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“Oh, Lydia!”: Sexual Mores in Twenty-first-Century Updates

One of the knottiest problems for revisionist adaptations of Pride and Prejudice set in the twenty-first century is how to treat Lydia.  While Lydia’s affair with Wickham was highly improper for a nineteenth-century woman, threatening damage to both herself and her sisters, a premarital sexual relationship would be considered normal for most young women in the West in the twenty-first century.  Indeed, the verve and sexual self-determination of Austen’s Lydia might seem more appealing to twenty-first-century audiences than, say, Jane’s modesty.  And, indeed, Lydia persistently commands attention.  Whereas Kitty and Mary are often discarded in adaptations, which sometimes omit even the Bennet parents, the ubiquity of Lydia—in fan fiction, Regency-set novels, sequels, and updates—testifies to a continuing cultural fascination with the most transgressive Bennet sister.

What makes Lydia indispensable—almost as indispensable as the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy—in twenty-first-century updates of Pride and Prejudice?  In a perceptive essay arguing that Mrs. Bennet is more than a caricature, John Wiltshire points to the sexual energies of Mrs. Bennet and the daughter who shares her love for a red coat.  He suggests that Lydia’s “unabashed sexuality is a demonstration of everything the novel assumes, but keeps otherwise implicit and under wraps” (185).  Austen had to keep such sexual energy implicit, given the strictures of her society and her respect for decorum, but in the postfeminist age the sexuality of young women has emerged as a prominent feature of cultural reexamination. 

As many adaptation theorists have observed, adaptations routinely adjust their focus and ideology to be in line with the ideological expectations of contemporary audiences.  Austen adaptations across media follow this practice, even those that retain the period setting.  Emma Thompson and Ang Lee’s 1995 film Sense and Sensibility, for instance, expands Margaret’s role to imply the “promise for a feminist future” (Looser 165).  In retelling Pride and Prejudice through the point of view of the Bennets’ servants, Jo Baker’s 2013 novel Longbourn reflects twenty-first-century values by critiquing the classist, colonialist, and patriarchal attitudes of Austen’s era.  Updated adaptations can incorporate modern values even more easily, as Clueless does so brilliantly in updating Emma.  In the case of Lydia, presenting her character and sexuality in a positive light would seem to be a reasonable response to today’s expectation that women should have sexual agency. 

But changing Lydia is tricky, even aside from expectations of fidelity to Austen.  To sustain the plot of Pride and Prejudice, Lydia must provoke a crisis that allows Darcy to prove his love for Elizabeth.  Another part of Lydia’s function in Austen’s narrative is to provide a “foil” that makes her older sisters’ virtues more evident (Veisz 237), a function that would be lost if Lydia were presented more positively.  Adaptations, then, invariably retain Lydia’s youthful impetuousness, self-centeredness, and indiscretion—the traits that contrast her to her eldest sisters and that lead easily to a crisis in which Darcy can shine. 

What varies is Lydia’s relation to sexual mores.  Over the last two decades, updated adaptations have reconfigured Lydia’s storyline in ways that track, and test, the cultural limits on modern young women’s sexual freedom, just as Austen’s Lydia tested the sexual freedom of nineteenth-century women.  Tracking changes over the last two decades will demonstrate both the elasticity of the vivid character Austen devised and the shifts over time in culturally acceptable sexual behavior.  In examining how Lydia’s sexual behavior is treated in several updated adaptations produced for Anglo-American audiences, this essay will argue that the character has become a cultural bellwether for the evolution of sexual values.  The earliest of these updated adaptations tried to skirt the challenges of modernizing her sexuality by placing her in modern cultures that restrict female sexuality or even by folding Lydia into another character; a second wave turned to fantasy; and adaptations of the last decade have portrayed premarital sexuality as normative but recast Lydia as testing the limits of less widely accepted sexual behaviors. 

