A few nights ago, I watched the first installment of Death Comes to Permberley, originally written by PD James as a pastische of Pride and Prejudice. Of course, this led to an evening spent watching Pride and Prejudice—the one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle (it’s the only one that truly counts, right?). I have not watched the mini-series in years, so with fresh eyes, I began to wonder about the peripheral characters in Jane Austen’s novel. Pride and Prejudice is without a doubt a “romance” but it is also a female-centric novel, as most of it moves through the eyes of the female Bennets—not just Elizabeth and Jane but also through Mrs. Bennet and Lydia.
Perhaps, because now I am a mother, I look at Mrs. Bennet and even Lydia with less prejudice, and more sympathy and understanding. For instance, I’ve never really noticed how irresponsible Mr. Bennet behaved by not only failing to save for his daughters’ future but his lack of interest in securing good marriages for them. Arguably, Mrs. Bennet did enough machinations on her own to get her daughters to make desirable marriages as to make Mr. Bennet’s efforts immaterial. On and on throughout the novel, Mrs. Bennet who was described by Jane as “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” was not a likeable, or even a sympathetic character. But personality aside, one can appreciate the fact that she was the only one in her family that seemed to understand the pressing need to have her daughters’ future financially secure. With limited options during the time, a good marriage was the only way majority of women could have a secure and stable future. Certainly, in today’s time, if Mrs. Bennet pushed her daughters to make practical marriages she may never hear from her daughters again. But today, women have varied options that were not even imaginable in Jane’s time. The need for her daughters to marry well is not negated by the vulgarity of Mrs. Bennet’s personality, which I think overshadows the importance of what she, as a mother, was trying to do for her daughters.
Which leads me to Lydia. Would it be truly shocking if I say that Lydia serves as a feminist face? Not a model, because let’s face it, Lydia’s lack of tack and selfishness just makes me stabby (and laugh as she is sometimes laughable as Jane meant her to be), but Lydia’s openness about her wants, her sexuality should not be shamed. I do think Jane did not think very well of Lydia as she called Lydia “untamed” and “wild” which of course is the reflection of the social mores of the time. In this Jane’s judgment of Lydia, you can see how even though Jane was progressive in terms of portraying a strong heroine, she was still deeply bound by the conventions of her time. However, even in today’s fictional characters, women like Lydia are rarely
celebrated, and are often side-eyed by other women. She reminds me of Samantha in Sex and the City—successful, beautiful, and smart, often her characterization bordered on cartoonish. Is it at all possible that post-era of burning bras and in the time of selfies, that we are no more evolved as a society than during Jane’s time? We still condemn women who revel in their sexuality as “sluts” but do not do the same for men. This double standard existed during Jane’s time (although in worse terms as the sin of a sister/daughter also condemned the rest of the family) and sadly, still exists today. In a lot of ways I feel bad for Lydia. She was too young to have been “out” in society, yet she was expected to follow norms of social relations without the maturity to help her navigate them. Courtship during this time was complicated, full of nuances and even fuller with judgment. How was a 15-year-old supposed to know all the arbitrary rules? Lydia was annoying and foolish because she was fifteen. In that sense, nothing much has changed because almost every 15-year-old has acted foolishly at least once. The way I see it, our 15-year-old selves are no more different than the 15-year-old Lydia. We were just fortunate enough to be born two hundred years later.