Lydia Bennet: She’s Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No

Hello, Austen Lovers! Can you believe the month of May is coming to an end? Sometimes it seems time is passing so slowly; and yet, we’re nearing the half-way mark of 2020 with surprising speed!

In my home state of Colorado we are still living under quarantine rules, although some restrictions have been relaxed. Now we can visit a salon to get a haircut (which I haven’t yet done, so I’m rockin’ a ponytail), and this week restaurants opened with serious limitations.

Since I have an underlying health condition to consider, I am still staying at home, where I know I’ll be safe. To pass the time, I’ve worked jigsaw puzzles, painted the entire interior of my house, and brushed up on my conversational Spanish skills.

I re-read Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time, and last week I watched a favorite old Hollywood musical, Oklahoma!

Now, maybe I’ve been under quarantine too long, but I hadn’t watched the movie for very many minutes before I began to notice elements of the story that reminded me of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

If you haven’t yet seen it yet, the film centers on the romance between farmer Laurey Williams and cowboy Curly McLain in 1907 Oklahoma Territory.

Curley and Laurey, singing their hearts out in Oklahoma!

As usual, their course of true love does not run smooth, due in part to a socially outcast farmhand named Jud Fry, who has the hots for Laurey. I confess he reminded me of Mr. Collins’ pursuit of Elizabeth Bennet, especially when Laurey says of Jud:

“He makes me shiver ever’ time he gits close to me.”

In the film, Laurey has a good friend named Ado Annie Carnes, a boy-crazy farmer’s daughter who loves cowboy Will Parker, but can’t stop herself from seeking attention from other men.

As Ado Annie explains to Laurey: “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no.”

Wasn’t that Lydia Bennet’s problem, too? Both Ado Annie and Lydia where raised in good families, and both were taught right from wrong. Yet when Ado Annie sang these lyrics in Oklahoma!, I couldn’t help but think of Lydia Bennet:

It ain’t so much a question of not knowin’ what to do
I knowed what’s right an’ wrong since I’ve been ten.
I heared a lot of stories an’ I reckon they are true
About how girls are put upon by men.

I know I mustn’t fall into the pit
But when I’m with a feller
I fergit!

A few verses later, Ado Annie chirps:

Ev’ry time I lose a wrestlin’ match.
I have a funny feelin’ that I won!

Despite her love for Will Parker, Ado Annie juggles a romance with Ali Hakim, the traveling peddler who promises to take Annie “to paradise.” But what Ali really means is, he wants Ado Annie to spend a few hours with him in a hotel room in the next town.

Ali Hakim, Ado Annie, and Will Parker.

Just as Lydia Bennet thought there wouldn’t be any harm in running off with Mr. Wickham, Ado Annie considers joining Ali Hakim on that trip to “paradise” he promised. And when her father finds out about it, and realizes Ali has compromised his daughter, Mr. Carnes forces him to offer Ado Annie marriage.

Ali put it this way:

I wanted to marry her when I saw the moonlight shining on the barrel of her father’s shotgun.

Shades of P&P! Lydia Bennet had a sort of shotgun wedding of her own after she ran off to London with Mr. Wickham; and, just like Ado Annie, Lydia was shameless in telling everyone she knew how her wedding came about, causing Elizabeth to scold her:

I do not particularly like your way of getting husbands.

I won’t give away the ending of Oklahoma! for those who haven’t seen it, but since it’s a Hollywood musical from the 1950s, you can be sure there are plenty of happy endings to go around, just like in P&P.

And this weekend, I plan to treat myself to another old movie—most likely a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical from the 1930s.

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936).

I wonder if I’ll spot some parallels to Austen’s novels in that movie, too?

Are you like me? Do you see bits of your favorite Jane Austen novels in our modern movies and TV shows?

Do you have favorite movies you like to watch over and over again?

The Sad Tale of Lydia Bennet and Other Women Like Her

Lydia Bennet was fifteen years old when she fell under the spell of George Wickham in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Willful and foolish, she eloped with Wickham less than a year after making his acquaintance, leaving her family stunned by the news and tainted (in Society’s eyes) by her actions.

Why Did He Do It?

One question Lydia’s father and sister Elizabeth pondered was, why would Wickham run off with Lydia? She had no money, no dowry, and no connections. Had he some hidden motive in singling Lydia Bennet out as the object of his villainy?

Lydia Bennet and George Wickham as portrayed in the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice.

Lydia Bennet and George Wickham as portrayed in the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen never revealed Wickham’s true motive in the story, but it could very well be that George Wickham was just plain caddish when it came to his dealings with women. The Bennet family was right to worry that Lydia’s actions would have a long-term effect on the family’s reputation. Society did not deal kindly with anyone whose name was attached to scandal.

Lydia Bennet entered into her scandalous union with Wickham with her eyes wide open; but there are records of similarly situated young women who were innocent victims of such men.

The Teacher and the Student

The Newgate Calendar (a chronicle of the scoundrels who were confined within the walls of London’s Newgate Prison) recounts the trial of Henry Morris, whose story has parallels to Wickham’s.

Morris was a teacher by profession, and one of his students was fifteen-year-old Mary Anne Murphy. Morris was smitten with Mary Anne; he approached her father in 1812, declared his undying love and asked the father’s permission to marry her.

Mr. Murphy gave Morris his consent to marry his daughter once she attained the age of sixteen some six months hence; in the meantime, he required that Morris court his daughter only under his supervision.