Turn of the century: Lydia reconstituted 

Strikingly, Lydia does not appear as herself in the earliest of the works we studied:  Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary or its hit 2001 film version.  Given the work’s emphasis on the “singleton” culture of adult women with romantic, professional, and sexual ambitions, it would have been hard to distinguish Lydia from the other characters.  Instead, Lydia’s functions are transferred to Bridget and her mother:  Bridget reads as a combination of Austen’s Elizabeth and Lydia, and Mrs. Jones as a combination of Mrs. Bennet and Lydia.  Reading these three women as mirrors of each other, particularly when it comes to their sexuality, has basis in Austen’s novel.  As Wiltshire points out, “Lydia replicates the narcissism and thoughtlessness of her mother” and also “shares several characteristics” with Elizabeth, “notably her self-confidence, and more disconcertingly, her enjoyment of a laugh” (185).  Laughter, self-confidence, and strong emotions, Wiltshire argues, are characteristics shared by the women characters that have “a sexual energy” (184).  In Bridget Jones’s Diary Fielding draws on this already present sexual energy to combine the three women in ways that test the era’s cultural limitations of women’s sexuality. 

Like Austen’s Lydia, Bridget is lively, impetuous, and a locus of embarrassment.  Her embarrassment is often tied to her sexual self-presentation, most obviously when she shows up to her parents’ friends’ costume party in a skimpy Playboy Bunny outfit, unaware that the “Tarts and Vicars” theme had been changed.  As Bridget tries to negotiate the relationship between romance and sexual activity, particularly in her relationship with the Wickhamish Daniel Cleaver, Bridget herself embodies all the cultural confusion of an era that recognized both women’s increasing sexual agency and the traditional conflation of sex, love, and marriage as normative for women.  Writing in 2002, Imelda Whelehan identified Bridget Jones’s Diary as “one of those books which is credited with catching the mood of the period. . . . Bridget neatly expresses the tensions of a woman who recognises the rhetoric of feminism and empowerment, but isn’t always able to relate this to her fulsome desire for a hero from a Jane Austen novel” (27).  Bridget vacillates between studying Cosmo and planning to read Susan Faludi’s feminist bestseller Backlash (Fielding 52, 67).  Sexual rules for unmarried young women are so uncertain in this millennial period that no Lydia could transgress them. 

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Bridget Jones Diary.  © 2001 Miramax Films 

At least, uncertain for younger women.  But not for mothers, whose sexuality has always evoked cultural dissonance.  The novel trades on cultural queasiness about mothers’ sexuality and about extramarital sexuality to present Mrs. Jones as transgressive, as Lydia had been in Austen’s novel.  When Mrs. Jones leaves her husband, relishing her freedom from “running his home and bringing up his children,” she poses a disruption to the nuclear family unit that the novel corrects while also acknowledging the systemic gender biases that feminism had exposed in the previous decades (Fielding 47).  Mrs. Jones’s elopement with a Wickham-like seducer allows Mark Darcy to save Bridget’s family in a manner similar to Mr. Darcy’s orchestration of Lydia and Wickham’s marriage.  Mark rescues Bridget’s mother, whose affair with the scam-artist Julio causes her to flee to Portugal in order to escape the police, and so earns Bridget’s gratitude.  (In the film, this convoluted episode is cut, allowing more attention to the rom-com’s central, younger characters.)  In finding canny ways to replace Lydia’s functions in the Pride and Prejudice plot, Bridget Jones’s Diary successfully negotiates a period of changing cultural expectations for female sexuality without denigrating its young women characters.  While Bridget blames herself for her many romantic and sexual missteps, she remains charming—in part because of her own Lydia-like outspokenness and liveliness. 

Early twenty-first century: Lydia crosses cultures 

Next to appear were updates of Pride and Prejudice that skirt the difficulties of transposing the marriage, gender, and sexuality practices of the gentry of Regency England into the twenty-first century by adopting settings in cultures with parallels to those practices.  Gurinda Chadha’s Bollywood-style film Bride & Prejudice (2004), in reimagining the Bennets as four Indian sisters being courted by Westerners, finds parallels in Indian culture for the prudential marriages, class consciousness, and sexual restraint of Austen’s culture.  The 2003 independent film update Pride & Prejudice (sometimes subtitled A Latter-Day Comedy), directed by Andrew Black and set in Utah, uses LDS religious restrictions on premarital sex to evaluate the behavior of its twenty-something characters. 

