It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice never gets old. My ninth-grade copy of the book is so dog-eared by now that it’s practically a basset hound, and I’ve rarely met a film version of the story that I didn’t like. So when I learned about a web series called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I knew I had to check it out.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has everything you’d hope for in a modern-day Pride and Prejudice adaptation. Lizzie is a smart, sarcastic 24-year-old grad student in mass communications who’s living at home, along with her sisters Jane, an underpaid fashion assistant, and Lydia, a college student and full-time party girl. With the help of her cradle-to-grave pal Charlotte Lu, Lizzie starts making video diaries as a class project—just as a certain rich, handsome med student named Bing Lee moves in next door.
The series finds plenty of parallels between Jane Austen’s gossip-obsessed English society and the digital age, and between the vicious economics of entailments and the rocky financial climate of the present. Jane’s defaulted on her student loans; the Bennets worry they’ll lose their home. As Lizzie points out, there’s a reason all three adult children are still living with their parents—and why the never-seen Mrs. Bennet (role-played by Lizzie as an overwrought southern belle who’s accidentally stumbled into suburban California) is so anachronistically obsessed with ensuring that her daughters marry well.
But the thing that’s most noteworthy about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries isn’t its new-media savvy and socioeconomic commentary. Nor is it the series’ excellent and diverse cast (Bing, Charlotte, and Bing’s sister Caroline are all Asian-American) or the crackling chemistry between Lizzie and Darcy, a snobby, stiff-as-a-board tech company executive with—who would’ve guessed?—a secret heart of gold. The most important thing about the series is its reclamation of a certain irrepressible redhead by the name of Lydia Bennet.
In Austen’s novel, and in most adaptations, Lydia is an entertaining but unredeemable character. She learns nothing from her mistakes, and she’s as superficial and oblivious as her mother—too caught up in charm, money, and good looks to be able to distinguish right from wrong or good people from bad. And then there’s the matter of Lydia’s “natural self-consequence”: “self-willed and careless,” she refuses to listen to her sisters and other women who try to get her to change her reckless behavior.
So when Lydia runs off with dastardly Wickham with no aim of getting him to put a ring on it, we’re meant to be worried about what it will do to Lizzie and Jane’s reputations—but not much concerned for the welfare of Lydia herself. Austen had little sympathy for characters lacking in common sense and self-awareness, and anyway Lydia’s too thick-headed to feel pangs of regret.
The concept of slut-shaming didn’t exist back in Austen’s day, since it was basically automatic. What else were you going to do with a young woman who refused to bow to societal conventions? But reading the book today, it’s clear that Lydia is an asteroid racing through the novel’s moral universe. A woman lacking in decency and virtue will cause destruction wherever she lands; the best you can hope for is to minimize the damage. Continue reading