Spoiler alerts for Pride and Prejudice.
I have been re-thinking Lydia Bennett.
I’m re-reading Pride and Prejudice for the 33,257th time. And I’m finding that my views on Lydia Bennett are changing.
(Quick summary for those who haven’t read P&P: Lydia Bennett is the youngest of five sisters in the Bennett family. Near the end of the book, she runs off with the villain of the piece, George Wickham — she thinks of it as an elopement, but he doesn’t actually intend to marry her at first, and they don’t marry for two weeks. It’s a huge crisis in the family, and only the hasty marriage protects Lydia, and in fact the entire Bennett family, from complete social ruin. Lydia, however, is unashamed about the elopement, and unashamed about having lived with Wickham for a fortnight before their wedding.)
Lydia is presented throughout the book as, to say the least, problematic. She’s not a villain exactly, but she’s presented as not at all a good person: she’s shallow, frivolous, self-absorbed, short-sighted, concerned only with trivialities, and inconsiderate of the feelings of others. Her life is consumed with flirtation, gossip, dancing, fashion, and handsome men in uniforms. (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking — there are worse things, right?) Austen describes her as “self-willed and careless,” “ignorant, idle, and vain.” And yes. She is all of these things.
But she’s also something else.
She is a woman who thinks of her body, and her life, as hers.
She’s a woman who — in defiance of the powerful social pressures of 19th century England — decides that who she marries, and when, and when they do or don’t have sex, is nobody’s business but hers. (Well, hers and her partner’s, obviously.) She’s a woman who — when everyone around her is clutching their pearls and freaking their shit over the fact that she had sex before marriage — doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. (“She was sure they should be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when.”) She’s a woman who — shortly before her wedding, when her aunt is lecturing her about the wickedness of what she did — is ignoring her, and instead is thinking about the man she’s about to marry, and what he’s going to wear. She’s a woman who — after the marriage has been patched together — has the audacity, much to the horror of her father and eldest sisters, to not be ashamed, to take pleasure in her life, and to look forward with excitement to her future.
She’s something of a pioneer. I find myself having a sneaking admiration.
Yes, yes, I know. Different times, different mores. The unfortunate reality of 19th century England, even in the relatively loose (compared to the Victorians) Regency period, was that for a gentlewoman to have sex before marriage probably did mean social ruin, not only for herself but for her family. Part of Austen’s point was that Lydia’s behavior was selfish. She didn’t just have loose sexual morals, which Austen clearly thought of as wicked just in and of itself. She had a lack of concern for how her sexual choices would affect her family.
But — well, actually, that’s sort of my point.
Think about people who brought shame to their families by marrying someone of another race, or another religion. Think about people who brought shame to their families by marrying who they chose, and not who their families chose for them. Think about people who brought shame to their families by coming out as gay. If I’m going to admire these people for deciding that their own sexual happiness was more important than the shame and suffering brought to their families by their breaking of vile and unreasonable rules — for being, as Elizabeth Bennett herself said in her famous confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, “only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness” — why would I not admire Lydia Bennett for doing the same thing?
It’s not a stretch to say that, for 19th century English aristocracy and gentry, society was, to a great extent, structured for the purpose of protecting unmarried women’s virginity. Unmarried women were rarely left alone; they were even more rarely left alone with men other than their relatives. They were considered “compromised” if they even slept under the same roof as an unrelated man without a chaperone: even having the opportunity to have sex was enough to destroy your reputation.
In that world — where the cage around unmarried women’s virginity was locked tight, and the social penalties for breaking out were severe — Lydia Bennett decided, “Fuck that noise. The rules are fucked up, and I’m going to ignore them. My body, my right to decide.” And she snuck out of the cage, and ran off into the night.
Good for her.
I’m tempted to write an erotica story about her, from her perspective. Probably not as a simple account of her elopement and defloration: I mostly don’t find “virgin’s first time” stories interesting, and given that she’s fifteen, it’d also be somewhat creepy. I’m thinking of her a couple of decades later: a married woman, not in a particularly happy marriage, but merrily screwing around with other libertines in the “if we do it behind closed doors everyone will pretend it isn’t happening” brigade, mooching off relatives and flirting with handsome men at parties and running in and out of bedrooms. (Think Dangerous Liaisons, but less Machiavellian and more of a romp.) I’m thinking of her, older, not very wise but certainly more experienced, looking back on her bawdy life, and looking back on her elopement and defloration — and seeing it as a moment of liberation, the moment when her new life began. I’m imagining her looking at her disappointing and difficult marriage (there’s no way that’s going to turn out well, George Wickham is vile) — and looking at the life she’s had, versus the life she would have had — and deciding that, on the whole, she made a good bargain.
There’s a line in Chapter 9 that kind of sums up what I’m getting at; a line that sums up how Austen saw Lydia when she wrote her in 1812, versus how I’m seeing her today. It’s when Lydia and George have come back to the Bennett home right after their marriage, and her elder sisters (Jane and Elizabeth) are appalled at her shameless attitude. “Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless.”
Untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless.
Sounds like my kind of woman.
(Alessandro_+_Marveloos kissing photo by See-ming Lee, via Wikimedia Commons)