Bride & Prejudice suggests a traditionalist expectation of premarital sexual restraint for its Indian women characters; when Lalita (Elizabeth) falls in love with her American Darcy, their love scenes feature the sort of chaste embraces that would not have raised an eyebrow in the Breen Office.  In highlighting young Lakhi’s (Lydia’s) sexual precociousness from her first appearance in a scanty outfit that her mother deplores and detailing her relentless pursuit of Johnny Wickham, the film seems to threaten social “ruin” for Lakhi parallel to that in Austen’s novel.  But does Lakhi ultimately have sex with him?  Her running off with Wickham during a family stopover in London allows Darcy to “rescue” Lakhi by tracking down Wickham the following day, but in fact Lakhi has presumably spent the intervening night on Wickham’s canal boat.  Darcy’s confrontation with Wickham in a movie theater screening a film about rape does little to clarify the issue.  This ambiguity allows the film to retain Darcy’s heroism but also to sidestep any consideration of demanding a marriage to abide by her family’s expectations, thus leaving Lakhi’s future choices open and her reputation undamaged. 

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Bride and Prejudice.  © 2004 Miramax Films and Pathe Pictures

This update, like others, avoids shaming the Lydia character by foisting additional blame on Wickham.  In Bride & Prejudice he has gone further than in Austen’s novel, getting Darcy’s younger sister pregnant rather than just attempting to seduce her.  Black’s film, a broader comedy targeting a youthful audience, doubles down by revealing Wickham as a triple bigamist and gambling addict and sending him to jail.  Lydia’s position in Black’s film is equivocal.  In this student comedy Lydia is Liz’s housemate, not sister, and more mature than usual.  Although her license plate reads “boy crazy,” she is generally a take-charge adult, serving as landlord, driving the car, and dragging Liz and Jane out of their wallow in romantic despair.  She touts the wisdom of The Pink Bible, which advises women on how to catch a husband.  The film depicts both that advice book and the prevailing culture at Brigham Young University as discouraging premarital sex:  in resisting Wickham’s advances in spite of her attraction to him, twenty-six-year-old Elizabeth reproves him in phrases that recall Doris Day movies.  While no sexual shame can accrue to Lydia, since Darcy and Elizabeth intercept the bigamous marriage at the wedding chapel, the film nonetheless withdraws Lydia’s power and recasts her goals.  She looks pensive as she drives Wickham to Vegas and soberly dons her white gown, and once she arrives at the chapel she remains mute—a striking change for a confident and loquacious woman.  At film’s end, a multi-character epilogue reveals that Lydia never marries and redirects her love for fashion into writing the book I Look Good for Me and My Girlfriends and her energy into a speaking tour to empower young women.  Such an ending simultaneously casts a shadow of responsibility for her fate on Lydia and honors her freedom of choice as she moves forward. 

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Pride & Prejudice  © 2003 Excel Entertainment Group

Both Bride & Prejudice and the LDS-set Pride & Prejudice, then, borrow sexual prohibitions for women from the cultures in which they are set but veil Lydia’s actions or thoughts at the end.  They thus resist either shaming Lydia or sending her to a scripted fate.  This strategy was canny in a time period that newly celebrated “girl power” and explored shifting attitudes about women’s sexual agency, as the phenomenal success of the television series Sex and the City (1998–2004) showed, but that also maintained some traditional ideas.  The millennial era updates that adopt settings in cultures with traditionalist sexual restrictions for women display a pattern:  promoting Lydia’s liveliness and agency only to quell them in the end.  Moreover, while they imply that Lydia is rescued from Wickham “in time,” they also allow for readings that leave her sexual status uncertain.  This ambiguity allows them to avoid an outright confrontation with traditionalist restrictions on women’s sexuality while at the same time allowing their young women characters to retain some freedom of choice and future.  In twenty-first-century updates, even those set in cultures that prohibit premarital sex, Lydia never “has” to marry Wickham to save her social status. 

