Miss Lydia Bennet! What can we say about the youngest of the Bennet beauties? The first thing we notice is that she is determined to have fun. She dances every dance and she is so absorbed by her games that she can sometimes forget everything else – even the officers. She describes how she and some of her friends dress up Chamberlayne – perhaps a servant of her uncle’s? – in women’s clothing (yes, there is cross-dressing in Austen). She chases the redcoats, which some find in bad taste but does show energy.
The second thing is that she refuses to listen to others. She never listens to her sister Mary, and when her cousin Mr. Collins starts reading aloud from Fordyce’s Sermons, she interrupts him before he has finished three pages. Her parents and her sisters upbraid her for her rudeness, but in reality Lydia has spared them a very dull evening. We can understand Lydia’s policy of not listening, with parents and aunts and four older sisters, always ready to tell her what to do.
Although last in a family of five girls, she refuses to remain in the background and elbows her way to the front. Encouraged by her mother, at fifteen she is already “out” in society, a decision that Elizabeth agrees with Lady Catherine is ill-advised (although not even her ladyship could have stopped Lydia). But still Lydia is the youngest, and being the youngest meant that in many respects she was the least in her family.
Lydia’s position certainly bothered her. Rank was very important back then, dictating where you sat and where you stood and where you walked. In the BBC/A&E 1995 version of Pride & Prejudice (my favorite screen version) this rule is carefully attended to. When the Bennets leave church, near the beginning of the series, to walk on home, the order is clear: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet lead, then Jane and Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and then finally Lydia, who as the youngest is always at the end. When an errand needs to be done, Mrs. Bennet automatically gives it to the youngest unmarried daughter present. “Lydia, ring the bell,” says the mother, and then later, after Lydia is married, it becomes, “Kitty, ring the bell.”
This matter of rank and precedence is paramount in Austen’s other books. In Persuasion it causes strife between Mrs. Musgrove and Mary Eliot Musgrove, because the latter, as the daughter of a baronet, outranks her mother-in-law. In Emma, brides always receive precedence, a custom which greatly annoys Emma with respect to Mrs. Elton. Lydia is delighted when, upon her marriage to Mr. Wickham after a scandalous elopement, she can move to the front. “Ah! Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman” (Chapter 51). It is a great moment of triumph for her; one can imagine that she has been wanting to do this ever since she could toddle.
Another reason for Lydia’s marrying is the fuss that is made about getting married, especially by her mother. Mrs. Bennet wants her daughters to marry for other, more practical reasons; when Mr. Bennet dies, they will be poor, and so her daughters need husbands to support them. Marrying her daughters is the main goal of life and Lydia has absorbed this aim, without the sensible precaution of making sure that the man has sufficient income. This can be seen in a letter from Elizabeth to her aunt Gardiner, when she is discussing Mr. Wickham’s interest in another young woman who recently inherited some money. “Kitty and Lydia … are young in the ways of the world, and not yet open to the mortifying conviction that handsome young men must have something to live on as well as the plain” (Chapter 26).
By all accounts Wickham was extremely handsome. Another reason that Lydia wanted him in part because he was desired by others. Lydia is like the kid who wants the best toys and whatever is trending now. And we must remember that Elizabeth did not warn her sister about Wickham and his character. This actually makes me feel somewhat sorry for Lydia.
With all these attributes in her personality and the pressures of her environment, and with the raging hormones of a sixteen-year-old, Lydia’s elopement with Lieutenant Wickham is not surprising.
Lydia really did expect it to be an elopement, with the happy conclusion of marriage, and despite Wickham’s reluctance, she achieves her goal. When Mr. Darcy discovers where she is, she refuses to take his counsel and to leave Mr. Wickham. “But he found Lydia absolutely resolved on remaining where she was. She cared for none of her friends, she wanted no help of his, she would not hear of leaving Wickham. She was sure that they would be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when” (Chapter 53). And actually, since the society would have condemned her for having lived with him and not getting married, once she had eloped, her only option was to marry him.
Although they marry, the Wickhams do not live happily ever after. Their affection does not last, and Austen indicates that Jane and Elizabeth will always be applied to for settling their bills. Wickham and Lydia keep moving around, too, always “in quest of a cheap situation.” They are punished for their indiscretions, for having gone against the strictures of that society, for letting their passions be stronger than their virtue.
But one of the wonderful qualities of Jane Austen is that most of her characters are so vivid that I feel as if I know them. And because of this, I can imagine how they would behave in other situations.
What would happen to Lydia if she had grown up in today’s society? With her creativity and enterprise, Lydia would make a great businesswoman. She might even have her own reality show, and several million followers on Twitter. She still probably would have eloped with Wickham, but she would certainly not stay married to him. She might go through a number of projects; she might take a terribly bad turn with drugs and addiction – or she might sail through all obstacles as the greatest success of all. I agree that she certainly would spend a lot, because she would always want new toys, but it’s also possible that she could earn a lot too.
Poor Lydia! She is condemned, through the morality and the limitations of her time, to a not-so-happy ending. Yet I don’t think she feels sorry for herself. Although Elizabeth may be the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, Lydia is certainly the heroine of her own story. The other characters in the novel are horrified for her having run off with what she has done, but of course, these days, most of society would not condemn her for having lived with a man before she married him. So I do not condemn her. In fact, I rather admire Lydia for ignoring some of her society’s strictures.
Elizabeth may disapprove of Lydia, but even she recognizes that they have similarities. Although Lydia expresses her sentiments coarsely, their sentiments are similar. Lydia is rather like Elizabeth in that she takes action when needed, or even when it is not needed. In fact it is the energy of both Lydia and Elizabeth that drives most of the story. More than any of the other Bennets, Elizabeth and Lydia have inherited their mother’s vitality.
I’m sure that any party that Lydia throws would be a blast. Wouldn’t you go?
About the Author: Victoria Grossack is the author of two mysteries set in Jane Austen’s story-verses: The Meryton Murders: A Mystery Set in the Town of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen’s Emma. She has written a bunch of other books too, which you can learn about at her website, www.tapestryofbronze.com .