics and Psychological Development
There is a lot of debate among psychologists and child development experts about whether or not birth order has an impact on a childs personality and behavior. In other words, there are some people who...
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