Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Lydia Bennett, Sexy Heroine?

Once an author turns a book loose upon the world, there's no telling what readers will do with it. This seems to be even more so the case with books get a "fan" following, as fandom often seems to involve an over-identification with characters which inspires a desire for wish fulfillment and bending a story's meaning in order to suit the self identifications one has layered on top of it.

Such a case is this strange post in which the author considers the idea that in Lydia Bennett in Pride and Prejudice might be a liberated feminist icon.
Lydia is presented throughout the book as, to say the least, problematic. She’s not a villain exactly, but she’s presented as not at all a good person: she’s shallow, frivolous, self-absorbed, short-sighted, concerned only with trivialities, and inconsiderate of the feelings of others. Her life is consumed with flirtation, gossip, dancing, fashion, and handsome men in uniforms. (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking — there are worse things, right?) Austen describes her as “self-willed and careless,” “ignorant, idle, and vain.” And yes. She is all of these things.

But she’s also something else.

She is a woman who thinks of her body, and her life, as hers.

She’s a woman who — in defiance of the powerful social pressures of 19th century England — decides that who she marries, and when, and when they do or don’t have sex, is nobody’s business but hers. (Well, hers and her partner’s, obviously.) She’s a woman who — when everyone around her is clutching their pearls and freaking their shit over the fact that she had sex before marriage — doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. (“She was sure they should be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when.”) She’s a woman who — shortly before her wedding, when her aunt is lecturing her about the wickedness of what she did — is ignoring her, and instead is thinking about the man she’s about to marry, and what he’s going to wear. She’s a woman who — after the marriage has been patched together — has the audacity, much to the horror of her father and eldest sisters, to not be ashamed, to take pleasure in her life, and to look forward with excitement to her future.

She’s something of a pioneer. I find myself having a sneaking admiration.
In that world — where the cage around unmarried women’s virginity was locked tight, and the social penalties for breaking out were severe — Lydia Bennett decided, “Fuck that noise. The rules are fucked up, and I’m going to ignore them. My body, my right to decide.” And she snuck out of the cage, and ran off into the night.

Good for her.
She goes on to talk about how she could envision writing a fanfic exploring Lydia's later life:
I’m thinking of her, older, not very wise but certainly more experienced, looking back on her bawdy life, and looking back on her elopement and defloration — and seeing it as a moment of liberation, the moment when her new life began. I’m imagining her looking at her disappointing and difficult marriage (there’s no way that’s going to turn out well, George Wickham is vile) — and looking at the life she’s had, versus the life she would have had — and deciding that, on the whole, she made a good bargain.
There are various peculiar things about this approach to the novel.

It enshrines self-will as a sort of highest good -- though only, presumably, in a certain space. In the early 21st Century, people no longer seem to want their Nietzsche unconstrained. However, there are certain circumscribed areas in which people still find the idea of doing what you want simply because you want it admirable, and the bedroom is often one of those.

The dislike of Wickham thus strikes me as kind of interesting, in that it underscores the subjectivity of this kind of approach. If we're to admire an approach to life in which people say "my body is mine and I'm going to do what I want with it regardless of how other people feel about it", you would think that Wickham would actually be a sort of hero. Lydia is, at root, a pretty shallow character eager to define herself by how attractive she is to men, particularly men in uniform. Wickham, on the other hand, really is someone simply out to get what he wants regardless of how other people feel about it.

By the subjective standards of modern mores, his conduct is seen as bad in the context of the story only in that we have main characters who are those he seeks to prey upon in satisfying his desires. Lydia is given a pass on this because it's held that her family had no particular right to expect her to behave a way that didn't impoverish her and disgrace them. But really, there's no reason Wickham couldn't be given the same pass if one made the subjective decision to consider him the main character instead. Wickham is, after all, willing to discard not only sexual convention but class conventions as well. He's doubly liberated!

At the root of all this confusion is the mistake of seeing "freedom" or doing what one desires as an end in and of itself. What Austen rightly sees as the problem with Lydia is that she has no interest in pursuing what is good (i.e. virtuous) rather see simply seeks gratification, whether in the form of having many officer flatterers, or having all the neighbors recognize that she is now married.


Cminor said...

She reads an awful lot more rational thought into Lydia's character than I think is there. I imagine the Lydias of the world like rules well enough when they work in their favor.

Enbrethiliel said...


I think that she gives Lydia a lot more credit than the character deserves. Lydia didn't reason or even intuit that "the rules are f***ed up," but acted without any sense whatsoever.

For me, the funniest part is where the critic blames Wickham for the failure of the marriage. As if any marriage with Lydia would have turned out well.

Jenny said...

"I’m imagining her looking at her disappointing and difficult marriage (there’s no way that’s going to turn out well, George Wickham is vile) — and looking at the life she’s had, versus the life she would have had — and deciding that, on the whole, she made a good bargain."

Not bloody likely.

"Hey, my whole life sucked, but I got to have premarital sex for a week or two, so it was all worth it."

Is that the argument?

What's the old analogy? The rules exist to keep you from falling off the cliff? Not many people dashed on the rocks look around and are glad they fell off the cliff.

Skywalker said...

I find it stunning that the author doesn't realize what an idiot Lydia is from a purely practical point of view. She runs off with a guy who doesn't love her or want to marry her. He wants to have sex with her and then drop her. That would leave her alone, with out any way to support herself, with the added social consequence of never being able to marry. Quite possibly her sisters would never be able to marry because of what she did, which would cast the whole family into comparative poverty after Mr. Bennett died.