Updates in the second half of the decade posit interaction between nineteenth-century and twenty-first-century worlds, using fantasy to ease negotiation between past and present cultural attitudes.  Shannon Hale’s 2007 novel Austenland, which would be made into a 2013 film, sends a modern single woman to find love in the course of a paid immersive experience in Austen.  The 2008 British miniseries Lost in Austen imagines Elizabeth Bennet and her modern counterpart, Amanda Price, invading and then trading worlds, to the satisfaction of each.  These dual-world updates are so upside-down that their treatment of Lydia is unpredictable:  in Lost in Austen Lydia elopes with Bingley rather than Wickham! 

The 2010s: Multiplying choices, generations, exposures 

Austen updates of the 2010s have been produced in a different, though still changing, cultural era.  Although Western attitudes toward sexualities of all kinds have transformed rapidly in the second decade of the twenty-first century, they have done so unevenly, in terms of both region and age group.  Updates of Pride and Prejudice have continued to feature Lydia in the midst of this rapid change, allowing her character to become an even more significant bellwether of changing sexual mores.  These recent updates also address the ever fuzzier lines between private and public sexuality in the age of YouTube, sexting, and reality TV. 

Lydia’s role in Prom & Prejudice (2011), by Eliza Eulberg, makes clear that age remains an important factor in cultural evaluation of female sexuality.  This young adult novel, published by Scholastic, features high school students as the central characters.  Like Austen’s novel, this one focuses on class prejudices, making its protagonist a scholarship student at the prestigious Longbourn Academy, a Connecticut boarding school for girls.  Lizzie, who suffers from the snobbery of both her super-wealthy classmates and the elite boys in nearby Pemberley Academy, finds kindness only from her roommate Jane, the older sister of Lydia, a freshman.  Lydia develops a crush on Wick, a public school student who had been expelled from Pemberley and formerly flirted with Lizzie, and pursues him.  The novel does not fault Lydia for calling Wick, since she waits to do so until he is single, but Jane and others express concerns about her dating someone three years older. 

While the novel does not clarify proper sexual behavior for older teens, it makes clear that fourteen-year-olds like Lydia should not yet be engaged in sex.  This attitude parallels teen sexual practices of the time:  according to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention study, between 2011–2015 the average age American women reported first having sexual intercourse was seventeen (“Key Statistics”).  The novel depicts Wick, aged seventeen, as a villain for trying the same tactic with Lydia and with Darcy’s younger sister, Georgie, when she was fourteen:  getting them drunk in a hotel or vacant house.  This scenario, while not erasing female sexual desire (Lydia does not want to be “rescued”), raises issues of consent that became widely discussed in the 2010s.  To be sure that Wick’s behavior is tarred, Prom & Prejudice uses the same strategy as Bride and the LDS Pride:  it adds to his catalog of villainies.  After being expelled from the Darcy home following his discovery with Georgie, Wick had burglarized their house, a crime caught on security tape.  This novel also, however, follows a similar strategy of veiling its final treatment of Lydia.  Given the amount of time since Lydia had run off to the hotel with Wick, it’s not clear that they had not yet had sex.  And, while Lydia’s parents threaten to move her to a restrictive Catholic school, it’s not clear where Lydia ends up.  Even though statutory rape laws regard girls so young as being unable to consent, Lydia might incur some cultural blame for her eagerness to “have some real fun” with Wick, a danger the book side-steps through this veiling (Eulberg 186). 

