Tuesday, November 26, 2013


My significant other recently finished up a long-term project at work, and we celebrated this weekend by catching up on our viewing of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, an updating of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in video-blog form. Though I've never considered Austen's class politics all that progressive, I always took it for granted that when it came to gender, Austen was an author well worth feminist praise. But watching the final twenty episodes of LBD, and thinking about the decisions the writers of the series made in order to update the story for a 21st century audience, made me realize how, at least in the case of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet's feminism is established in large part at the cost of another young woman: her younger sister, Lydia.

(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
But with only a few missteps (see Su's explanation/apology for the slut-shaming in the early episodes here) Su and his all-female staff of writers managed to create an updated vision of Pride and Prejudice that simultaneously hews to the novel's storyline and themes and presents women as mistresses of their own fates. Jane has a job in fashion design (albeit a low-paying one); Lizzie is in grad school, pursuing Communications; even Lydia attends community college. The Bennet "estate" is no longer entailed, although the family is experiencing financial difficulties, the details of which the parents do not discuss with their children. Mr. Collins is no longer a relative looking to marry a Bennet sister out of guilt at his future inheriting of Mr. Bennet's estate, but instead is presented as a (rather inept) businessman bearing job offers. Charlotte pursues the job offer Lizzie rejects, not because she has no other options, but because she is more pragmatic about her career than is Lizzie, and is willing to accept a less than ideal work situation in order to bring her closer to her goals. Each of these updates struck me as not only in keeping with the spirit of Austen's original story, but also respectful of contemporary women's abilities and rights.

Lydia running off with Wickham in the
2005 film version of Pride & Prejudice
As I've been slowly catching up on the episodes since watching the first this summer, though, I've been wondering just how the writers would deal with the one episode in the book that seemed both vitally important to the plot and yet inherently, unfixably sexist: the shame that Lydia brings upon her family by running off with Wickham without the benefit of marriage. In 2013, a woman having sex outside of wedlock is hardly viewed as scandalous, never mind an act destined to rain opprobrium down on her extended family. But in Austen's book, Darcy's intervention to bring about Lydia and Wickham's marriage is the straw that breaks the back of Lizzie's dismal opinion of her former suitor; if he's willing to put himself in the midst of such a shameful situation, he must truly love her, Lizzie is forced to recognize. How could the writers omit such a scene but still convince Lizzie of Darcy's worth? How could they leave it in, and still maintain their progressive depiction of women?

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.

In LBD, Lydia's character initially seems an uncomplicated updated version of Austen's Lydia: a party girl, more interested in going out drinking and ogling cute guys than in her schoolwork or in any creative endeavor comparable to Jane's fashion designing or Lizzie's vlog. But even in some of the early episodes, the writers of LBD give Lydia a line or two indicating that her wild behavior stems in part from her feelings of being ignored by, or left out by, her two older sisters. And when Lydia makes her own series of spin-off vlogs, vlogs that show us the story from her point of view, we get an even stronger sense of Lydia's motivations. Not just the story of her interactions with George Wickham, but also her thoughts about her role in the family. Lydia becomes more than just a figure of fun, or a negative foil against which we are to judge the less wild Elizabeth. She's granted a depth of character, one which invites us to regard her with sympathy, not just laughter or scorn.

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.

When I first saw the big reveal, I was impressed by the writers' decision. They've taken a caricature and turned her into a human being, one for whom we, like Lizzie, have great sympathy. Lydia learns a much-needed lesson, and, through her, women watching the vlog learn to be wary, both of lying, manipulative boyfriends and of the dangers of Internet overexposure. "The Internet is forever," as Lizzie reminds Lydia, and through her, the unthinking women among her audience. Lizzie learns that her earlier slut-shaming of Lydia led in part to Lydia's low opinion of herself, and to her willingness to listen to Wickham's lies. Lizzie and Lydia grow closer as a result of the experience, women supporting one another in the face of male abuse.

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?


  1. Very pertinent points. I thought Lydia's spin-off blog was absolutely brilliant and redeemed the earlier slut-shaming -- but then the total change in her character made it seem as if she was "cured" and her entire personality had been a form of acting out.

  2. Excellent post. I have not watched the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. I should have, but I am so distracted these days. I am just starting to read 'Longbourn.' Hope I finish before the film comes out. I love Lydia as a character. I believe Austen was inspired by Sheridan's Lydia in 'The Rivals.' In his play her character was set forward as pure youthful silliness and played for comedy while Jane adds a bit more moral disapproval . The point was that her careless behavior had the potential to destroy her sisters' reputations. On the other hand, Mr. Collins' letter to Mr. Bennet (chapter 48) were much more sinister and without a drop of Christian charity. I always found an ambivalent opening for interpretation provided by the author with regards her true feelings for her character. I have written three Lydia's (all Regency). Two of them ('Goodly Creatures' and 'Mr Darcy Cottage of Earthly Delights') take a different trajectory than canon, but I think retain that delightful sense of boldness she has in P & P. Both make serious mistakes, but both mature from the events without having to shed their confidence and forwardness. My hope is to one day write a Lydia married to Wickham who follows the drum and spends time in Spain and is at Waterloo. Sort of Lydia as Heyer's 'The Spanish Bride.' War could be a great maturer while still utilizing her Austen given character traits.

    1. Ah, I didn't know the Sheridan connection -- will have to take a look at THE RIVALS! Thanks!

      Lydia as Heyer's SPANISH BRIDE -- sounds fascinating!