Lydia Bennet, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Me

Lydia Bennet, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Me

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.

18 Responses to Lydia Bennet, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Me

  1. In my preschool classroom I envourage my girls in any endeavour they have. I love it when they build using blocks and logos. Sometimes the teachers choose where the kids play. I very often make the girls play in nontraditional areas. Their reactions are interesting as are their creations. Sometimes their creations are more interesting and elaborate than the boys.

  2. I’ve been becoming more understanding towards Lydia as well. As you pointed out, Lizzy is her father’s favorite and he developed her intellect and wit. On the same token, Lydia is Mrs. Bennet’s favorite and so she developed the sillier part of her personality. There was no balance to her upbringing and her role in the family was set–as was the rest of the Bennet girls. Lydia was expected to be silly and unruly so even though Jane or Lizzy may have tried to reign her in; they censored her but she just ignored them because her mother was fine with it.

    Bravo to your daughter! “Born to help people” is so sweet. My dad always pushed me to be more and to want to be more since I was a young girl. I can’t imagine how I would’ve turned out with Mrs. Bennet for a mother. ::shudders ::

  3. I love that you have shown me another way to look at Lydia. And I love that you are teaching your daughter to value herself not what she can do with money! Would that all parents did. Loved the post!

  4. Aww… I love this. Your daughter sounds adorable. People are always shocked to learn I hate shopping. Just hate it. But for some reason I must come across as one of those girls who’d love to spend hours in the mall. Um, no. I have so much greater things to learn and do than that! Interesting insight into Lydia. I come from a family with three girls… and the youngest two took after my mom–who LOVES to shop! LOVES IT! I think it really is therapy or something… But I’m more like my dad–get in, get what you need, get out. And I’ve never quite understood the need to have so many shirts in one color. or shoes… or purses… However, I love my family. I just don’t relate as well. My mother taught us all to become whoever we wanted to be. To develop several talents and rule the world one day. We’ve each gone off on different paths. Sometimes I think the character of someone is defined much more greater from a personality we’re born with. I’ve never taught my four girls to shop. Yet, each of them have different ideals with it. They all love the novelty. One is much more quick about it, while another could browse for hours, and yet another would prefer to visit every single shop that sells the same thing to make sure she knows which is best. It’s just who they are and who they’ve always been. Thank goodness my girls are also extremely academic, artsy, and love sports too. 🙂

  5. I have two daughters, both married adults, but very different in personality. The younger of the two recently said to me something to the effect that I never asked them about nor talked about “boyfriends” while they were teens. I told Heather “there were more important things in life”…she graduated valedictorian of her class and has a very successful career related to finances while being a mother also. The other one is an talented artist. I am so glad you talked to your daughter about there being more important goals in life.

  6. Until recently, I have had no little girl in my life to spoil. I found myself stumbling even on what to purchase for her. “Stereotypes” rushed to greet me, but I just couldn’t do it. My little “Annalise” deserves better. I want her to stand on her own two feet and not be defined by a man’s predisposed ideas. Thanks for sharing the lovely story of your daughter.

  7. One other thought, I’ve always found it funny how Julia Sawalha played Lydia in the 1995 adaptation, about the same time she played Saffron in Absolutely Fabulous, and quite resembled Mary Bennet to Jennifer Saunders Mrs Bennet-like Edina.

  8. Thanks for giving Lydia a little sympathy. It’s fun to indulge in a little psychoanalysis about the reasons Lydia came out as she did. Was she Mr. Bennet’s last hope of a male heir, and when she arrived, he gave up on her, while at the same time Mrs Bennet saw in her a reflection of her own youth and the time when a red coat caught her eye? And how did Mary and Lydia achieve such extreme ends of the personality index? Although with five daughters, it’s inevitable that Austen needed to differentiate their characters sufficiently.

    • I think you may well be right, Jennifer–both Lydia’s parents must almost certainly have been very disappointed that she wasn’t a boy, given the entail on the estate. It is interesting how differently siblings in the same family can turn out– both in fiction and in real life. My girls are similar in some ways, but in others their personalities are very distinct.

  9. Awe that was nice. I love your little girl’s attitude. I guess born to shop would have suited Miss Lydia especially if she had had more money. I agree, it would have been nice if Bennet took more interest in his daughter’s education and got out of his book room every once and a while. Nice post. Jen Red

  10. I am with you on this one, I want my daughter to believe she can do anything, because these days there is a lot of opportunity for women. It’s lovely to hear that your daughter sees that she can be more.

    With Mr Bennet there would be little point telling Lydia she was clever and could change the world because frankly it would have been untrue, but he could and should have seen that she made the best of herself. A girl in Lydia’s place in society would have been looking at a career in matrimony, but she should have been educated to be able to run a household whereas I doubt Lydia could do much at all. She was encouraged to indulge the vainer side of her character and seek fun wherever she could find it. It seems quite sad that she would be stuck with the consequences of her actions at such a young age.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, so many good points here! I’m not sure it’s entirely untrue that Lydia could have changed the world. Massively, massively unlikely, certainly. But Mary Wollstonecraft and women like her DID change the world, even though they didn’t live to see the full effects of the changes that they’d helped to start rolling.

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