While Prom & Prejudice uses Lydia’s age to create an emergency in which Darcy can shine (together with Lizzie, who punches Wick), other modernized adaptations cannot take this same approach because of their use of adult characters.  The 2012–2013 YouTube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, for example, sets Lizzie’s age at twenty-four, Jane’s at twenty-six, and Lydia’s at twenty (twenty-one after her birthday).  Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Eligible (2016) ages the sisters even more:  Jane and Liz are approaching 40, Mary is 30, Kitty 26, and Lydia 23. Predictably for adult women in the U.S. in the second decade of the twenty-first century, all of the Bennet sisters are sexually active.  In Eligible Jane and Bingley have sex on their second date, and Liz instigates a series of “hate sex” hook-ups with Darcy (Sittenfeld 238).  In the Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, the companion novel to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Jane—yes, Jane—has a pregnancy scare, while in Eligible Jane becomes pregnant through artificial insemination in between boyfriends. 

The ubiquity of premarital sexual relationships, both casual and committed, among the women in these Pride and Prejudice updates suggests that, as in Bridget Jones’s Diary, casual premarital sexual relationships of adult women are not socially unacceptable enough to launch a scandal.  Modernized adaptations, therefore, must find new ways for Lydia’s actions to create problems for Elizabeth and Darcy.  The Lizzie Bennet Diaries accomplishes this through Lydia’s engagement in hook-up culture, a phenomenon that is both commonplace—the American Psychological Association reports that 81% of undergraduates have “engaged in some form of hookup behavior” (Garcia et al. 162)—and considered “especially harmful to women” because of the ways in which casual sex privileges male desire (Wade 525). 

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries dispenses with Kitty and Mary (except as pet and cousin, respectively) but uses Lydia to dramatize the tension between casual sex as a normal part of a young adult’s life and its potentially harmful effects for young women.  Unlike Jane, whom Lizzie encourages to get her “sexy-times on” with Bing Lee before they begin a committed relationship, Lydia’s sexual encounters are treated as irresponsible (“After the Wedding”).  Lizzie characterizes her younger sister as a “stupid, whore-y slut” and berates Lydia for drunkenly making out with a stranger in a bar (“My Sisters: Problematic to Practically Perfect”).  The drinking, drugs, and anonymity that accompany Lydia’s sexual encounters allow Lizzie to differentiate between Jane’s casual but responsible relationship with Bing and Lydia’s wild hook-ups.  Lydia’s actions show that she fits the category of an “at-risk” girl, which sociologist Anita Harris describes as a type of young woman who displays “inappropriate consumption behaviors . . . of drugs or alcohol” and engages in risky sexual behaviors (14).  At-risk girls, in Harris’s view, cause cultural anxiety about young women’s sexuality because they are seen as “enact[ing] the gains of feminism in problematic ways,” and as a result their private sexual choices are judged harshly by other members of society (29).  In the series, this form of social judgment is enacted by Lizzie, who, in the episode “Swimming with Scissors,” encourages Lydia to adopt instead more “subtle, sexy, ladylike” flirting practices. 

While Lizzie often judges Lydia’s sexual choices, the series uses the opinions of other characters and the viewers to draw attention to the tension between private sexual choices and the public judgment women often receive for their sexuality.  Though many of the characters find Lydia to be “energetic,” they also defend her against Lizzie’s harsher accusations (“Are You Kidding Me!”).  Eventually, Jane helps Lizzie realize she has sat in judgment of Lydia’s actions rather than truly getting to understand her sister.  The audience Q&A videos that the series puts out also show viewers questioning Lizzie’s characterization of Lydia as a slut.  In the first Q&A video, Lizzie reads a comment from “aseasyash” that says that “Lydia . . . [is a] party girl more than [a] slut” and compares Lizzie to a judgmental Fox News commentator (“Questions and Answers #1”).  This viewer comment highlights the tension between private choice and public judgment by suggesting that Lydia’s sexual choices should not be open to condemnation from others, even her own family. 

