Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Lydia's Prospect: Scandal, Sequels, and Second Chances

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Lydia's Prospect: Scandal, Sequels, and Second Chances

Article excerpt

Pride and Prejudice's Lydia Bennet may be, in the words of her father, one of the '"silliest girls in the country'" (32), but her role in the novel is far from trivial. When Lydia runs off with Wickham, she threatens her own reputation and the marital prospects of her elder sisters, and patrons of Regency circulating libraries may have foreseen a fate for her involving banishment, penury, and a turn to prostitution. Yet Austen crafts an outcome that neither fully rewards nor fully punishes Lydia's ill-considered decision to act upon her desires. Instead, Austen interweaves Lydia's seduction plot with Elizabeth's courtship narrative in a way that marks the novelist's particular kind of moral authority, absent of and distinct from legal, ecclesiastical, or community sanction. And Lydia's afterlife in recent Pride and Prejudice sequels demonstrates the continued influence of her subplot on our diverse and complex visions of Austen's moral and social world.

Novelistic sequels to Austen's work have received far less attention and respect, both in criticism and popular culture, than have film and television adaptations. As Deidre Lynch observes, "[Brooks that extrapolate from Austen's texts and recount what their heroines do next are generally regarded as dubious enterprises." Lynch provides two possible explanations for the lowly reputation of these sequels and reworkings: their "melodramatic turn[s]" can "feel like throwbacks to the Gothic and sentimental novels that Austen loved to burlesque" (164-65), and their romanticization of Austen's world feels overly conservative. "As several commentators have noted," writes Lynch, '"the world of Jane Austen' is frequently viewed through the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia, mourned as a lost age of placid elegance" (165). (1) Yet these conventions also produce noteworthy patterns of representation. Through the tension between refined, well-ordered, and romanticized Regency England settings and melodramatic or sensational subplots (such as Lydia's seduction), sequel writers continue the work of Austen in orchestrating collisions between individual choice, community rules (both explicit and implicit), and narrative conventions to produce diverse and sometimes unexpected representations of romance and female sexuality.

As the sequels I explore in this essay are of recent vintage, it will be useful to contextualize them against a backdrop of recent discussions of Austen and late-twentieth/early-twenty-first-century culture. In particular, the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, when a new wave of "Austenmania" began, has been identified with "postfeminist" culture, a term which has been applied not only to turn-of-the-millennium adaptations of Austen's work but (in a provocatively anachronistic move) to Austen's original work itself. "Postfeminist culture," as defined by Yvonne Trasker and Diane Negra, "works in part to incorporate, assume, or naturalize aspects of feminism" (2), so that feminism as a political movement is seen as completed or superseded. Angela McRobbie invokes Bridget Jones, Helen Fielding's late-twentieth-century version of Elizabeth Bennet, as a prime example of a postfeminist heroine who has "benefitted from those institutions ... that have loosened the ties of tradition and community for women" (36) and who is faced with both the pleasures and perils of being a "free agent" (36) in the workplace and the marriage market. However, "[d]espite the choices she has," McRobbie argues, "there are also any number of risks," primarily, that "partnerless, she will be isolated, marginalized from the world of happy couples." Thus, ironically, "[w]ith the burden of self-management so apparent, Bridget fantasizes about very traditional forms of happiness and fulfillment" (37). Vivien Jones, too, has noted a "distinction" made in contemporary culture "between acceptably independent femininity and what Bridget Jones, in Helen Fielding's chick-lit version of Pride and Prejudice, refers to as 'strident feminism'" (290). …

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