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.
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.
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.
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.
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.).
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.
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.
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!