I have mixed feelings on Pride and Prejudice. I think it’s well-written and I can enjoy it even though it’s not generally the sort of story I really get into. My main problem is that I only actually like one of the characters and the character I like seems to be hated by the entire world. Yes, I am talking about Lydia Bennet, the sister who ran off with Wickham, who is really the only sympathetic character in the book as far as I’m concerned. I even wrote a paper about it way back in 2009. And because I’m lazy, and am trying to combat my failure at posting at least semi-regularly, I am going to post it here for my mother to see (again).
As a side-note, I’m super-proud of this paper. I went through the entire book page-by-page collecting every mention of Lydia into a word document of quotes before writing this.
The Bennet Family: The Price of Self-Absorption
In their article “The Role of Normative Development In Adolescent Abuse and Neglect,” Howard J. Doueck, Anthony H. Ishisaka, and K. Diane Greenaway, address the seeming inconsistencies in adolescent behavior: “Adolescent strivings for identity consolidation, independence, and separation from the family, coupled with an adolescent’s increased cognitive capacity and physical capability, can lead to limit-testing behaviors that might be viewed by parents and others as deliberately provocative (Berdie, Braizerman, & Lourie, 1977; Fisher, Berdie, Cook, & Day, 1980; Newman, 1985). A major storyline in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen involves the Bennet family’s reaction to daughter Lydia’s seemingly capricious choices and behavior. Lydia does not act merely as a willful child; she acts out to gain the needed attention her neglectful family withholds.
Both Bennet parents fail in their parental responsibilities to Lydia. They are too focused on their own desires for both themselves and their “ideal” offspring. Mr. Bennet carries the guilt of not being financially prepared to provide for his wife and daughters after his death. “Mr. Bennet had very often wished, before this period of his life, that, instead of spending his whole income, he had laid by an annual sum, for the better provision of his children, and of his wife, if she survived him.” (pg. 292) He had always assumed that he would have a son who could continue to take care of the family. His daughter Elizabeth’s thought processes were the most masculine of all of his daughters, based off the gender roles typical for the time period, so he focused all of his attention on her, which did not go unnoticed by his family: Mrs. Bennet claimed: ““Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”” (pg. 6) In fact, Mr. Bennent puts down Elizabeth’s sisters as “silly and ignorant.” (pg. 7) His withholding of sensible advice from his other daughters leaves Lydia dependent on Mrs. Bennet for a role model.
Mrs. Bennet lives through her daughters because she no longer has the freedom to flirt or fall in love. Her advice to her daughters is to find wealthy husbands. Her memories of her youth lead her to encourage Lydia to flirt with the soldiers, reinforcing Lydia’s “silly” and personally degrading behavior. Mrs. Bennet’s attitudes may be the result of mid-life dissatisfaction that leads to envy of her adolescent daughters. According to Doueck, Ishisaka, and Greenaway, “Many of the normative changes faced by midlife adults can be viewed unfavorably when compared to the normative changes of the maturing adolescent. These comparisons include decreasing physical capacities or capabilities vs. increasing physical capacities, reassessing one’s life vs. planning one’s life, facing death vs. denying death, questioning relationships (e.g. marriage) vs. falling in love, and seemingly negative developmental changes vs. seemingly positive developmental changes (Lourie, 1979).” Mrs. Bennet deals with her personal unhappiness by trying to bring about what she believes will make her daughters happy. However, she denys to herself that her plans for her daughters are really what she desires for herself.
“Abandonment by a parent, who appears to be preoccupied by his/her own developmental issues, leaves the youth anchorless at a time when parental support and guidance is critical.” (Doueck, Ishisaka, and Greenaway) Because Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are focused on their own needs, Lydia’s relationship with her parents is one that starves her of necessary emotional support. She resorts to acting in ways that gain the approval of her mother, no matter how shallow (both her own behavior and the approval gained). Because of the shallowness of her mother’s acceptance, Lydia is still left craving attention, either positive or negative; acting in ways that irritate her father forces him to notice her. After Mr. Bennet states “From all that I can collect by your manner of talking, you must be two of the silliest girls in the country. I have suspected it some time, but I am now convinced.” (pg 30), Lydia continues talking of the soldiers that exasperated him in the first place, even as her sister Catherine goes quiet. Lydia gains her father’s attention, but also his disapproval, yet when her mother defends her out of her own desires to fantasize about the thrills of youth, their interaction further enforces Lydia’s use of silliness to get attention.
Because Lydia does not receive enough attention, she looks for it in places other than home, especially from the soldiers, and because of her mother’s focus on marrying off her daughters, any promise of marriage serves also as another way for Lydia to win her mother’s approval. “Lydia had wanted only encouragement to attach herself to any body. Sometimes one officer, sometimes another had been her favourite, as their attentions raised them in her opinion.” (pg 266) Her desire for attention makes her an easy target for Wickham’s plotting. Lydia is so desperate for attention, she is willing to ignore any suspicions of dishonesty in Wickham and she is easily convinced to put off marriage in favor of living with him because she believes their marriage will eventually take place. Lydia’s letter concerning her elopement “…shews, that she was serious in the object of her journey. Whatever he might afterwards persuade her to, it was not on her side a scheme of infamy.” (pg. 277)
Despite everything Lydia does to try to please Wickham and her family, she continues to be victimized by them. Though she denies it for as long as she is able, she eventually sees her relationship with Wickham for what it is. “His affection for her soon sunk into indifference; hers lasted a little longer…” (pg. 366) All she has to look forward to is all of society judging her for her disreputable marriage: “…in spite of her youth and her manners, she retained all the claims to reputation which her marriage had given her.” (pg. 366) Her mother takes advantage of Lydia’s marriage to gain attention from the neighbors for herself before allowing the rest of the family to banish Lydia. “And their mother had the satisfaction of knowing, that she should be able to shew her married daughter in the neighbourhood, before she was banished to the North.” (pg. 297) Her father outright disowns her while her sisters merely tolerate her presence.
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Lydia’s family sees her behavior as deliberately provocative. However, they fail to realize that she acts this way in the hope of meeting their approval. “Developmentally, the youth…needs a substantive relationship with a stable adult who can serve as an anchor upon which he/she can establish an identity. The parents, in some ways, have a final opportunity to fulfill the parenting role that is developmentally age appropriate for them and is necessary for the child.” (Doueck, Ishisaka, and Greenaway)The Bennets fail to give their child the support and appropriate advice she needs to develop into a mature adult.
Really, how can you not want to give Lydia Bennet a hug?