Lydia Bennet, the Real Heroine of Pride and Pejudice (1995)

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This is the 20th anniversary of the beloved 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries, so we’re looking back at that version and Jane Austen’s world. This is the last in a series of posts about this classic adaptation!

In both the book and the glorious 1995 adaption of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the character of Elizabeth Bennet is the traditional heroine. She’s smart, witty, plucky, attractive, and, of course, the story revolves around her “prejudice” against her eventual love interest, Mr. Darcy, and his “pride,” and the mutual resolution thereof. Lizzie is one of five Bennet sisters, her elder sister Jane being considered the most beautiful, Mary is the plain one, and Kitty is a hanger-on to the youngest daughter, Lydia. And what many people may not realize is how essential the seemingly silly and flighty Lydia is to Pride and Prejudice, as Julia Sawalha’s performance drives home. While Sawalha was 10 years older than Lydia’s almost 16 years, that gave her plenty of acting experience on British TV, including Saffron on Absolutely Fabulous.

Julia Sawalha, Absolutely Fabulous

 

Lydia Turns the Plot of Pride and Prejudice

In many ways, Jane Austen uses Lydia as a means to move the plot of the Pride and Prejudice along.  Lydia brings the Wickham to the attention of the Bennet sisters in the first place, when he meets with Denny in the village (after having briefly encountered Darcy). While it begins as simply Lydia’s flirtation with any and all men in the Regiment, her noticing Wickham first is an foreshadowing of their elopement, upon which so much of the plot depends.

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Well, hello, soldier!

Likewise, Lydia is the one who insists to Mr. Bingley that he hold a ball at Netherfield. That event is when people start believing Bingley will propose to Jane, and in response, both Bingley’s sister Caroline and Mr. Darcy try to keep Jane and Bingley apart. Which Elizabeth finds out about, and that makes her dislike Darcy even more. The whole tangled web is set off because of Lydia’s demand for a party!

Then there’s the elopement itself, obviously, peak plot point of the book and the 1995 TV movie. It begins with Lydia’s demand to go to Brighton, is hinted at by letters, and then revealed with the lovers running away and finally being married. Elizabeth and Jane believe their own reputations are ruined by their sister’s action. Meanwhile, Darcy is secretly saving the day.

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

See? Everything revolves around her.

 

Lydia Bennet, a More Modern Woman

From the first words, the story of Pride and Prejudice is about marriage, and the 1995 version has become known as a romance. But I think lurking below the proprieties are more subtle messages. Elizabeth Bennet is idealized for her intelligence and morality, but when it comes right down to it, she’s a very reactive character and hardly ever active or proactive. Lizzie doesn’t do much of anything except thinking things over and talking about them with Jane (or writing letters to Jane).

When we first see Lydia in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, she’s a whirlwind of ribbons, running around in a huge fight with Kitty. In fact, she completely dominates her older sister by force of personality. Lydia is always moving, playing, dancing, gambling, and always talking and even eating. She’s no delicate flower.

All along, Lydia is far more an active character — she not only moves the plot along, she actively gets what she wants and needs in life. Dare I say it, Lydia even has a sex drive! The minute the Regiment comes to town, her teenage hormones start raging. Lydia makes a beeline for any and every event where she can flirt like crazy with the men in uniform. Today, we think it’s no big deal for a 15-year-old girl to squeal about boys, but let’s not forget that female desire wasn’t a generally acceptable topic for novels or drama until recently. Imagine your great-grandmother watching Sex in the City — that’s about how shocking Lydia’s flirtatious behavior might have been.

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Let’s get it on.

Interestingly, in the novel, Lydia is more adamant about marrying fast, before her sisters, than in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice or any filmed version. She critiques Lizzie for rejecting Mr. Collins (while admitting there’d be “no fun in it”), and she mocks Jane for being an “old maid.” Lydia sees her older sisters wasting their best years, sitting around at home, attending their parents, and waiting for Mr. Right. Lydia uses Mr. Right Now to GTFO and get laid. As Austen says, Lydia is “untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless” — a description that women like Beyonce and Angelina Jolie would be happy to have applied to them now. That’s one of the great things about Jane Austen. She can create an ahead-of-her-time, boundary-pushing character who’s crucial to the plot, but who the readers (and now, viewers), are merely amused by instead of outraged by (for contrast, see Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, et. al.).

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

LOLing.

Certainly, Julia Sawalha as Lydia is incredibly entertaining, balancing charm with a rapscallion edge. This version of the novel even gives Lydia, alone of all the ladies, an extended scene wearing only her underwear (an 1810s bodiced petticoat), during which she runs into Mr. Collins in the hallway. Sawalha’s Lydia personifies the “high animal spirits” that Austen ascribes to the youngest Bennet.

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Sorry, not sorry!

With the forthright manner of a 21st-century woman, Lydia has far more agency than any other woman in the story. Unlike passive Lizzy or especially Jane, Lydia acts on her desires when she thinks it will better her situation. And, frankly, she turns out OK in the end. Her story isn’t a morality play — Lydia doesn’t come to ruin, she isn’t ostracized or abandoned. She gets out of her father’s house and marries a hot guy. Her husband may get bored with her in the end, but Wickham will always need Lydia because she can mooch off her rich sisters to support the couple. She’s made him more dependent upon her in a nice little turnaround.

