Sex-Positive Feminist Icons In Literature: Some Evolving Thoughts on Lydia Bennett

Spoiler alerts for Pride and Prejudice.

Lydia Bennet in P&P 1995 BBC
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.

Gay men Kiss Alessandro Marveloos
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)

Sex-Positive Feminist Icons In Literature: Some Evolving Thoughts on Lydia Bennett

17 thoughts on “Sex-Positive Feminist Icons In Literature: Some Evolving Thoughts on Lydia Bennett

  1. 2

    I think yours would be a valid interpretation if you ignore Lydia’s age. You recognise that her ‘first-time’ story would be ‘creepy’ because of her age, but doesn’t that make her an innocent exploited by an unscrupulous man, rather than an independent woman living her own life?

    The problem with Lydia isn’t just that she’s selfish, it’s that she’s short-sightedly selfish. She puts her immediate pleasure ahead of even her own long-term happiness. Like children do. It’s made clear that she is NOT happy, at the end of the book, tied to a wastrel who had to be bribed to marry her, and resents her for it.

    I think Austen lays the blame for Lydia’s behaviour with her parents, for failing both to protect her from Wickham themselves, and to teach her to think about the long-term consequences of her actions.

    I don’t know if this was intended by Austen, but the impression I get is that the older Bennett girls got much more of their Father’s attention, and therefore the benefit of his superior intelligence, than the younger girls did. Almost as if the first two were welcomed for themselves, but the later ones were increasingly resented for not being boys, and neglected as a result.* There is an almost complete correlation between birth order and moral/character weakness.

    * Of course, in Mr Bennett’s case, there is a lot more going on than the usual male arrogance of wanting a ‘mini-me’. There are his perfectly valid fears about the future welfare of his wife and daughters, but I think he irrationally takes out these fears on those very daughters, by abandoning their upbringing to a mother whom he knows to be of weak character herself.

  2. 3

    I’m currently on a bit of a Victorian fiction jag (lots of it is free on Kindle) and in a number of cases, the “bad”, untamed woman is far more interesting than the virtuous heroine. An obvious example is Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, where Becky Sharp is spendidly vivid, while, a few months after reading the novel, I can’t even recall the name of the v.h. I’ve just finished Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, where the charming, flirty, superficial, dishonest (though good-natured) Cynthia is far more interesting than v.h. Molly (although Molly does show some sparks of spirit). But it is really hard to make the v.h. interesting: Dorothea in George Eliot’s Middlemarch is almost uniquely so.

  3. 4

    This essay did make me re-think Lydia, but only a little. #2 Ruth pretty much hit the nail on the head; Jane and Lizzy were born before Mr. and Mrs. Bennett were desperate for a son. So, Mr. Bennett could welcome them and enjoy them as his daughters. Lydia was probably their last chance for a son, and so must have been a disappointment. To both parents. Further reason to think Ruth is right: even Lizzy complains to her father that he has to get his act together and start parenting his youngest daughter. She demands it of him right before he lets Lydia go to Brighton.
    My own humble opinion is that Lydia wishes to be as socially loved as Lizzy. Lizzy is liked wherever she goes, since even her more impertinent jokes are still good fun. But Lydia has none of Lizzy’s self-control, so her humor ends up coming off as brash and mean. This really could be laid at the feet of the parents; Lizzy no doubt benefited from her father’s affection, and therefore his reading tastes and example. Lydia, cared for only by her mother, could only watch Lizzy and think that she could do the same, when she doesn’t have the smarts behind the wit.

  4. 5

    #3 Nick Gotts

    I agree with you about the ‘virtuous heroines’. Although people rave about Mansfield Park, I’ve always liked it the least of Austen’s novels, because Fanny Price is ‘virtuous’ to the point of being positively wimpy. And the guy she is in love with, and finally wins, is a bit of a stuck-up prig. (Although I don’t agree with some that Henry Crawford is more attractive. He’s an entitled asshole with boundary issues, which is worse than being a stuck-up prig.)

