Lydia Bennet. She’s naughty, she’s loud, she’s determined to expose herself as ridiculous and bring disgrace to her family in the process. In spite of these things, I relate to her in one intrinsic way. She’s drawn by the compelling figure of a man in uniform, especially a military uniform.
She, of course, was particularly fond of the militia officer in his regimentals; the goal of encountering exactly that sort of person was the impetus for an excursion to Meryton.
“Their eyes were immediately wandering up in the street in quest of the officers, and nothing less than a very smart bonnet indeed, or a really new muslin in a shop window, could recall them.”
Lydia spots her prey, an officer with whom she is already acquainted, accompanied by a man who in Elizabeth’s view is rather good looking. It is through her eyes that we understand that “his appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty—a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.” In today’s terms, where such opinions are relayed via text messaging as succinctly as possible, he was “hot.” The introduction of this man carried happy news:
“Mr. Denny addressed them directly, and entreated permission to introduce his friend, Mr. Wickham, who had returned with him the day before from town, and he was happy to say, had accepted a commission in their corps. This was exactly as it should be; for the young man wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming.”
It took me a few readings of Pride and Prejudice before I caught the subtle nuance here. Perhaps swayed by the adapted versions that emphasized that Lydia and Kitty were the officer-crazed sisters, I totally missed the hint that Elizabeth, whose point of view carries the majority of the book, is also a bit enamored of men in uniform.
It’s evident that Jane Austen was aware of the place military officers held in society. Closely tied to nobility and aristocracy, the upper-level officers were drawn from the elite strata of society. Even the lower officers were supposed to be landowners, and therefore, one could construe them to be eligible matches for the gentry. Things are not always what they appear, however, particularly in militia regiments.
Members of the militia were not bound for foreign soil; they were the local peacekeepers. The commanding officers were typically titled and among the largest landowners in the county from which the regiment was drawn. They were given a quota to fill, with the station of officers fully reflective of the social and financial status of the members. Captain Carter was a much better marital prospect than Mr. Denny.
As with almost anything, appearances can be deceiving. Those with the resources to do so could hire a proxy to serve in their place, and when the quota wasn’t matched by those who met the minimum standards, the powers that be allowed the standards slide a bit. Mr. Wickham, though not a landowner, was educated, gentlemanlike and attractive—all characteristics which would lend distinction to the regiment, so he was let in. What is less clear is how he paid for his uniform, which is an expensive proposition. When the fact that he isn’t a landowner, nor an heir to land becomes apparent, Austen lets her readers use their imaginations as to how he qualified.
Militia regiments, though populated from a common region, never served in their home county. This was partly to prevent abuses of power and partly to prevent its members from being distracted by temptations of their familiar turf. The fact that Wickham has joined the regiment stationed in Meryton strongly implies that it is the Derbyshire militia stationed there. His connection to Pemberley would be known and respected, and one could surmise that this is how he got around the landowner requirement to be an officer.
Aside from all the social associations, there is a psychological reason that persons dressed as military officers impress. Recall Caroline Bingley’s claims of what makes an accomplished woman, and there is a piece of it that could as easily be applied to officers. I changed the pronouns for emphasis of the point. “…he must possess a certain something in his air and manner of walking, the tone of his voice, his address and expressions…”
Military training, particularly for officers, does reinforce a commanding bearing, confident air, purposeful stride and disciplined behavior. These things, accompanied by a finely tailored uniform, brass buttons, gold braid and other embellishments of design combine to create the perfect storm for a young girl’s fantasies. Is it any wonder that when I first laid eyes on my husband and he was dressed in a work uniform that was military-esque, I found him completely charming?
What say you? Do you love a man (or woman) in uniform?