EMILY RIVETT reassesses the view that the youngest sister from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is “the silliest girl in all England”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that women have been villainised in literature and blamed for the downfall of their male counterpart since the dawn of time. Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice is no exception to this trend.
The main plot of the novel focuses on the widely recognised Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy and their relationship stemming from hatred to love. This main storyline often puts the other four sisters in the backseat, not being given as much complexity and development as their sister. As the youngest daughter from the Bennet family, it is Lydia who suffers most because of this, labelled by many as the villain of the novel. All it takes is a quick google search of ‘Lydia Bennet’ and the top two blog posts which pop up are titled, ‘Can We All Agree That Lydia Bennet is a Brat?’, where her elopement to Wickham is regarded as an “act of self-obsession” (Brya Bromfield, 2020). The next blog was called, ‘Lydia Bennet – Most Irritating Character of All Time!’ Lydia is labelled “the irritating character” who the writer “always wanted to slap” (Mom On the Side, Sandra F, 2013). In a book full of characters whose lives are dictated by prejudice, a man who preys on multiple girls who both happen to be the young age of fifteen – does it perfect sense to label the eccentric teenage girl the true villain of the novel?
Misogyny in classic novels
Readers of classic novels have all been forced to accept the blatant examples of misogyny and sexism found in them, from witch-like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations to Myrtle’s undignified death in The Great Gatsby. These scenes would be followed with the classic excuse: “this is how things were back then” or “it was a different time”. The same rule is applied to Lydia when she makes the mistake of running away and eloping to Scotland with Mr. Wickham, after being groomed not only by him, but also by her own mother. For the entirety of the book, we see Mrs Bennet constantly encouraging Lydia’s frivolous behaviour. It is clear she is adopting characteristics from her older sisters as she is still discovering herself and her own personality, having both Jane’s spirit and Elizabeth’s tongue. Is Lydia simply the bratty younger sister of the novel’s heroin,e to be merely used as a device for Austen to add some drama to her story and move the plot along? Or is there more going on beneath the surface of her character?
The tragedy of Lydia Bennet
Typically, readers who villainise Lydia, feel sympathy for Charlotte Lucas. Charlotte is the best friend of Elizabeth Bennet, who also happens to be twenty-seven and unmarried, making her a spinster and outcast. She becomes the novel’s victim as she settles for the grotesque Mr. Collins, whose presence alone repulses the Bennet sisters. I’ve always struggled to understand this case or feel a great amount of sympathy for Charlotte – who is considerably lucky when compared to other women of her time. She has the ultimate
benefit of knowledge and life experience, knowing exactly what she is getting herself into as she enters the marriage with a fully developed brain and the ability to consent to a marriage. This is a skill Lydia understandably lacks because she is a child who acts on whim, as she blindly enters a relationship with the first officer who said all the right things and took interest in her. The tragedy of Lydia Bennet is found in her blatant naivety and innocence, which is abused by Mr. Wickham due to the lack of guidance from the people who she was meant to rely on. She believes Wickham loves her and wants to marry her, unbeknownst to her that it was only because he struck a deal with Mr. Darcy and was promised a handsome sum of money he would have been stupid to refuse. Wickham is a dog. His main priority when it comes to marriage is ensuring he ends on top, with the highest sum possible.
Who’s to blame for Lydia’s actions?
Lydia blindly acts on her desire and own pleasure, failing to think through the long-term effects of her actions and the consequences they will inflict on herself and others. Yes, this is selfish and self-destructive, but are you really going to argue that you weren’t even slightly selfish or self-destructive at fifteen? She reaches for a version of her life which is unattainable, putting Wickham on a pedestal, blindsided by her main goal on life, drilled into her from adolescence by her mother, i.e., to secure a husband of rank and save her family from financial ruin. An unimaginable amount of pressure for a young girl to carry on her shoulders. With no real parental guidance from her parents or sisters, can we really blame Lydia for falling into Wickham’s trap? Mrs Bennet makes it clear that Lydia is her favourite daughter as she is the most willing to engage with the officers at social events, making her the most prominent Bennet in the marriage market. Mr Bennet has little to do with the upbringing of his daughters and locks himself away in his study, only showing interest in Elizabeth and Jane. It is this treatment which would make Lydia do everything in her power to remain in her mother’s good graces, entering public life at a very young age.
No love for Lydia?
It is clear by the end of the novel that Lydia has not accepted the reality of her marriage, that there is nothing beyond lust between her and Wickham. Once married, she returned “untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless. She turned from sister to sister demanding their congratulations” (Pride and Prejudice, p. 262). It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Lydia as her family look on her with an unspoken shame, as she lives in blissful ignorance and naivety, believing them all to be jealous. Dennis W. Allen (1985) offers great insight into Lydia’s character, making it clear it will only be so long until Lydia becomes unsatisfied in her loveless marriage.
“Yet, having refused to lack anything, Lydia ends the novel unsatisfied. Her marriage having sunk into mutual indifference, her income insufficient, Lydia is condemned to eternal want, both romantic and financial. Unrenounced, desire can never be satisfied. It is because she fails to recognise this principle that there can finally be, finally, no love for Lydia”. (‘No Love for Lydia: The Fate of Desire in Pride and Prejudice’, p. 437).
A shattered illusion In the 2004 film adaptation of the novel, there is a heart-breaking scene after Lydia returns home back to Longbourn with Mr. Wickham as a married woman. As their carriage leaves the Bennet estate, Lydia is seen to be waving off her parents and sisters. This farewell is interrupted when Wickham aggressively grabs her by the arm and pulls her back in the carriage to face him. This creates a powerful image of what lies ahead for Lydia. Her future with Wickham becomes a depressing thought to entertain, with the entire Bennet family and the reader alike knowing the excitement of being the first of her sisters to marry will eventually fade. Eventually, the glittering mirage of the life she had envisioned with Wickham will darken and she will be left with the reality when the optical illusion inevitably breaks and his mask falls.
Written by Emily Rivett
Allen, Dennis W., ‘No Love for Lydia: The Fate of Desire in Pride and Prejudice’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language Vol. 27, No. 4, The English Renaissance and Enlightenment (1985), pp. 425-443.
Attwood, Anthony, Ferguson-Bottomer, Phyllis, and Attwood, Tony, So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in 'Pride and Prejudice', (2007), p. 58.
Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice, (Wordsworth Classics, 1993).
Bromfield, Brya, ‘Can We All Agree That Lydia Bennet is a Brat?’, 2020
Dunphy, Rachel, ‘Jane Austen’s Most Widely Mocked Character is Also Her Most Subversive. In Defense of Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet’, (Literary Hub, 2017)
Sandra F, ‘Lydia Bennet – Most Irritating Character of All Time!’, Mom On the Side, 2013
Wright, Joe (dir), Pride and Prejudice, (Working Title Films, 2005).