Lydia and the Sisters Bennet

Lydia and the Sisters Bennet

I’ve always thought Lydia’s real problem is that she’s spoiled. Her mother never says no to her, her father ignores her, essentially letting her have whatever she wants, and she picks on her older sister without anyone stopping her, reinforcing her bad behavior.

Now, what I find interesting about the Bennet family is how all the daughters are so different. Yes, Kitty and Lydia are both rude and ridiculous, but Lydia is much brasher than Kitty.

lydia and kitty
Sisters, sisters, never were there such devoted sisters… And don’t they look happy, too?

I see a basic break down like this: Jane is good and serene; Elizabeth is clever and lively; Mary is pious and boring; Kitty is whiny and lost; Lydia is bold and unruly.

Now, what I find interesting is that most people are happy to throw rotten tomatoes at their parents for the younger girls being so awful, especially Mr. Bennet who was raised to know better and was intelligent enough to see the problem and find a solution, but no one really gives them credit for the wonders that are Elizabeth and Jane. In fact, many JAFFs have the two eldest girls turn out so well because of the influence of their Aunt and Uncle Gardiner.

I think it is entirely possible that the Gardiners had a lot to do with Elizabeth and Jane, possibly before they had their own children or only had one or two and had more time and resources to spare for their nieces, which would explain the younger Bennets not getting as much attention from that quarter.

But what if nurture has nothing to do with it and it’s just their individual natures? Each girl is different and it’s not a huge stretch to imagine they were raised somewhat similarly, especially those close in age, like Mary and Elizabeth, who couldn’t be more different, and Kitty and Lydia.

lydia pigtails
Now those are some serious pig tails.

If it was the raising, I think Mr. and Mrs. B deserve a little credit for their first two. If it’s just the girls’ temperaments, what could be done?

I agree with Darcy in P&P when he tells Elizabeth at Netherfield, “There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil — a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.”

Was Lydia’s “natural defect” to constantly be the most immature person in the room? Or was she just overly exuberant and a firmer hand would have channeled her energies properly?

I think this is a great question to ask and one I explore in my current work-in-progress. Will Lydia always be Lydia, wild and brash and an embarrassment to every sensible person in the room? Or can she be redeemed? Is there a softer version of her that could have been revealed had anyone taken the time or trouble?

Would regular guidance and discipline have worked on her? Did they try it when she was little and it was just so hard that they let her have her way to get a little peace? She was the fifth child in a family without a governess. No daycare or local school or mother’s day out to send them to for the day. Just the six females in the house, together.

All. Day. Long.

Lydia 1995
Who could discipline this face?

I think it is entirely possible that Lydia could have been a lot better had she come higher in the birth order when her mother had more energy to deal with her. That or they would have stopped having kids altogether and there would have been fewer people to be embarrassed by.

As a parent myself, I think each child, as wondrous as they are, has something in them that we’ll constantly need to work at. One of mine tends to sulk and think so many things are unfair. Another will always want her way and to NEVER share. Another is sensitive and cries at every slight, perceived and imagined. What to do?!

I remember at the end of P&P when Darcy and Elizabeth are walking and he tells her about his parents raising him to do what was right but not teaching him to correct his own character. That has always stuck with me.

I can safely say that my parents did not teach me to correct the defects in my character. My mother occasionally complained about me when I was an adolescent, but there was zero guidance or instruction in the areas I needed it most. Talking to others of my generation (I was made in the eighties), I see that is a common theme.

So when I read Darcy’s words, from Netherfield and the final talk with E, I can’t help but think it is excellent advice and attempt to put it to use with my own children. Because he proves his own theory wrong, doesn’t he?

He says there is something in everyone not even the best education can overcome, and yet the book is filled with people overcoming and growing and maturing. Elizabeth learns not to snap judge and not to let her vanity lead her on a merry chase; Darcy releases some pride and arrogance and outright rudeness and learns to look past a person’s situation and see the value beneath; Jane finally sees the Bingley sisters for what they are; Mr. Bennet realizes his mistakes as a parent and feels the weight of those consequences, even if it’s fleeting.

lydia seroius
Could it be? Is Lydia having a (gasp)… serious thought?

