When I first read Pride and Prejudice, I was quite judgmental of Lydia Bennet’s character. I suspect that most of us probably are. Apart from Wickham, she’s one of the least sympathetic characters in the book– vain, flighty, silly, shallow, and selfish. But was she really? Or rather, I suppose the better question to ask is, Why did Lydia Bennet grow up to be the vain, silly, flighty, and selfish girl that Jane Austen portrayed?
The more research I’ve done into the Regency era and the more familiar I’ve become with the accepted roles for women during the age, the more I’ve understood that Lydia Bennet was very much a product of her times and of Regency society. During the Regency era, most girls’ education was focused not on reading or math or literature or really anything about ‘education’ in the way we view it today. Most girls of the upper classes spent their time acquiring ‘accomplishments’ such as painting, playing a musical instrument, embroidery, netting purses, or sewing. The purpose of these accomplishments was not for the young lady’s own improvement or enjoyment, either. Accomplishments were intended to make her attractive to the opposite sex and an asset in social gatherings. Of course, Mr. Darcy– during the famous debate as to what constitutes a truly accomplished woman– specifies that in his view, she should improve her mind “by extensive reading”. But such a view was by and large the exception, rather than the rule.
Take Mr. Bennet, for example, a father of five daughters. As a mother of two daughters myself, I may be prejudiced (no pun intended). But it seems to me that he takes every opportunity to mock his daughters and belittle them for silliness. Elizabeth is his favorite, of course. She is quick-witted and intelligent and strong enough to stand up to the societal rules that urge her to be a brainless flirt, intent on winning a husband. But what about the other Bennet girls? Did Mr. Bennet ever try to develop their intellectual capabilities?
What about Lydia? Did anyone ever tell her that she was bright, smart, capable, with potential to change the world one day? Or from the moment of her birth, practically, was she inundated with the message that she was silly, brainless, inherently not as good as the son who would have inherited Longbourn if only she’d been a boy, and that she had one purpose and one purpose only: to attract a husband? She’s still not a sympathetic character, maybe– because of course some girls did rise above society’s dictates. Like Elizabeth. Like Jane Austen herself. But maybe, put that way, Lydia is a little more understandable.
A famous champion of the early feminist movement, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women. But she was also largely denounced as a whore and an atheist–as were any women who dared to agree with her views. The Reverend Richard Polwhele published a satirical poem called The Unsex’d Females, in which he violently scorned even the suggestion that women’s work should be considered on its merits, like men’s.
We’ve come a long way, of course, from those times– and as a mother of two girls, I have to say that I’m very thankful that’s the case. And yet . . . and yet the kind of societal branding that Lydia and the other girls would have experienced does still go on. A well-meaning relative just this past weekend gave my younger daughter a nightgown with a cartoon drawing of a little girl surrounded by piles (and piles and piles) of wrapped parcels and the words “Born to Shop!” proudly plastered across the front.
Now, before I go on, let me say that we all have our own tastes in kids’ clothing, and I don’t mean to judge anyone else for their tastes at all. This is just my own personal feeling on it. But for me, I decided that I just couldn’t let that slide. My younger daughter is five. She’s just figuring out who she is and how the world works. And for me, looking at the BORN TO SHOP label plastered across my 5 year old daughter’s chest, I could hear an echo of Lydia Bennet:
“Look here, I have bought this bonnet. I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get home, and see if I can make it up any better.”
And when her sisters abused it as ugly, she added, with perfect unconcern, “Oh! but there were two or three much uglier in the shop; and when I have bought some prettier coloured satin to trim it with fresh, I think it will be very tolerable.
I may see Lydia Bennet as an understandable product of a difficult time in women’s history. That doesn’t mean that I want my daughter to grow up to be her.
I sat down with my daughter and talked to her. I told her that she born to be smart, born to be creative, born to be brave and bold and compassionate and kind and to make her own choices about who she is and what she likes and is passionate about. Like this awesome little girl, just a few years older than she is. A thousand things she was born for, quite frankly, before ‘born to shop’.
My girl got very thoughtful while we were talking, and then asked, “Mama, do you think you could sew a patch on the front of the nightgown? To cover up where it says, “Born to Shop” with something else?” I said we could probably do that, and asked what she wanted it to say instead.
My daughter stood up tall. “I want it to say, I was born to help people! Because I was.”
Sure, sweetie, we can do that.
I like to think Jane Austen would approve, too.