  5. 6

    I think yours would be a valid interpretation if you ignore Lydia’s age. You recognise that her ‘first-time’ story would be ‘creepy’ because of her age, but doesn’t that make her an innocent exploited by an unscrupulous man, rather than an independent woman living her own life?

    Ruth @ #2: Oh, Wickham is definitely an exploiter, of Lydia’s youth and lack of knowledge of the world, among many other things. Lydia’s choice — if you can call it that, given how impulsive and thoughtless is was — was an incredibly poor one. (In a better time, she could have done teenaged sexual experimenting without, as you eloquently put it, being “tied to a wastrel who had to be bribed to marry her, and resents her for it.” Or, as someone on FB eloquently put it, “shackling herself for life to a dickhead.”) Yes, if I were to write anything like a happy story for her, it would be at least somewhat off-canon, even if I acknowledged the unhappiness of their marriage and made her happy in spite of it.

    But as poorly thought-out as her defiance was, I still find something admirable in it. (I’d say that the severe consequences made it even more admirable, except that she clearly wasn’t thinking about those consequences.)

    Interesting point about the parents’ attention to their children waning as each new daughter was born. Yes, that does explain a lot — including Mary, who is so desperate for approval, and so unaware of how to get it.

    Nick Gotts @ #3: Totally agreed about the virtuous heroines. That’s much of what makes Elizabeth Bennett such a great heroine — she’s wonderful, but she’s not at all perfect, and both she and Darcy have to get over themselves and become better people in order to not just get each other, but to deserve each other. I actually don’t like “Emma” partly for this reason: Mr. Knightley is presented as such a paragon of perfection, a virtuous hero if you like (a stuck-up prig IMO, but clearly not in Austen’s) — which makes the line of their romance entirely in the direction of Emma’s improvement.

    minxatlarge @ #1: You suck! I have things to do today! I do not have time for this! This is like pointing someone at TV Tropes! NOOOOOOOO!

  6. 7

    I first read P&P at 15 for a Brit Lit class. I know now that I was probably reading things into it that weren’t there because different society, but my first impression of Lydia running away was Austen saying it was bad that Lydia’s teenager-y attitudes and belief in Wickham could ruin the lives of her family–that Lydia’s choices were hers rather than her family’s and so should only reflect so far on her parents, and not at all on her sisters.

    Somehow it made me into a staunch defender of Lydia’s right to make a decision everyone else saw as sub-optimal. These days I think Lizzy and Darcy’s love story is a lot less interesting than everything else, including LIzzy and Darcy’s own stories.

  7. 8

    The moral stance of this post, admiring someone who defies social rules in the pursuit of their own selfish happiness, regardless of the consequences, even for their own families, reminds me a lot of Ayn Rand. Despite being a near-socialist myself, I do not mean that in a bad way. Rand’s moral positioning only leads to let-them-starve capitalism if you accept certain premises about property that are simply not true. Rand’s politics were horrid, but her ethics strike me as similar to Christina’s.

  8. 9

    I’m not sure if you’ve read the Narnia books, but I’m slightly put in mind of Neil Gaiman’s The Problem of Susan. Worth googling along with the background if you don’t know it.

  9. 10

    Thank you for this post! I read Pride and Prejudice a few years ago after much pressure from friends and family that it was a great classic and a wonderful love story. I found myself deeply uncomfortable with the story’s acceptance of the social framework of marriage, and I think the contrast between Lydia and Charlotte epitomizes this. Austen seems to want us to look down on Lydia and approve of Charlotte, while I found myself feeling horrified at Charlotte’s choice – to knowingly choose to spend her life with a man she disliked and certainly did not love – and appreciative of Lydia’s determination to find her own path in the world and choose her own happiness, regardless of what other people thought of her (even if her judgement of who would make her happy was rather lacking).

  10. 11

    I think that Mrs. Bennett deserves a bit more credit than she usually gets, also.

    I mean, her situation is really pretty dire. She is one heart attack (her husband’s) away from a truly horrible life for herself and all of her daughters. Her frantic desperation to get at least one of them married well isn’t the sign of a weak mind — it is absolutely, 100% the logical thing for someone in her position to do.

