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.