Rather than having Lydia’s elopement with Wickham create the scandal Darcy must save the Bennet family from, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries employs the Bennets’ distress when they discover that the money-hungry Wickham is hawking a sex tape on the internet, without Lydia’s knowledge or consent.  Lydia’s lack of consent is revealed dramatically as she screams, cries, and runs out of the room when Lizzie shows her the website.  Even though Lydia was not complicit in publicly exposing her private sexual activity, this scandal highlights the problematic intersection between personal choice and public judgment.  Many people would argue that a woman opens herself up to exploitation by making a sex tape in the first place, a cultural judgment also represented in the story world.  As Lydia herself notes in the episode “An Understanding,” others are telling her that, even though she thought the tape would be private, creating a sex tape ruins the lives of all three Bennet sisters.  When she learns the truth, Lydia castigates herself as a “stupid, whore-y slut,” echoing the line that Lizzie originally used to introduce her.  Lizzie’s reassurance and apology for her earlier judgment of her sister’s sexual choices suggest the series’ support for private sexual choice, but at the same time the sex-tape scenario warns of the danger of allowing public display in the internet age. 

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The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

Styled as a vlog throughout, the YouTube series repeatedly reflects on the dangers of self-revelation online, as is most evident when the Caroline Bingley character discovers Lizzie’s opinion of her.  But just as Lydia serves as the focal point for examining the cultural limits for women’s sexual behavior, she also acts as the focal point for current cultural dilemmas about self-exposure.  Throughout the series and in her own spin-off series The Lydia Bennet, Lydia expresses a strong desire for internet fame.  In Lizzie’s videos Lydia poses provocatively for the camera, and in her own she broadcasts many of her private, and occasionally illegal, actions, such as when she said “I love you” to George Wickham for the first time and when she stole Xanax (“Good Enough”).  During these videos, Lydia brushes away other characters’ concerns about her oversharing and continues to behave provocatively.  It is no surprise then that Lydia blames herself for the sex tape saying, “I let him film us having sex” and “so tell me that I didn’t get what I had coming, Lizzie” (“An Understanding”).  Even though other characters in the series assure Lydia that the sex tape isn’t her fault, Lydia nonetheless takes a break from videos after the scandal.  By allowing Lydia to reflect in counseling on her previously immature actions, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries universe offers Lydia the second chance that Austen never gave her.  This second chance is consistent with cultural acceptance of young women’s sexual choices even as it enforces the warning that those choices should be kept private, lest women face judgment by the larger culture.  The sex-tape scenario also implies a second warning:  a lingering double standard for sexuality.  Lydia rather than Wickham would have been shamed had the tape finally been exposed. 

Cultural questions about public sharing of sexuality are foregrounded in the title of the Pride and Prejudice adaptation for the HarperCollins project, which commissioned name-brand novelists to update the plot of each Austen novel for the twenty-first century.  As Nora Foster Stovel has discussed, all of the authors “endeavour to interject current topics” in their updates (108). In her Pride and Prejudice update Eligible, set in Cincinnati, Curtis Sittenfeld looks at sexuality in the age of media obsession.  Eligible takes its name from the novel’s Bachelor-like reality show where Jane ultimately marries Chip Bingley before a worldwide audience, with the entire Bennet family featured onscreen.  The novel exposes the unreality of reality TV in multiple ways, most cogently by the manipulations of the Eligible producers and editors to frame Liz, by far the most responsible of the Bennet sisters, as “The Party Girl” of the family (Sittenfeld 484).  In addition to critiquing deceptive television, the novel recognizes the dangerous enticements of digital culture by representing Mrs. Bennet as seriously addicted to internet shopping.  Secret videos too are critiqued and corrected:  when Lydia videos a snoring Willie Collins for purposes of mockery, Liz takes away her phone. 

Sexual behavior itself is less subject to critique.  The postfeminist attitudes of this 2016 novel are so fully developed that sexual activity of many kinds is accepted by the younger generation—though the older generation differs. Although Austen’s love-and-marriage plot undergirds the novel, Eligible also endorses a range of options for women.  The novel concludes with Jane’s opposite-sex marriage and child; Liz’s impending marriage to Darcy and their mutual decision to remain childfree while continuing high-powered careers; Kitty’s dating a man and starting a business; Mary still studying and preferring a vibrator; and Lydia’s marriage to a transgender man and subsequent delight in cooking for him—all choices that are honored, even if regarded with some irony.  The novel does critique bad relationships, however, whether in marriage (the Bennets’) or outside.  Liz comes to see her own culpability for allowing a long and unproductive affair with Jasper Wick, including while he was married to another woman, as a failure of self-respect.  But as in earlier updates, much of the blame is shifted to the Wickham character, who is revealed to have been expelled from Stanford after breaking into his professor’s home to urinate on her computer. 

