(Note: Spoilers ahead for both Pride and Prejudice the novel and for The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. If you haven't yet seen LBD, give yourself a Thanksgiving treat and check it out here. And can you truly call yourself a lover of romance if you've never read Pride and Prejudice???)
Updating the story of P&P for a contemporary audience presented series developers Hank Green and Bernie Su with some clear feminist challenges. Marriage as the only option for a gentlewoman? Daughters not allowed to inherit their father's estate? Money as a vital (if not the only) reason for forming a romantic alliance with another? Few such dated references to nineteenth-century patriarchal assumptions would fly with contemporary viewers, even if presented in updated dress.
|LBD's Charlotte, Lizzie, Lydia, and Jane|
|Lydia running off with Wickham in the|
2005 film version of Pride & Prejudice
By turning Austen's Lydia, characterized by "high animal spirits, and a sort of natural self-consequence" into a victim.
In the novel, Lydia's character functions both as plot contrivance and figure of laughter. That laughter stems from her inappropriate behavior, behavior that other characters denigrate left and right: her father, Bingley's sisters, Darcy, and most cuttingly, Elizabeth:
"If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment. Her character will be fixed, and she will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous. A flirt, too, in the worst and meanest degree of flirtation....Vain, ignorant, idle, and absolutely uncontrolled!" (Chapter 41).
Much of the proof of Elizabeth's specialness depends on this contrast between the wild, vain Lydia and her better-educated, far more witty, and far more well-behaved sister. We're never invited into Lydia's point of view; the text invites us to identify so closely with Elizabeth, insists that we take her values for our own, that I've rarely thought to question its depiction of Lydia, or its judgment of her behavior.
And then the final twist: a truly manipulative Wickham woos Lydia, tells her he loves her, convinces her to allow him to videotape them having sex, then, unbeknownst to Lydia, sells the sex tape to a website, which begins a countdown to the big reveal of "YouTube star Lydia Bennet." Romantic abuse and sexual betrayal, rather than joint flight into sexual ruin, is the updating the LBD writers choose to make their story relevant to 21st century audiences.
But then I began to wonder. After Wickham's betrayal, Lydia become a pale, wan, lifeless vision of her former self, far from the vivacious, teasing, flirty young woman featured in Lizzie's early vlogs. Even after being saved from true Internet exposure through Darcy's purchasing of the web company with the rights to her sex video, Lydia never seems to regain the high spirits that characterized her in the early months of the show. In contrast, the Lydia of the book does not buy into the judgments others make of her, even after her "ruin": "Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless," the narrator describes her after she returns to Longbourne as Mrs. Wickham (Chapter 51). Though the text dooms Lydia to a less than fulfilling marriage ("His affection for her soon sunk into indifference; her's lasted a little longer; and in spite of her youth and her manners, she retained all the claims to reputation which her marriage had given her [Chapter 61]), it makes it clear that her high spirits remain intact.
So which is worse? A Lydia we're encouraged to despise, but who refuses to (or is too stupid to) despise herself? Or a Lydia with whom we're invited to sympathize, especially after she becomes a victim?