Last night our older girls decided to put on the big box office adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. As I joined them about 1/4 way through the film I was again reminded of the honesty and candor with which Jane Austen treated her characters, but especially her female characters.
As we watched the the feral and impulsive Lydia Bennett, I was reminded of the equally unsavory Maria Bertram from one of Austen’s lesser acclaimed novels, Mansfield Park. Maria was certainly the more offensive of the two, having married one man for security:
Being now in her twenty-first year, Maria Bertram was beginning to think matrimony a duty; and as a marriage with Mr. Rushworth would give her the enjoyment of a larger income than her father’s, as well as ensure her the house in town, which was now a prime object, it became, by the same rule of moral obligation, her evident duty to marry Mr. Rushworth if she could.
And later running off with another man -Henry Crawford- for lust. Simple propriety, not to mention social reprisals, should have dictated that Maria could never behave so shamelessly. She did however, and Austen set the stage earlier for what was to come:
When they came within the influence of Sotherton associations, it was better for Miss Bertram, who might be said to have two strings to her bow. She had Rushworth-feelings, and Crawford-feelings, and in the vicinity of Sotherton, the former had considerable effect.
Needless to say, Maria’s tale does not end well.
With Lydia Bennett, however, Austen writes a softer landing after she runs off with a handsome and caddish soldier who has no intention of making an honest woman of her. She however is wholly oblivious to this pertinent imformation:
You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed. I am going to Gretna Green, and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think you a simpleton, for there is but one man in the world I love, and he is an angel. I should never be happy without him, so think it no harm to be off. You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater when I write to them and sign my name Lydia Wickham.
She is rescued by none other than Mr. Darcy*, who pays Wickham to marry her, and the family is spared even greater embarrassment than they already endure.
Perhaps because she was much younger (15), more impressionable, and less well raised than the character in Mansfield Park, Lydia is spared the full brunt of the natural consequences of her deplorable stunt. Her mother was loud, ill-mannered, and nosy. He father, having awakened to the reality that the woman he married in his youth was foolish and insufferable beneath her beauty, had largely retreated from the life of the family. Lydia was certainly her mother’s daughter.
Maria and Lydia as presented by Austen, are achingly familiar and in 2016, and all too common. Austen, like several authors of her era, effectively exposes the motivations, nature, and moral crises of her characters, male and female alike, head on. No cover is given for “extenuating circumstances” or “childhood hurts”. When her female characters do horrid things it is because they are women of horrible character. Period.
Lydia and Maria remind us that despite the seeming proliferation of wanton behavior in this post modern era, there really is nothing new under the sun.
*I realize that Mr. Darcy is the most popular male lead of all Jane Austen’s male characters, but he is not mine. Far from it in fact, as I noted before.