There are also those that don’t grow, or at least we don’t see it. Lydia and Wickham, Charlotte and Collins (while I love Charlotte, I don’t see her doing much changing), Lady Catherine, Mrs. Bennet. Each of these characters was given a chance to change and let it pass them by.

So is it that those who want to change, can? And those who are happy in their ignorance and blindness, or who are too scared to really look at themselves, don’t? Which was Lydia? I have seen nothing that makes me think she was stupid – just foolish and naïve. Not surprising considering her age.

She was selfish and thought only of herself and what she wanted, not unlike her parents. Mr. Bennet did much the same. He didn’t care what trouble his children caused as long as they stayed out of his way. He did what he wanted when he wanted and with, or often without, whom he wanted. Is Lydia behaving any differently?

Mrs. Bennet was led by her feelings. She was tired, she went to bed – even if it was the middle of the day. She felt overwhelmed, she got her smelling salts and inconvenienced everyone around her. She was scared and she made everyone do her bidding to relieve her own feelings without giving a second thought to their comfort or contentment. Sound like Lydia?

Did she simply inherit the worst of each of her parents’ characters? And was that her fault? After all, she was only 15 when she ran off with Wickham. Didn’t we all have bad attitudes at that age and do something at least somewhat stupid?

So again I have to ask myself: Can she be saved?

What do you think?

45 Responses to Lydia and the Sisters Bennet

    • Wow. That’s a fascinating take on Lydia. I can’t agree that Lizzy is purely passive or that Lydia turned out ok, though. She sort of landed on her feet, but only because the people around her respected the rules she so enjoyed flaunting. Let’s face it, had Darcy not discovered them, it was only a matter of time before Wickham abandoned her. Would she have shown up pregnant on the Gardiners’ doorstep? We’ll never know. But without her sisters’ marrying well and being willing to support her, she’d be screwed. Yes, he is now more dependent on her. That’s a great point and pretty funny when you think about it. But still, she very narrowly escaped a horrible life.

      Thanks for the share. I love reading character analyses.

  1. I think Austen uses Lydia as a cautionary tale. During her warning to Mr. Bennet before Lydia goes to Brighton, Elizabeth comments “her character will soon be beyond amendment” (of course meaning it’s not yet) but warns if she is not checked it will soon be “fixed”. However, since no one with sufficient authority bothers to correct Lydia, her character is left to be fixed by George Wickham. Although she could perhaps still turn out well, she will most likely never be what she could have been, even if for no other reason than the hardships of life will substantially change her outlook. If she turns out as a good woman, it will probably be through severe trials that will temper her lightheartedness. On the other hand, if she remains lighthearted, it will probably be through willful ignorance of what is happening around her. Also, I don’t think you can blame Jane and Lizzy too much for not helping; as a youngest child myself with an older sister who is very much like Jane Bennet, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the youngest will usually not pay attention to anything their older siblings try to enforce (and I was not wild or willful like Lydia). It was up to the parents to discipline her and give her rules and structure that would allow her to flourish, and they failed. No one else in a position of authority stepped up, so Lydia raised herself, and her examples weren’t necessarily good ones. Also, I disagree somewhat about everyone giving up on Lydia. As a parent myself, if I had siblings who were similar to Lydia, I would limit my children’s contact with them also. Not because I would ever give up, but because my first responsibility would be to my own family and not to a sibling. In the early 19th century, the lack of influence would be even stronger. The end of PnP does not say that they gave up on Lydia, just that she didn’t improve and they kept time restricted. Naturally D&E wouldn’t allow Wickham at Pemberley; I know a family who has a known sexual predator in their in-laws, and they had to cut contact with the daughter (who defended her husband) in order to safeguard their other children. These are hard decisions regardless of time or place, and undoubtedly people make mistakes. Anyway, that’s just my thoughts on Lydia.

    • She is a very sad cautionary tale, true. You’re probably right about her not listening overmuch o her siblings. She didn’t listen much to anyone, really! It is so sad to think of her not meeting her potential and it must have been so sad for Jane and Elizabeth to watch. They likely knew she could be so much more than she was.