    Lizzie is also in a poor position to criticize Lydia for not putting her family first. Girls were supposed to take the hit and enter into loveless marriages to secure the future comfort of their relatives. Lizzie has the opportunity to do so, and shuns it, twice. It’s pretty clear that she puts her own desires far, far ahead of the happiness of her five closest relatives.

  11. 12

    I think you’re on to something. The caveats about Wickham being a predator first and foremost are important (his history with Georgiana Darcy are not irrelevant – and who knows how many girls were in between her and Lydia?) – but Lydia ultimately thought only of herself, and did so in a short-sighted manner. That said, you’re right that there’s something refreshingly modern in her choice.

    I do think, though, that the Bennet family’s first inclination – bring Lydia home, and with the help of friends and family peddle a polite lie, thus keeping her (and her sisters) marriageable AND keep her free of Wickham – bears remembering. It was only when Lydia flatly refused to cooperate that the backup (a shotgun wedding) plan was enacted.

    I do want to quibble with ksnider’s reading of Charlotte Lucas – Austen is not holding her up as a role model. Charlotte is, by contrast, a case study in just how limited the options of a woman of her class were. She feels cooped up at home, and is compelled to take care of her younger siblings and help her mother around the house. If she does not marry, she will spend the rest of her life at the house and be eventually relegated to a sad footnote in the family history. She, in short, has very little future if she does not marry. Charlotte is, at 27, fast approaching the age in which she will be “too old” to be a bride. She isn’t an heiress (Sir William has some money, but not enough to give her the massive dowry that would attract hordes of men) and isn’t deemed a great beauty either (also something that would attract a suitor). Mr. Collins offers her (1) a life away from Herefordshire, (2) an income to live comfortably on, (3) social respectability, and (4) a future (he has a wealthy and powerful patron in Lady Catherine, so he’s likely to go far, and anywhere he goes Charlotte would be tucked safely in alongside; and Charlotte probably considers raising her own children preferable to raising her siblings). Charlotte Lucas is offered the choice between being stuck raising her siblings (and, eventually, caring for her elderly parents) while being pitied by society and marrying an upwardly mobile yet profoundly stupid man. Both options suck, but Charlotte decides she’d prefer the latter – and then arranges her married life such that she hardly ever has to be in the same room alone with her husband, which hints at her opinion of him.

  12. 13

    I think someone should write a Lydia’s eye view of the story. I’m actually reading P&P right now, I’m a bit past Darcy’s eye-popping letter, so the criticism of Mrs Bennet and the two youngest daughters is still fresh.

    As I recall from the Emma Thompson version. Lydia is oblivious to the deeply suspect nature of her ‘marriage.’ She is scarcely a positive role model.

    There is plenty of room for exploring the idea of Lydia as a model of sexual autonomy and ‘writing around’ her stupidity and shallowness. Marduk knows, Austen wrote under a veil of propriety that leaves so much under wraps that it would not be a big stretch to impose a really aggressive subtext onto P&P.

  13. 15

    I think the problem with Lydia is that her choice isn’t what I would nowadays call “informed consent”. She’s clearly ignorant of the implications of her actions and that her relatives had to “rescue” her. She didn’t say “fuck that shit, I don’t care if we get married or not, this is what I want”, she simply thought she’d taken one of the possible ways of getting married: to elope. If I were to put her in a modern form, she wouldn’t be the young woman who says “I don’t care about people calling me a slut, I’m going to have fun casual sex”, but the young woman who totally believes some guy that he loves her, that he’s clean and the she can’t get pregnant if he pulls out on time.

  14. 16

    Since this is my first time commenting and I’m going to leave a link, this will probably languish in moderation for a while, but this post made me think you might enjoy this:
    A Most Determined Flirt (1597 words) by Lempo Soi
    Summary: Lydia likes soldiers.

    (It’s an explicit bit of fanfic including not-very-clearly negotiated kink, but it’s very much on point with Lydia getting what she wants, when she wants it, how she wants it.)

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