Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is a very famous novel. The opening line lets us know what the story is all about. The story is set in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Many of the characters in this novel are members of the gentry. They are largely a land-owning class, but also include others, such as the Anglican clergy. At face value, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is a romantic comedy and Jane Austen acknowledges how romantic feelings may overwhelm us. However whilst romantic passion needs to be celebrated, it offers an incomplete picture of human relationships. Jane Austen makes it clear that the passion of the moment is a poor foundation for love. The main plot of the story hangs off the opening sentence, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ (pg 1)
This sentence is the basis of almost everything that happens in the story.
Lydia Bennet is the youngest of the five Bennet sisters. She is only fifteen years of age at the beginning of the novel and her smiling face and confidently provocative manner make her very attractive to men. Her character is described as superficial, irresponsible, fun-seeking and flighty. She is wholly selfish and her only thought is for gaining her own pleasure. She is unaware of how vulnerable she is thus making her easy prey for one such as Wickham. However she is not in the least chastened by her adventure and treats it all as a huge joke. Least of all she is unable to appreciate the distress she has caused her family. She does, of course have the uncritical support of Mrs Bennet, whom she so closely resembles. Due to the traits of her character she elopes from Brighton with Mr Wickham.
The Bennet family all possess different personalities. Mr Bennet is laid-back, quiet and does not undertake his parental duties. He is always ready to humour, mock or tease but never to intervene. Mrs Bennet is very much like Lydia. She is ignorant, vulgar, fickle, talkative and selfish. Her life ambition is to marry off her five daughters, resulting in all kinds of absurdities, comic subterfuges, knowing winks and violent mood swings raging from depression to ecstasy. Mrs Bennet may seem to be a caricature, but we only need to shift our point of view slightly to see her as a destructive influence upon her family. Her ignorant and superficial outlook leaves her devoid of any moral discrimination.
Elizabeth and Jane are very mature and sensible. Jane has a serene personality and sees the best in everyone. This general outlook, in many ways proves to be the source of her own distress. Elizabeth has a natural vivacity and an endearing lack of stuffiness. She lacks Jane’s reserve and ironically shares something of Lydia’s wilfulness, if not her waywardness. Kitty is under the influence of Lydia and is in want of a husband, but less so after Lydia’s marriage. Mary is quiet and very studious, but this changes after Lydia’s elopement and the marriages of Jane and Elizabeth.
The Bennets’ all have very different reactions to Lydia’s going to Brighton. Elizabeth, the main character in the book is probably most affected by Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. Before Lydia goes to Brighton, she is the only one with the sense to warn her father about Lydia’s character and what she might get up to. She warns her father’
‘If you were aware, of the very great disadvantage… you would judge differently in the affair.’ (pg 223)
When Elizabeth says this, she is only caring for the family’s pride and making the Bennets look respectable. This is mainly due to the comments made by Darcy in his letter to Elizabeth. She is very conscious of Lydia’ flirtatious and irresponsible nature, and is being caring and thoughtful towards her sister, which is evident throughout the story. The affair of Lydia is especially wounding to her,
‘The mischief of neglect and mistaken indulgence towards such a girl.-Oh! How actually did she feel it! (pg 227)
The family’s attitude towards Lydia going to Brighton confirms Elizabeth’s perceptions of them, as well as Darcy’s. He describes the family’s, ‘Total want of propriety.’ (pg 163)
Elizabeth is very angry with her father and blames him for many of Lydia’s actions. She describes her father as having a lack of parental control and weakness, but simultaneously feels sorry for him and defends him.
Mr Bennet is very nonchalant and relaxed about Lydia going to Brighton. He feels she can only get better. Due to this very irresponsible attitude, Elizabeth feels he is to blame for Lydia’s uncontrolled and precocious behaviour. He doesn’t seem too interested in Lydia’s welfare, but more in his personal peace and harmony as he says, ‘We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Lydia does not go to Brighton…us to lock her up for the rest of her life.’