  2. I agree with the posts and comments. She was a spoiled little girl and I am sure everyone thought her antics were cute until she became older. Then her mother still didn’t see a problem, her father ignored her. When Elizabeth & Jane try to correct her she resents and ignores them. They can only do so much and if the parents don’t make an effort, their efforts are for naught. She is also selfish with no concern for the reputations of her sisters only her desires. There is no reason to change if all is allowed and there are no consequences for her actions.

  3. I agree that the Gardiners’ influence on Jane and Lizzy helped, but then the Gardiners started having their own children and so the younger Bennet girls didn’t see their aunt and uncle as much. Also, any governesses and masters the girls had were in the beginning; once Lizzy decided she no longer needed them, the younger girls lost any chance of further education. Then, living in a small town like Meryton – probably only 3000 residents – they didn’t have much exposure to a variety of people. Lydia was eager for any adventure.

    I think Lydia and Wickham both thought of themselves as beautiful and charming. Wickham had a rude awakening in Brighton; after failing to nab 15-y-o Mary King (who should have been easy pickings for him), he might have thought he would get a rich heiress in Brighton, where hundreds of rich folks spent the summer. But he failed to charm, and failed to win at gambling, Marrying Lydia – and getting a permanent “donor” at Pemberley – was his only chance to avoid debtors’ prison.

    But Lydia had no such rude awakening. If Wickham had abandoned her in London, and if the Gardiners had been away from London, and no handsome man wanted to marry or dance with her, Lydia might have been enlightened with reality. I am always fascinated by the different ways authors deal with Lydia!

  4. I agree that Lydia was spoiled and at the age of 15 she will be difficult to change. I also believe she is in denial as to what is really going on around her. She only sees what she wants to see. Can she change or be changed? Only if she is motivated from within. But I often wonder what she would have become if her sisters didn’t keep sending her money from their own pockets as she and Wickham wouldn’t make ends meet.

    Thanks for the thoughts on Lydia.

    • I wonder, too. What if they were forced to face reality by everyone refusing to enable them? But I think people like that can almost always find someone to help them. Wickham certainly did for quite a while. It may be a long time before they actually feel the reality of their situation.

  5. I think she could have been saved if she didn’t marry Wickham. With this kind of husband cannot be helped…especially because basically Darcy and Elizabeth also gave up on her after the marriage. They just accepted her as she is and didn’t bother helping her only with money.
    Maybe Jane became who she is because she is the first child. Both of their parents were happy that she is beautiful, so she can be the solution for a problem (no male hier). In the case of Elizabeth I suppose, Mr Bennet had already seen that Jane is ‘somebody’ because she is pretty, so he wanted a witty, intelligent daughter too, therefore he made an effort to raise her to his expectation. Mary was the third- still no son- doesn’t matter what she becomes as they already have a beautiful and an intelligent child. Kitty…they can neglect Kitty as there are 3 other who are older and need more attention. Then not a few months later Lydia arrived, girl again. All the hope is gone. Kitty and Lydia can grow up together, they will be fine…

    • I definitely think marrying Wickham was the nail in the coffin of Lydia’s character. However, I don’t think there’s much that anyone could have done for Lydia. She was determined to do things her way, and the older she got the less she would be inclined to listen to her sisters.

  6. I tend to think of Lydia as being very like her mother as a young woman. We know she is her mother’s favourite and that she is spoilt. Given that Mrs Bennett would have been disappointed by the sex of her last child, I wonder if she was already giving into ill health and self indulgence and simply allowed Lydia her own way for some peace especially as the five girls are very close in age and she must have been worn out by constant childbirth. However much Jane and Elizabeth might have tried to help their sisters, they are only young themselves. Mr Bennett probably withdrew from his family because he was disappointed with his marriage and lack of a male heir. Jane Austen and Mr Bennett himself find his attitude towards his family reprehensible.

    • All very good points. My first two children are almost 15 months apart and I was never so tired in my life! I hardly remember my son’s infancy. It’s all one big sleepless blur. That could absolutely have played a role in how she treated her youngest.

