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.
The Lydia of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a whole other kettle of exuberant, strong-willed fish. Sure, she’s boy-crazy and a bit of a lush. She comes home from the mall weighed down with shopping bags despite her family’s financial straits. She’s prone to textspeak (she calls herself “the adorbs”), and she lives to be the center of attention. But the web series doesn’t judge her for this, though Lizzie does. As audience members, we understand that her bright pink lipstick and tendency to try to high five everyone in sight is just part of what makes her Lydia. And thanks to the spin-off video diary series that runs concomitantly with episodes of TLBD, The Lydia Bennet, we also understand beneath her bravado, Lydia’s vulnerable, loyal, and much more perceptive than she seems.
In front of Lizzie and most of the rest of the world, Lydia wants to appear invincible. (“I always solve my problems in these three easy steps,” she says. “One, alcohol. Two, pretend they don’t exist. Three, more alcohol.”) In her videos, though, she takes on new dimensions. When mean girls make fun of her emo-fabulous cousin Mary, she covers their car windows in unicorn stickers. She turns down her larger-than-life personality to listen quietly to Jane as her big sister confesses how much she misses Bing. She talks about how important family is to her: Whereas boys come and go, her sisters and cousin will always be there.
Lydia’s diaries are a correction to Austen’s book, where the character has no inner life to speak of. The reclamation of her character says a lot about the feminist politics of the series—as does the way it handles the Wickham scandal that brings the story to its climax. [spoilers ahead!]
The scandal has its roots in the present Lizzie gives Lydia for her 21st birthday—a book called Where Did I Park My Car? A Party Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Successful Adult. Lydia gets the message that Lizzie doesn’t quite realize she’s sending: The person she is right now isn’t good enough. The fallout from the conflict between the two sisters sends a wounded, angry Lydia straight into the manipulative, swimmer-strong arms of Wickham, who weasels his way into an emotionally abusive relationship with her.
Watching the relationship unfold on Lydia’s diaries, it’s not clear what Wickham’s end game is—but it’s horribly clear that he has one. He shames Lydia for her party-girl ways, criticizes her family, and persuades her that Jane and Lizzie have a special sisterly bond that will always leave her the odd girl out. Whenever she contradicts him, he gets angry and threatens to leave. He’s isolating Lydia, and the effect on her self-esteem is obvious. Her wardrobe palette of bright pinks, purples, and blues shifts into loose grey sweatshirts. Her Rainbow-Brite personality gets meeker; her voice gets softer. Whenever we see the two of them together, she’s got her head leaning on his shoulder, as if he’s propping her up. “I feel… good enough for somebody, for once,” she tells the camera. “All you really need is that one person who’s always got your back, and I think I’ve found mine.”
So when Wickham finally reveals himself to be an utter scumbag—he pressures Lydia into making a sex tape with him, then disappears only to resurface in the form of a website that promises to sell views of the tape for cash—there’s no question in the audience’s mind of who’s to blame. The fact that Wickham preyed on her insecurities and then betrayed her isn’t a reflection of Lydia’s character or a judgment on her decency and virtue. It’s a reflection of the fact that Wickham is a horrible human being who doesn’t treat women as if they’re actual people.
Like so many women confronted by men who violate their privacy and try to publicly humiliate them, Lydia believes that she brought everything upon herself. But Lizzie is quick to correct her: “You don’t deserve awful things because you trusted someone who was there for you when no one else was around,” she says. In the modern-day, feminist moral universe of the web series, Wickham’s the destructive asteroid. Lydia, of course, is a star.
The pivotal episode of the series, for me, is “An Understanding.” Wickham’s sex tape website is up; the countdown to its release is getting closer. Lydia and Lizzie sit down together as the things they thought they knew for sure crumble right in front of them. Lydia has to confront the fact that the man she loved wasn’t the person she thought he was, and that he never loved her back. Lizzie, too, has to face hard truths. She thought she understood her baby sister, but when she finally watches Lydia’s video diaries, she realizes she never really saw her at all.
“Sometimes I feel so clever and rational and appropriately analytical about the world around me,” Lizzie tells the camera. “I’m a grad student, it’s what I do, what I’m supposed to be skilled at doing: communicating and relating and acknowledging that people do not fit into neat little boxes tied up in string.” But Lizzie misjudged her sister just as Lydia misjudged Wickham. A party girl is still a person. A bubbly little sister still deserves to be taken seriously. A buoyant, strong-willed woman can still get hurt.
In this episode, it becomes clear that the real love story of the series isn’t between Jane and Bing or Lizzie and Darcy. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has been about sisterly love all along.
“Why didn’t he love me, Lizzie?” Lydia asks, finally breaking down. “I love him so much.”
“I love you.”
“Why didn’t he love me?”
“I love you, do you hear me? I love you. You are not alone.”
Later the familiar turns of Pride and Prejudice will fall into place. Darcy will save the day and shut the sex tape website down. He’ll tell Lizzie he loves her one more time, and she’ll say that she loves him back. Bing will come back to Jane. But it turns out the best thing about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries isn’t what it kept from the story so many readers know by heart, but what it re-wrote. In place of easy judgments and dismissals, we get the Bennet sisters holding on to each other, answering love with love: both of them staggered by pain, both of them leveling up.