This quotation shows his witty, mocking personality as well as his relaxed ways. His inability to take up his parental duties and control his children shows the weakness of his character. There is a slight hint that he is in want of an officer as a husband for his daughter. While being warned by Elizabeth about sending Lydia to Brighton, he only thinks of the positives rather than the negative side of things. It seems as though he has been talked into sending Lydia to Brighton by Mrs Bennet.
Mrs Bennet meanwhile, is anxious for her daughter to go to Brighton in search of a husband. This is conveyed when she says, ‘I am sure, I cried for two days together when Colonel Miller’s… broke my heart. If one could but go to Brighton.’
She willingly lets her daughters know of her former pursuits and is eager for the whole family to go to Brighton. This shows the reader her shallowness and obsessive character. Her irritable means make Mr Bennet give in to her and allow Lydia to go to Brighton. This again portrays her main aim, to get all her daughters married off to respectable men.
Kitty Bennet, very much like her sister Lydia and is jealous of her, when she is invited by Mrs Forster to go to Brighton. Her pursuits are the same as Lydia’s and she is well acquainted with the officers. She has an inner admiration for them and regards them highly. Elizabeth describes her thus:
‘In this danger, Kitty is also comprehended… and absolutely uncontrolled.’
Kitty is also upset at Mrs Forster for not inviting her to go to Brighton. She shows jealousy and envy towards Lydia, ‘I cannot see why Mrs Forster should not ask me as well as Lydia… I am two years older.’
Kitty is under the influence of Lydia and tries in vain to repute Mr Bennet’s decision. She feels Lydia is most fortunate and wants to be in her position.
Jane has the same views as Elizabeth and tries to talk Kitty out of wanting to go to Brighton. She is not very involved in Lydia going to Brighton, and it seems as if she is still upset about Bingley moving out of Netherfield.
Mr and Mrs Forster are desperate for Lydia to go to Brighton. Mrs Forster and Lydia are intimate friends and share the same qualities. They are both self-centred and interested in officers. There is a hint that Lydia and Mrs Forster have the same thoughts and future desires.
In conclusion, I think that Elizabeth has the strongest views on Lydia going to Brighton. As a consequence, her awareness of her family’s deficiencies is acute. Her mother’s and Lydia’s ignorant vulgarity is a source of continuing shame but her sensitivity to Mr Bennet’s weakness and lack of parental control is even more painful. Darcy’s reflections on her family only serve to confirm her perceptions. At the same time she is nothing less than a loyal and respectful daughter. She has the family’s interests at heart when she tries to dissuade her father from allowing Lydia to go to Brighton but she accepts his misguided decision without any further question. The affair of Lydia is especially wounding to Elizabeth. Her shame is intensified by thoughts of what Darcy must think, and the despair of him ever again having any regard for her. Even so, she is still able to feel sorry for her father and when Lady Catherine confronts her with the scandal, she is fiercely loyal. She takes the attack on her youngest sister as a personal insult and firmly dismisses her Ladyship.
Mr and Mrs Bennet’s irresponsibility leads to Lydia’s elopement with Wickham from Brighton. Mrs Bennet’s hysteria at Lydia’s elopement is outwardly comic but her concern for her daughter’s wedding clothes is such dire circumstances is chilling. Mr Bennet attempts to track down Wickham and Lydia are hopelessly ineffective; he even neglects to write. On his return from London, he blames himself at first but his mock sternness towards Kitty is an early indication that he cannot take his responsibilities seriously. They are both to blame for the humiliation and shame suffered by the family, but neither accepts responsibility towards Lydia’s actions.
After Lydia’s undermining actions and the marriages of Elizabeth and Jane, Mary breaks out of her shell and becomes more sociable. Kitty on the other hand, free of Lydia’s influence becomes much more sensible. Lydia does not learn her lesson after humiliating her family. She is still incorrigible and writes to Elizabeth demanding that Darcy should provide them with additional income. She and Wickham are constantly in debt and their relationship is distinctly cooling.