  7. Interesting post! I love thinking about how people can change and family dynamics.

    First, I do believe that most people can change if they have the desire and the right incentive….but that desire is so important, IMO. Does everyone change in the same way? No. Each person has their own personality traits and their own strengths and weaknesses, so change for me is different than change for my sister.

    Second, I come from a family of five with a mother and a father who taught us all basically the same things. They were active in our lives, and there was correction and discipline. But, none of us are the same. We have similarities (if you ask our husbands they would say the biggest similarity is the stubbornness LOL) …but we are all different. I will say, however, that my older sister and I use to complain about what our younger sisters got to do that we never got to do…I think the parents being tired does play a role there. 🙂 One more family dynamic thing to think on with the Bennet girls–my older sister and I were often passed on the “pleasure” of caring for the younger girls. The Bennets were much closer in age than my family is, but I still imagine there was a “look after Lydia” or “help Mary” that happened quite often.

  8. Interesting post Elizabeth. We can all draw our own conclusions about Lydia, but all of those in your post and the comments could be right. I see her as spoiled rotten because she was the baby. One can only hope that at some point she learned from her mistakes. I was not surprised in the movie “Death Comes To Pemberley” to find Lydia well aware of what her Wickham had done (fathered a baby by another woman), she just wanted to pretend it had not happened for she would not let Lizzy tell her about it. Thanks for causing us to dig deeper. 🙂

  9. As I was reading your article, I thought of how I acted at that age. Today we call that being a teenager. They do act like Lydia at some point in their development. I am so grateful that this is a stage in their life and not a lifetime achievement. I do believe that Lydia can be reformed and have read a couple of JAFF novels with her gaining maturity. Thanks for the thoughts.

    • Thanks for chiming in. I wasn’t as awful as Lydia, but I was certainly naïve at that age. I know it was different then, but most girls her class weren’t out until 17 or 18, so for even that time period, she was young.

  10. I agree that Mr. Bennet’s influence on Elizabeth runs deeper than many JAFF authors seem to give him credit for. I see Elizabeth as something of a “daddy’s girl” and it’s possible that at a young age her behavior was channeled toward earning his approval. With his approval well established, she seems not to need anyone else’s, but she does know how to please if she wants to, and we see evidence of that in her interactions with her father. I think she had him on a bit of a pedestal, seeing him as a man of reason and understanding as well as a sharp sense of humor. He knocked himself off the pedestal when he refused Elizabeth’s counsel on denying Lydia the Brighton adventure and fell even further when it proved so disastrous and he was powerless to do anything.

    As for Lydia, she is the textbook youngest child as written by Austen. Her only possibility of maturing is to go where she won’t be coddled and probably to learn her lessons the hard way.

  11. I tend to think people are too hard and too final with Lydia. Yes, she’s thoughtless and exuberant and brash, but she’s also very young. I myself was far different in my early twenties (Jane and Elizabeth) than I was in my mid-teens, and that’s to be expected. She’s also the youngest in a somewhat sizable family, which means two things: she was probably spoiled and given free-passes by all of them, and she probably began acting out to get attention and stake her place, as many youngest kids do. Though I suspect she’ll always have a streak of the wild child in her, she’ll likely mellow — and who knows what quirks Lizzie herself had at 15? She’s not always considered so proper, either, after all.

    • So true! Lizzy isn’t perfectly proper, either, which so many overlook. I don’t even want to think about living the rest of my life based on decisions I made at 15. I was pretty mature and didn’t do anything too awful, but boy has my view of the world change! Not to mention my tastes and thoughts and plans.

      I completely agree – she was way too young to write off and definitely too young to get married.

  12. What an interesting post. I know Lydia was only 15 but I think that because she was the baby of the family she was spoiled by her mother and was so used to having her own way that she really didn’t consider how her actions would affect her family (or care).

