It’s always a good sign when Diana Birchall is quoted on the cover of a book. And though, at first, Lydia’s observations here didn’t feel quite like Lydia’s would, the text does ultimately make Lydia into a sympathetic character, one a lot more like her sisters Jane and Elizabeth than Pride and Prejudice would leave us thinking she could be. Lydia does many things of which her sisters would be ashamed. She flirts with her own family’s servant, she kisses some guy at a dance, and she does things just so her sisters will be jealous. At the same time, in this text, the narrator has the girl thinking more deeply than I think she would. On the first page, for instance, Lydia confesses that Mr. Wickham “has a way of looking into [her] eyes which [she finds] most disconcerting,” which seems to me something Lydia wouldn’t think. Later, Lydia wishes that her father would say something nice about her; at least this time, the narrator acknowledges the incongruity between her words here and her behavior in P&P: “Despite the appearance Lydia gave of caring little for his remarks . . . .”
Her diary and the omniscient narration of the events in it also reveal more than I want to know about the character whose scenes, even in P&P, are my least favorite. We perfectly understand now how Lydia and Kitty came, with money enough for shopping, to greet Elizabeth on her journey home from Hunsford; their father needed them out of the house, and was willing to pay to make sure that happened. We learn about how Lydia came to dress Chamberlayne in women’s clothes, how much like her mother Lydia really is (she gets “flutterings” all over her when she’s excited about Brighton, for instance), how Wickham really gets to Lydia (by embarrassing her), and how Lydia decides that Wickham is no longer the “rightful property” of Elizabeth.
Ultimately, what this work achieves, more than the capturing of the P&P Lydia‟s voice, is the development of sympathy for her in an audience that is unlikely to begin reading the work with a shred of any. That development begins early on, when Wickham first offers to show Lydia around Brighton and she does not plan to take him up on his offer. Our feelings devolve into real pity when an eligible bachelor with money and interest in Lydia kisses her badly. It isn’t her fault, after all, that Wickham knows what he’s doing, and this other poor shlep does not. It is Wickham who interrupts an unfulfilling make-out session between Lydia and this handsome captain—and Lydia and Wickham slap each other. The violence and unkindness that will soon dominate their relationship is lightly hinted at here—but Lydia, in her silly 15-year-old naiveté, doesn’t see it.
So Lydia feels repulsed by the touch of a man who really could court her, and it’s almost inevitable that Wickham sweeps in and seduces her. When Wickham finally kisses her—in a dark cavern, away from all their friends, mind you—Lydia is not wholly innocent (she has blown out the candle), but she is not prepared to handle the treachery of this man, and for that, we feel for her. Wickham continues to court another woman, runs out of money, tells Lydia he needs to leave town immediately, and is offered this gift: Lydia has a little money and will give it and herself to Wickham, but only if he takes her with him. He, with sighs, agrees, and Lydia has duped herself into thinking he proposed marriage. We—and he—know he plans no such thing. “Poor, stupid girl,” indeed.
The interaction with Darcy offers reasonable explanations. Why was Lydia not home when Darcy first visited Wickham? She was finally permitted a shopping excursion. Also interesting is that Wickham knows he needs Darcy’s help, and he actually instructs Lydia to be polite to Darcy, but she doesn’t want to. We see Wickham for exactly what he is, but Lydia, though she is learning, still doesn’t.
The wedding day offers moments of pride—in Mrs. Gardiner, whose performance in scolding Lydia is awesome, and revulsion—in Lydia, who fake cries after getting angry at Wickham for threatening to “thrash” her if she tells anyone Darcy was at their wedding. This is a disgusting spectacle. Still, the reader feels sorry for Lydia, who has been threatened by her new husband on her wedding day, until she wonders how her poor mama can“get rid” of Elizabeth and Jane, whom, she predicts, will soon be old maids.
Just when you’re thinking that maybe she deserves her fate after all, Lydia catches Wickham cheating and unrepentant, and the whole charade begins to crumble. Once Lydia sees that he has never loved her the way she loves him, she begins to change into someone we can not only tolerate, but also want to be happy. Lydia is soon admitting—but only to her diary—what a huge mistake she made, and now she assumes full responsibility for it, even as she decides to show the world only her former, giddy, gloating self so that no one triumphs over her.
This sudden and painful self-awareness and isolation make her attractively sympathetic now, and not just to us. A handsome brother of a friend of Lydia’s keeps appearing, and though Lydia thinks he’s constantly judging and scorning her, we recognize these behaviors from a certain laconic gentleman and know what should happen. Thanks to an additional act of Wickham’s past, all we have to do is wait for it to unfold, and the waiting is so much fun to read.
I can see now why Diana so enjoyed this romp. Only a woman who felt the need to bring some attention to Mrs. Elton’s side of the story could so thoroughly sympathize with Odiwe’s plight in making us care about Lydia as anything other than her sisters‟ sister, but much to my surprise and enjoyment, Odiwe—like Birchall before her—succeeds.
(republished from Spring 2009)