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

She’s got hers (& he just has to deal with it).

Lydia Bennet is not perfect by any means, and she’s not even admirable. But she’s not a pariah at the end of the story, and her portrayal in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice by Julia Sawalha affirms the character’s positive expression of female desire in Regency England. You go, girl!

 

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

11 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    Interesting take as I never saw Lydia as anything but immature and flighty. But if, as you postulated, all she wants is TFOH (the f…out of here), her actions show thought, a maturity to realise that in choosing Wickham, she will always have the upper hand and be sexually satisfied. Unless she does take a lover in the future. But I still favour Miss Elizabeth Bennett as my favourite character. Along with Fitzwilliam Darcy of course. Also Lydia does sort of remind me of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. The Kate Winslet version.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I definitely think Austen was doing something subtle with the character of Lydia. In 18th-c. & 19th-c. novels, it’s much more typical for a woman who runs away with a man to come to a bad end, socially or even physically (for example, in Thomas Hardy’s novels, most women who step outside of society’s rules die!).

      Reply
      • red*razors

        Ah hat’s not quite the same thing though :) Women came to bad ends in earlier fiction as censure for their deeds; Hardy’s works were a condemnation of contemporary social mores and the behaviour and attitudes of men towards women.

        Reply
        • Trystan L. Bass

          But Hardy framed the only option for women to escape Victorian strictures as death. He was pretty heavy-handed in his indictment of both society and, frankly, women (consider how he treated the actual women in his life; his personal conflict shone thru in his writing on women, & was always a fave. Hardy topic from the 1st novel under his name A Pair of Blue Eyes [a reductive title & a female main character who dies in the end!] to Tess of the Durbervilles).

          FWIW, George Eliot (IRL, Mary Ann Evans) also killed off a few morally complicated women, as in The Mill on the Floss, so it’s not just men who were up to it. Only that Hardy did it almost every time.

          Whereas Austen was more subtle & used Lydia to show how a woman might make a social mistake & live with it, without great shame. That’s a very modern idea for 1813, when P&P was first published!

          Reply
  2. Elinor

    I always loved Julia Sawalha’s performance, and your post make me appreciate her even more. I also agree when You say that some of Austen’s characters are amusing instead of outrageous (I feel this way especially about the “villains” like Lucy Steele, Mary and Henry Crawford, etc. The way they are pivotal to the plots, etc, I can’t hate them at all).

    Reply
  3. Susan

    I have but two quibbles: 1) Lizzie is not passive, she is decorous, or reserved. Jane, OTOH, is totally passive. 2) Lydia certainly didn’t set out to make Wickham dependent on her; she had no way of knowing that she would be able to make him so. She was – as you point out – “getting on the very first bus out of town”. Unless, of course, your actual point is that AUSTEN was making these points.As the author, she certainly knew what she was planning!

    Reply
  4. Marianne

    I can agree, that Lydias actions brings much of the action in the book, but… it never brings anything good.
    If no Mr Darcy, who came like a “deus ex machina” and repaired everything – she would end in some asylum or something, becuse Wickam hoped to marry well, and Lydia was only his sex toy, he would throw her away any time as soon as he met some wealthy girl ready to marry him.
    If no Lydia interference Jane and Bingley would fall in love slowely, and with no ball Darcy wouldn’t interfere so early, and later Bingley wouldn’t belived him so easly. So bringing the ball to Netherfield was a disaster for Jane..
    … and bringing Wicham to Bennets family make Lizzzy’s way to love Darcy much more complicated.
    I think that Jane Austen spare Lydia, becouse she was so young and thoughtless, not bad, and most of fault was her mothers – she should protect her doughter not spoil her. She should have some childhood, not being forced to be a women at age of 15.
    Wicham was almost 30 years guy who liked not even “sweet sixteen’s” but 15 years old girls – Lydia wasn’t his first, as we know…

    Jane Austen liked her heroines to understand rules of society, but they should act according to their own conscience, not by this rules.
    and Lydia… she doesn’t use her will, it is rather about whims…

    Reply
  5. Adina

    You definitely put Lydia in an interesting light. Even though Lydia does take agency of her own life, she still 16 and flighty, to say the least.

    Reply
  6. Susanna Knecht

    I can’t agree with you that her actions showed thought. I mean, if she wanted to leave polite society then sure, but I doubt she knew what she was doing. Her life would’ve been way more stable if she’d married some good looking and clueless young lawyer who snap her up for her pretty face! As it is they can never stay in one place too long and Jane and Lizzie’s husband’s are NOT keen on helping him out indefinitely. Sure Jane and Lizzie’s give Lydia some of their pin money sometimes but it wouldn’t have been much. Besides, the idea that she set out to make whickam dependant on her supposes a premonition of her sisters marriages, in which case it would’ve been far better to curb her personality a bit and get their help in acquiring a more affluent husband.

    Reply

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