The original Elizabeth Bennet?

Elizabeth Benet

Visiting Bath Abbey in April this year I chanced on this curious memorial on the east wall of the south transept.

Close inspection revealed the name of one Elizabeth Benet (sic), widow of William Bathurst Pye Benet (died May 4th 1806), who herself died at the age of 80 in 1826. Could Jane Austen, who lived in Bath between 1801 and 1805 (not to mention visits there in the 1790s), have met this real-life Elizabeth Bennet, clearly a grande dame in Bath society?

The spelling, by the way, need not detain us too long. The present day Bennett Street in Bath appears with the literary heroine’s spelling on an 1803 map while Bennett, in its various guises, is only a contraction of the name Benedict popular from medieval times.

Pride and Prejudice was first published exactly two hundred years ago, in January 1813, though it was originally composed in the late 1790s as First Impressions; the early title was abandoned as another novel with the same title had since been published. Apparently Austen borrowed her new title from Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, but we may suspect that it was also chosen because it shared a pattern with her earlier published novel Sense and Sensibility. (Do keep up!)

Convoluted though Pride and Prejudice‘s history may be, Elizabeth Bennet herself has since found a place in the shortlist of the world’s most famous literary heroines. It would be intriguing to think that maybe Austen, consciously or not, borrowed William Benet’s wife’s name for her creation.

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6 thoughts on “The original Elizabeth Bennet?

    1. What a nice touch, to have an associated building and also to have a novelist still in residence! And not just Faringdon House (though I see the current House was built after Austen was born) but Salthrop House still exists.

      Jackie Herring, the Festival Director of Bath’s Jane Austen Centre, has told me that a Thomas Bennet (sic) took over the manor of Salthrop in 1739 after more than a century of his forebears leasing it. His heir Martha married a Peter Legh of Lyme Park (used by the BBC as Pemberley no less!). Their daughter Elizabeth’s second marriage was to this William Bathurst Pye who later adopted the name Bennet (or Benet, as on the monument).

      So Elizabeth was, I suppose, a Bennet twice over. Along the way she was also a Legh from her father and a Keck from her first husband, but I don’t suppose there was enough space on the memorial for all of them!

  1. Jane

    Hi
    I am a Bennet – directly descended from the Bennet’s of Widcombe Manor of Bath. My 4 x Great Grandfather was best pals with Ralph Allen of Prior Park. Bennets are buried in a Tomb next door to Widcombe Manor — Church of St Thomas a Becket. It is very probably that the Bennet reference in Jane Austen’s book was related to my ancestors — they were wealthy and prominent in Bath at the time. Bennett Street in Bath is named after them, albeit the current spelling is correct — only 1 x t in the name.

    I don’t know of the Benet on the monument — I have extensive information on my ancestors but of course, there could be a connection that I have missed.

    Cheers
    Jane

    1. This is fascinating, Jane! I wondered about Bennet Street in Bath but assumed it might possibly be related to a church or chapel dedicated to St Benedict rather than a family. And how wonderful that you share a name with Elizabeth Bennet’s elder sister in the novel! Do hope you’re able to trace a connection with the Bath Abbey Benets.

  2. Reblogged this on calmgrove and commented:
    A letter from Jane, which explains itself:
    “I am a Bennet – directly descended from the Bennet’s of Widcombe Manor of Bath. My 4 x Great Grandfather was best pals with with Ralph Allen of Prior Park. Bennets are buried in a Tomb next door to Widcombe Manor – Church of St Thomas a Becket. It is very probably that the Bennet reference in Jane Austen’s book was related to my ancestors – they were wealthy and prominent in Bath at the time. Bennett Street in Bath is named after them, albeit the current spelling is correct – only 1 x t in the name.

    I don’t know of the Benet on the monument – I have extensive information on my ancestors but of course, there could be a connection that I have missed.”

  3. Pingback: Bookish highlights | find a girl who reads

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