At 16, Lydia Bennet, married Mr Wickham. And not before time, everyone declared – for wicked Lydia had shared Wickham’s bed without benefit of clergy. Some said she was born to be hanged. But – with a helping hand from Wellington and royal friends – there was a more interesting fate in store for Lydia.
Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy fought against the rip tides of pride and prejudice to achieve happiness. For Lydia, at 16 the youngest of the Bennet sisters, there was no so such struggle –driven by passion she dived most willingly into Mr Wickham’s bed – without benefit of clergy. And Wickham was just the first!
Who was Jane Austen? The woman, not the writer. Unfortunately, we can never have a true picture – for the last breath had hardly left her body before her sister Cassandra and her evangelical preacher brother had burned a great quantity of Jane’s personal diaries and papers – one of the greatest acts of vandalism in literary history. All done to create a new public persona – Saint Jane. A plaster cast, almost bloodless saint. An Elizabeth Bennet deprived of all wit and passion. I imagine any tremors felt in Winchester over the last 200 years have not been due to earthquakes but a furious Jane spinning in her grave.
Unfortunately, the only portrait we have of her gives little away – but even that shows this was not the face of a saint. We do know she was witty, fun loving, fond of the theatre, balls and dancing. Men were attracted to her – she had a number of proposals and one of history’s briefest of engagements. So what unknowns – deep secret passions – are hidden in those burned papers?
We can recognize much of Elizabeth Bennet in Jane’s surviving persona. But how much of Lydia Bennet was there below the surface.
I had often wondered if Jane had not died so young would she have eventually re-worked the character of a Lydia – the girl and woman. It was thinking along those lines that started me writing ‘Lydia’s Lives’.
In writing the book I have kept in mind the tone of some of the young Jane’s favourite books, including Fielding’s raunchy ‘Tom Jones’ – which scandalised Doctor Johnson but delighted Jane. Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’. Another was ‘The Monk’ a tale of rape, incest and necrophilia – a book that shocked even Byron.
| Beyond ‘Pride and Prejudice’
From an early age – a very early age – Lydia, the youngest of the five Bennet sisters, was suspected by the neighbours of being the naughtiest member of the Bennet family. Her recently discovered memoirs, diaries and other documents show there was some justification for their suspicions.
Elizabeth Bennet settled for the tall, handsome and wealthy Darcy. For sister Jane it was Mr Bingley – first, last and always. Lydia was not so easily satisfied. She had a wider world to explore and conquer. A world centred on men.
In the first volume of Lydia’s Lives the hot-blooded, warm-hearted Lydia proves that being naughty as well as nice (spiced with a little luck) can lead to good fortune – not the poorhouse or the gallows as predicted by so many kindly neighbours.
Lydia is taken in hand (literally) by the Reverend Wellyboy, who suspects that the lusty, busty girl of 14 is full of sinful thoughts. He recommends baptism – but a ducking in the parson’s scummy duck pond only gives Lydia a bad head cold – and the sinful thoughts remain.
The following year Lydia seduces her flute tutor. At 16 she pursues and weds Lieutenant Wickham.
Lydia celebrates her 18th birthday with Napoleon in Paris and two days later meets the Duke of Wellington in Brussels. (The Duke, who was invigorated by the very brief encounter with his young countrywoman, went on to defeat the French leader. Napoleon, for whom the encounter in Paris was not brief, was said by his aides to be physically weary and mentally distracted throughout the battle of Waterloo – as though his thoughts were constantly elsewhere). Some French officers later said the defeat was all Lydia’s fault – she was England’s secret weapon at Waterloo.
And those were just the early days …. in Lydia’s Lives