A Modern Girl Living in a Regency World: A look into the character of Lydia Bennet

By: Emma Russell ’23

The following was created for FYS 101: Jane Austen and Fan Culture.


One often hears about stories that last the test of time. The reason they tend to do so is that people still find them relevant in their current era. Jane Austen’s novels, which were strictly placed during the Regency era, are still relevant in today’s social cultures with countless adaptations being made. Some stay true to the Regency setting (ex. the popular 1995 film Sense and Sensibility) while others set the stories in more contemporary periods (ex. Clueless which is based on the novel Emma.) However, there is an adaptation of Austen’s famous novel Pride & Prejudice that uses a Regency setting but still works with contemporary aspects. Kate Hamill’s play Pride and Prejudice, which came out in 2018, blends contemporary elements with a Regency period, showcasing disco balls in the ball scenes and young ladies with tattoos. One character who seems particularly suited to this dip into the contemporary world is Lydia Bennet. Lydia is the youngest of the Bennet sisters and is often seen as the wildest. She’s a teenage girl who just wants to dance and flirt and have fun, but is constantly criticized by her elder sisters for wanting to do so. Lydia is a character who was written ahead of her time, she is a modern girl living in a Regency-era world, and this is highlighted in Hamill’s adaptation, despite Hamill condemning Lydia for her modern sensibilities.Lydia is a pretty young girl, which makes it easy for her to draw in men. Her playful personality makes her all the more alluring. Lydia spends a lot of time with her sister Kitty, and while the two are similar, Kitty doesn’t attract the same attention as Lydia because she lacks Lydia’s “natural self-consequence” (Austen). Lydia is a very confident girl, and this comes through in her forwardness. If she wants something, she’ll simply ask for it. At the end of chapter nine, it’s Lydia’s “attack” (Austen) on Mr. Bingley, urging him to host a ball at Netherfield, that even creates another ball to attend. Austen’s use of long sentences in this passage mimics how Lydia gets ahead of herself, creating the illusion that the conversation in the novel is happening in real-time. Austen abruptly adds on to her sentence like how Lydia adds to her questions to Mr. Bingley. Lydia’s forwardness (while abrupt) is also seen as desirable by many men, catching the attention of the officers and even Mr. Bingley, who is already enthralled by Jane. This attraction may arise because many women during the period were quite reserved, thus seeing somebody as energetic as Lydia is enough to pique the curiosity of any man. Lydia’s “attack” (Austen) on Mr. Bingley is also a call back to her “high animal spirits” (Austen), another way of saying that Lydia is wild. Her “animal spirits” (Austen) further allude to the skills that come naturally to her. Austen uses the word natural when describing Lydia, naturalizing her charisma by highlighting what’s essential to her, such as her stoutness, her growth, and her sense of self. 

Austen describing Lydia as wild is the Regency era equivalent of saying that Lydia is a party girl. In Hamill’s production, Lydia exclaims “OH I LOVE balls SO MUCH!” (pg.13). While this is an amusing innuendo, it’s also true of Lydia’s character in both play and novel. She loves dancing and is more often than not trying to catch the attention of a handsome man (hopefully a redcoat) to be her dancing partner. However, in Hamill’s play, Lydia also tends to get a little drunk at these balls, something not shown in Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, but this is an effective tool that signals to the audience that Lydia is a party girl. In any adaptation of a book — whether it be a play, movie, or tv show — there’s a limited amount of time to communicate to the audience the in-depth knowledge about these characters that are easily provided by reading the novel. A young drunk girl is a quick signal to the audience that she likes to have fun. While getting drunk at a party back in the Regency era would have had major consequences in Austen’s novel, there are no serious consequences as a result of Lydia’s drinking in the play. Lydia comes on stage insulting Darcy — “Why are you here sh’ir? For you know that nobody like’sh you” (Hamill 48). Despite slurring and stumbling over her own words, the worst thing that comes out of it is Lizzy’s obvious embarrassment (Hamill). One of the reasons Lydia faces no consequences is because today it’s quite normal for teenagers to go to parties and get drunk. By blending the Regency era there are no laws about underage drinking. Lydia is lucky enough to face no consequences now, but unfortunately it doesn’t last forever.

Despite being the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia is the first of them to marry, being only sixteen years old after her birthday passes in June (Austen). Mr. Wickham, a deceptively charming redcoat, convinces Lydia to run away with him with the intention of having illicit relations outside of wedlock; however, Lydia believes that they will eventually marry. Wickham never intented  to marry her, but “Lydia’s passion for Wickham is unremarkable, what today we would call a simple case of raging hormones: there seems little reason in Lydia to overcome her animal spirits” (Spence). In today’s world, having relations outside of wedlock isn’t as scandalous as it was during the Regency era. The reader gets a glimpse while reading from Lizzy’s point of view about just exactly how serious this situation is: “Lydia-the humiliation, the misery she was bringing on them all…” (Austen). This is not just a decision that is affecting Lydia but the entire family, which leads the reader into thinking of Lydia as a selfish character. In Hamill’s play, there is no Lizzy’s view to influence the thoughts of the reader. Rather than being forced to think of Lydia as selfish for running off with Wickham, the audience pities her because she’s a young girl who is married off to a horrible man. This connection is emphasized in the play when she defends her actions — a scene with no equivalent in the novel.