The crisis in which Darcy intervenes is, as usual, Lydia crossing a cultural boundary related to sexuality.  She elopes with Ham, a transgender man from CrossFit whom she has been dating.  For the younger characters, this is not a crisis at all—when Darcy hears of it, he says it “doesn’t seem like Lydia or her boyfriend did anything wrong” (Sittenfeld 353).  While Sittenfeld gave Ham half of Austen’s name for Lydia’s seducer (Nelson 134), since he is the one who elopes with Lydia, she also made the kind, patient, helpful Ham arguably the most admirable character in the novel.  Such positive representation is consistent with defending freedom of gender-choice given the deeply divided cultural attitudes towards transgender issues in 2016.  The novel depicts even Liz, who is progressive in her ideas and writes sophisticated cultural articles for a woman’s magazine in New York, as needing to do some quick research about transgender issues to fully understand her sister’s choice. 

But her parents, older Republicans living in Ohio, see Lydia’s marriage as a crisis.  Darcy, a physician, helps Lydia and Liz only by helping the parents accept Ham, even though to do so he has to translate being transgender, for Mrs. Bennet, as a “birth defect” (467).  Much of the novel revolves around younger people interacting with others who have more traditional ideas about sexuality.  At the suggestion that Mary was gay, Mr. Bennet had said that “people can do what they want as long as they don’t practice it in the street and frighten the horses,” but finds that a relationship with a transgender man tests his limits (374)—an attitude consistent with evolving American cultural attitudes of 2016, when acceptance of homosexuality was more widespread than acceptance of transgender identities.  While a Supreme Court ruling had extended protection to same-sex marriage in 2015, there were often virulent debates and conflicting rules about whether transgender people should be allowed to use public restrooms or serve in the military.  The white, midwestern, older Mrs. Bennet, who is not completely overt in her biases but “prone to making declarations about almost all religious and ethnic minorities that were often uncomfortable for her listeners” (49), may be seen to represent much of the American population, particularly in older generations.  When Mrs. Bennet comes around to accepting Ham in the end, the novel implicitly endorses freedom of sexual choice—but also endorses understanding that older generations have been raised with different cultural assumptions.  So Jane goes along with the reality show wedding’s misleading presentation of her child as being fathered by Bingley, and Liz agrees to marry in her parents’ local church so as to make “Mrs. Bennet’s every wedding dream come true” (485).  Lydia’s elopement becomes an occasion not for policing boundaries on gender and sexuality but for expanding them, while gradually attempting to change attitudes inherited from the past. 

Eligible, then, marks a new role for Lydia.  Though she remains a bellwether for cultural attitudes about sexuality, she is finally associated with progressiveness rather than sexual transgression.  A trajectory of redemption emerges as Lydia goes from being doomed to a life of “little . . . permanent happiness” with Wickham in Austen’s novel (312); to a naive but relatively free character in updates around the millennium; to one where she’s “lucky she found” her husband, Ham, by 2016’s Eligible (385).  This trajectory loosely follows Western society’s own rapidly changing beliefs about sexuality and gender roles.  As society becomes more accepting, Lydia’s situation improves, even as newer updates warn about the dangers of cultural judgment still remaining for those who expose personal choices to every segment of society through the media.  At the same time, Lydia’s persistent presence in modernized adaptations attests to Austen’s vivid portrayal of the character.  We continue to read Lydia, as does Liz in Eligible, as always herself, in ways “both appalling and admirable” (Sittenfeld 79).  However lacking Lydia is in manners or judgment, her liveliness and self-assurance continue to recommend her, decade after decade.

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