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

Friday, July 14, 2017

Lydia Wickham, Feminist Icon?

One of the more incongruous moments of my attendance at the Trying To Say God conference on Catholic Literature was sitting in on a panel entitled “Not Always Sweet: Beyond Liturgical Cupcakes in Catholic Women’s Writing”. I didn't necessarily expect to like the panel, but MrsDarwin was going to support a friend who was among the panelists, and I had nowhere else to be.

It was a wide ranging discussion, some parts of which were quite interesting, but one exchange that particularly struck me (in part because I was nervously looking to see if the nine-months-pregnant MrsDarwin would swarm over the desks with a cry of "Fight Me!") went as follows:
"We're talking about a woman's story. And if you a look at the tradition of women writing for women, there's a very narrow space in which you're allowed to tell stories. And, you all know what the basic story is: She needs a man. Is she going to find one? Oh, he's so mean! Oh, but he's nice! We live happily ever after. That's her story."

"I love Jane Austen!"


"Yeah, I teach Jane Austen every year, and I see what she's doing and I appreciate it, but there are so many more stories out there. Think about all the women in Austen novels whose stories don't get told because they're not pretty, because they're not sweet, because they haven't inspire men of greatness, because they made bad decisions. I want to hear Lydia's story."

It's not the first time that I'd heard Lydia highlighted as the true interesting woman in Pride & Prejudice. There was, after all, the Lydia Bennett as sex-positive heroine take that was going around a few years ago.

This one, however, seems particularly odd. If the problem with novels written by women for women is that they focus too much on the search for a man, one would think that Lydia, who is the devoted man-chaser among the Bennett sisters, would be worse as a main character than Elizabeth, who turns down several proposals during the course of the story and is an altogether more self-sufficient person.

Lydia is a problem for her family not because she rejects a worldview in which marriage is a woman's key personal and economic goal, but because she goes about pursing this goal in a manner which is simultaneously impetuous and incompetent and thus calculated to cause the maximum suffering to those who love her and herself. It's often pointed out that for a woman in regency society, making a good marriage provided the same kind of purpose and security as entering into a solid career in the modern world. If we were to take the analogy literally and imagine modern Bennett girls being confronted with the idolization of making it in business, Lydia is not the unworldly one who refuses to climb the corporate ladder, she's the dumb one who runs off to unknowingly get mixed up in pushing a pyramid scheme that's likely to both ruin her finances and land her in jail.

Austen wrote in a different cultural context than ours. While some of her modern fans may like her because they think of her stories as romances about a simpler time when women focused on home and family, Austen was in no sense writing about the conflict between that sort of view of women and a more independent one. Marriages are key in Austen's novels, but that's in great part because marriage was very key to stability and happiness in the time, place, and social class about which she wrote. Austen's one main character who declares herself uninterested in marriage is Emma Woodhouse, and the reason she gives is that her situation as the mistress of her father's house is such that she has no social or economic reason to do so.


Brandon said...

I can very much imagine MrsD rising up in righteous wrath over the point.

What strikes me, along the same lines as your thought about Lydia as the man-chaser,is that despite the fact that marriage plays a major role in all of the stories, none of Austen's heroines actually have lives that revolve around men. Emma doesn't need them; Fanny puts moral principle first; Anne is arguably more involved with her friends and family (to an extent that almost lost her a chance at happiness, in fact); Elinor is more concerned with social propriety and Marianne with romantic expression; Catherine has too much imagination to be that narrow in her interests; and Elizabeth literally looks down on women who arrange their lives around men.

I also think the speaker was perhaps not considering that people in fact wrote the kinds of stories she's talking about in Austen's day, and Austen mocked that kind of sensationalist story -- read that kind of story, but mocked it, and deliberately set it aside, and wrote instead the foremost novels in the English language. And when we look at authors who wrote those kinds of stories, they are often not the stories that endure; people perpetually re-read Alcott's Little Women, not her potboilers. Writing potboilers and works about scandal is not going beyond Austen; Austen was going beyond that kind of work.

I think Lydia herself is an extraordinarily boring character; she just gets herself mired in a scandal that causes all the more interesting characters an immense amount of trouble. I like the business analogy. Lydia would be the sort of person who would be more interested in the idea of being rich than in doing anything responsible; and you're right that the get-rich-the-easy-way thinking is something practically guaranteed to make a person a gullible mark for scammers. And while it is certainly a kind of personality trait you find in the real world, it is a personality trait that makes a person more limited rather than more interesting.

Finicky Cat said...

Heavens! I can't fathom wanting to know MORE about Lydia... Enjoyed your analysis - and Brandon's, too.

How's the little pipsqueak and his mama?

sciencegirl said...

I'd want to read Mary Bennett's story -- nerdy girl, judgmental, bookworm, not many marriage prospects thanks to her own weirdness and her sisters' craziness. Give me the tale of the teen pre-spinster!

Elizabeth B. said...

I'm filled with dismay that someone who claims to teach Jane Austen's works with regularity also claims that Austen's heroines can be dismissed as "sweet." Elizabeth Bennet is certainly not "sweet." And if any author is honest about the perils of marrying for social stability (or because of falling in love with a pretty, "sweet" woman), it's Austen! Pride and Prejudice abounds with fully fleshed-out characters who deal with the fallout of unhappy marriages.

Also, I despise the modern tendency to cry, "oh, if only this author/filmmaker/screenwriter had written the kind of thing I'd really like to see, instead of the work they wanted to write, then we'd really have a great story!" The work is the work. Appreciate it for what it is, and if you'd like to see something different, there's your opportunity to create!