Hearing Lydia speak, the audience learns that she was trying to please her family and she thought she was making an intelligent decision after witnessing Charlotte’s unhappy marriage to Mr. Collins and Jane’s failure to secure Bingley (Hamill). Lydia thought Wickham was charming and it’s easy to see how, with her being even younger in the play she, would be attracted to such a man. She didn’t realize that Wickham didn’t care for her, but rather for the money he would get if he should marry her (Hamill). Wickham reveals his true colors to Lydia only after having married her, when after Lydia cries about wanting to stay at home with her family, “He begins to exit – snapping his fingers at her, as you would a dog” (Hamill 86). Lydia doesn’t get the happy romance with a charming solider for which she had so naively hoped, but Austen’s audience would see Lydia as lucky to be married at all. She ran away with a man, so she should be punished and exiled from society. To the Regency audience, Lydia is lucky and is getting away with doing something she shouldn’t have. Hamill’s audience feels bad for Lydia because she was tricked into running away with a man who intended to use her for only one thing, being forced to marry him and live an unhappy life separated from her family. To the modern audience, Lydia is a little girl who is pitied.

Lydia’s young age is shocking to most because, in the Regency era, it would have been highly unusual for a girl of such a young age with multiple older unmarried sisters to be out in society. Usually, a girl would be presented into society around the age of eighteen, and sometimes even later depending on if she had older sisters. In Hamill’s adaptation, Lydia is even younger, being fourteen years old. So, right from the start in both the novel and the play, Lydia is introduced into society before she is aware of all the rules and the proper ways to behave. She acts in a way that would be expected of a young girl, she loves to dance, gossip, and flirt, making her the favorite daughter of Mrs. Bennet. This is a direct contrast to Lizzy who detests all of those things and is the favorite of Mr. Bennet. Lizzy is a sensible girl who likes to read and isn’t particularly fond of balls. In fact, Lizzy is opposed to the idea of marriage altogether, an idea encouraged by her father, who invites Lizzy to think the worst of attachment most likely due to his struggles with his own passion which led him into his current marriage (Spence). Austen firmly states that Mr. Bennet married Mrs. Bennet because he was “captivated by [Mrs. Bennet’s] youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour,” and hadn’t realized until later that he “had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind hadvery early in their marriageput an end to all real affection for her.” Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s marriage was built solely on physical appearance and initial passion. That passion has since fizzled out, leaving both in a marriage in which neither one finds joy. This idea is later reflected in Lydia’s marriage to Mr. Wickham.

Jane Austen introduces the character, Lydia Bennet, into the Regency era world of literature. With Lydia’s introduction, Austen is also introducing the party girl archetype to her Regency audience. It seems reasonable for her audience at the time to expect Lydia to have suffered some punishment, but Austen subverts this expectation by having Lydia end up married with her reputation intact. Hamill is aware that despite the Regency setting of her play, she’s working with a modern audience. Unlike the Regency readers, the modern audience isn’t expecting Lydia to be punished because the audience sees a young girl who was tricked into running away with a much older, despicable man. Both Austen and Hamill are able to subvert audience expectations by having Lydia marry Wickham. In Austen’s novel, Lydia’s marriage to Wickham saves her from being ruined and deemed unmarriable for the rest of her life. In Hamill’s play, Lydia’s marriage to Wickham condemns her to a horrible life. Lydia is torn away from her family and forced to leave with a man who treats her as a pet. These shocking events would be less so had they been switched for the audiences of the era. Lydia’s changing temperament towards her marriage is the final culmination of changes between the Regency and Contemporary era. No longer is she the flirty girl who receives a happy ending, now she is, to some degree, punished for her flirtatious nature, a change which might be shocking to see that in the wake of #MeToo and post-third wave feminism. Lydia is punished in the play, while in Austen’s novel, which is set in a more undoubtedly conservative time, Lydia gets off scot-free. However, this change signifies the inherent misogyny within our modern society Austen worked to overcome through Lydia’s modern ideals, traits, and attitude. 

Bibliography

Austen , Jane. Pride & Prejudice (Signature Classics). Worth Press Ltd, 2017.

Hamill, Kate. “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.” Dramatists Play Service Inc, 2018. Print.

Spence, Jon. Becoming Jane Austen. Continuum, 2007. EBSCOhost,             search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1739524&site=ehost-live.

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