  13. Elizabeth, thank you for this interesting examination of the Bennet sisters’ characters – and thank you, especially, for delving more deeply into Lydia’s character. She plays a very large part of my WIP and, upon closer acquaintance, is proving one of my favorites. I think she is often overlooked and dismissed as merely a spoiled, insufferable brat. She is a hazardous influence on others, a cautionary tale, a naughty family secret to be swept under the rug. More astute readers will conjecture that she and Wickham parallel her parents’ relationship and are destined for similar (if not worse) indifference to one another and financial uncertainty for their family. “Oh, she’s just like her mother!” my husband once declared. What I think most people overlook is the most important part: Lydia is still a child.

    It always struck me as cruel that, following her marriage, Austen tells us that the family did their best to keep her away from Kitty so that she was not a negative influence and that she was only regularly received by the Bingleys – so often, in fact, that they even began to think of mentioning their discomfiture! Her parents appear not to have provided any instruction in the management of a household or finances and very little in the way of education. Before she knows it, she is thrust into married life in a northern garrison town where the locals speak in an incomprehensible dialect and where her little family of two are barely respectable, let alone one of the most prominent in the county. She is a teenage girl, unprepared for adulthood, whose family shuns her and only provide what pin money they can out of a sense of obligation (and, likely, to keep her off their doorstep). She was a child – and they married her off to a man some ten years her senior about whom little was known except that he had seduced her and ran up debts. In today’s society, parents would prosecute such a man. He would be jailed and labeled a sexual predator. And these people just sent their baby girl off with him! They are lucky he was just a wastrel and a rake; he could have been much, much worse.

    In my WIP, which is primarily about Wickham, Lydia obviously must play a rather large role. Historical events which Jane Austen could not have foreseen send the Wickhams to the continent, where they both are broken down and refined in the harsh crucible of war. Lydia remains Lydia still, her brash, defiant narcissism armoring her against life on campaign. I address her feelings on her enforced separation from her family, on the insufficient finances which she must learn to manage, on the realization that her husband does not love her, etc. I have really grown to love this character. The choices that she made as a teenager test her mettle and, in the process, I think the render her the strongest of all of her sisters. I think Lydia, more than the rest of them, has the potential for great future growth. Certainly she could turn out just like her mother; but I think it more likely that, removed from the comforts of genteel life and the sheltering influence of her family, she will be tested and improved more than any of her sisters. At the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice, Lydia is still a child. She still has room to learn and grow – and her circumstances certainly indicate that such growth will be necessary. I do not view her as a static character at all. Instead, she strikes me as a character whose major arc was only just beginning by the time the novel ended.

    • I love your point of view on Lydia. I also think she has the potential for great change. Honestly, it could go either way.

      She could continue on not taking responsibility for anything and living in a state of blissful semi-ignorance, or she will be broken down and forced to change – to become strong or bitter. People like that can sometimes be so oblivious, they never get broken down because they are so out of touch with everything. She could blame her lack of money on the army or on her sisters not sharing enough with her. Everything could always be someone else’s fault and problem. I think she has the potential to go that negative route as well as the more character-building one.

      I wrote a short story a while ago where she takes the character building route. It’s called “He Had It Coming” and can be found on the JAFF index. It’s posted at FFN and AHA.

      • Very true. She could certainly go either way. I will have to check out your short story. I know what AHA is, but what is FFN?

          • It doesn’t come up when you enter the entire link. I used and got it….I know that when it does load it has that at the top but it does NOT register with the Internet.

  14. Well, in the end, it all comes down to free will and personal choices, assuming the character/person can see the error of their ways and truly desire a change. it only takes a moment to change ones mind, though abiding by the decision and doing what it takes to say on task is perhaps far harder.

    • That is so true! It’s easy to change your mind, not as easy to change your habits. I always feel sorry for Lydia because I think at some point she’ll realize Wickham is a loser and maybe even figure out that he would never have married her without a hefty bribe. The problem is that by the time she wises up, it’s way too late to change her situation.

  15. That was so insightful! You really made me think about all the P&P characters with this one! I loved reading your perspective…thanks for sharing it with us! 🙂

  16. Elizabeth, thank you for this interesting post. I believe any one can be saved. There are so many factors involved in how one’s character or lack thereof is developed.

Your thoughts are precious!