Morris agreed, but quickly went back on his word, meeting Mary Anne in secret. Morris began missing his teaching responsibilities at the same time Mary Anne began missing class; soon Morris abandoned teaching his classes altogether, and Mary Anne went truant. Within months of promising to wait until his beloved was of age, Henry Morris eloped with Mary Anne Murphy to Scotland.

Once husband and wife, they returned to Mary Anne’s father to make amends; but Mr. Murphy had been looking into Henry Morris’s background, and discovered his new son-in-law was even worse than he imagined.

The Case against Him

Henry Murphy, it was discovered, was not a teacher at all. He had no qualifications and had forged his credentials to secure his position.

Second, Morris had a history of wooing and abandoning young girls; Mr. Murphy discovered four such girls and suspected there were more.

Third—and worst of all—Henry Morris was not only a bounder, but a bigamist. At the time he ran off to Scotland with Mary Ann Murphy, he was already married to a woman named Maria Fontaine.

The main door of Newgate Prison.

The main door of Newgate Prison.

Mr. Murphy had Henry Morris arrested on the charge of bigamy; he was imprisoned at Newgate until his trial. Young Mary Anne—in typical Lydia Bennet style—refused to see her husband’s infamy. She stood by him, took home-cooked meals to his cell, held his hand in court, and begged her father over and over to drop the charges against her husband. He refused.

Henry Morris was convicted of bigamy and he was deported to serve seven years of hard labor at a penal colony in Australia. Mary Anne’s response:

When the verdict was pronounced, she burst into the most outrageous expressions of grief; cried out most violently to save him; tore her hair, and clung around his neck, declaring that she would not be separated from him. The judges, however, ordered her to be removed, but directed that it should be done as gently as possible; and she was accordingly carried out of court in a state of utter distraction.

The reaction of one of Morris's wives upon hearing his sentence. From The Newgate Calendar.

The reaction of one of Morris’s wives (presumably Mary Anne) upon hearing his sentence. From The Newgate Calendar.

Some reports allege that Mary Anne followed Morris to Australia, waited patiently for his release from prison, and lived with him again as man and wife.

As sad as Mary Anne Murphy’s story was, there was an even more famous case of bigamy that shocked England in the early 1800s.

The Bigamous Rake

In 1802 Mary Robinson was quietly living her life in the Lake District. A shepherdess and the daughter of the proprietor of The Fish Inn in the village of Buttermere, Mary was an acknowledged beauty in the county. She was also quite an innocent and was, therefore, unprepared when a handsome gentleman with “blue eyes and a fair complexion” drove into Buttermere.

Mary Robinson, the Maid of Buttermere.

Mary Robinson, the Maid of Buttermere.

He introduced himself as Colonel Alexander Augustus Hope, a wealthy retired officer and younger brother to the Earl of Hopetoun. He was so taken with Mary’s beauty, he immediately set out to woo her; within three months of their meeting she agreed to elope with him to Scotland.

John Hatfield.

John Hatfield.

It wasn’t until her husband abandoned her within months of their marriage that Mary discovered several hard truths:

  1. Her husband’s name wasn’t Alexander Hope and he was not related to Lord Hopetoun. His real name was John Hatfield, and he was the son of poor parents in Cheshire.
  2. John Hatfield had a long history of romancing women possessed of dowries or fortunes large and small, marrying them, and abandoning them. He was a bigamist, several times over.
  3. Hatfield left a trail of forged checks and unpaid bills across England, thanks to his smooth talking ability to swindle tradesmen, hoteliers, and acquaintances. (Sounds a lot like Wickham, doesn’t it?)

After he deserted Mary Robinson, Hatfield married at least two more women. He finally met his match when one of the women he wronged turned him in to authorities. He was convicted of several counts of forgery and bigamy; and because the court heard sufficient testimony to deem him an habitual criminal, John Hatfield was condemned to death. He was hanged in 1803.

Is it possible these famous cases (and others like them) were in the back of Jane Austen’s mind as she wrote her story about Lydia and Wickham? Perhaps, but the last chapter of Pride and Prejudice hints that while their love didn’t last forever, Lydia and Wickham at least stayed together, and Lydia “retained all the claims to reputation which her marriage had given her.”

You can read more about the bigamous John Hatfield and the Maid of Buttermere by clicking on any of the following links:

The English Lakes: A History by Ian Thompson

Website of Pascal Bonenfant

“I like a red coat myself.”

There’s something about a man in uniform. At least, that’s what the Bennet women believed. And even though Elizabeth Bennet decried her sisters’ obsessions with men in uniform, there was a time when she liked Mr. Wickham in his regimentals more than any other man of her acquaintance.

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, in 1815 just before he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, in 1815 just before he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo

In Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Bennet led the charge when it came to admiring men in uniform:

“I remember the time when I liked a red coat myself very well—and, indeed, so I do still at my heart; and if a smart young colonel, with five or six thousand a year, should want one of my girls I shall not say nay to him; and I thought Colonel Forster looked very becoming the other night at Sir William’s in his regimentals.”

Portrait of Captain Alexander McInnes, 2nd Life Guards, by Ramsay Richard Reinage. 1825 (courtesy of National Army Museum; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Portrait of Captain Alexander McInnes, 2nd Life Guards, by Ramsay Richard Reinage. 1825 (courtesy of National Army Museum; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Her youngest daughters joyously followed in her footsteps, chasing after officers and flirting unabashedly with them. Lydia and Kitty Bennet were, in Elizabeth’s judgment:

… ignorant, idle, and vain. While there was an officer in Meryton, they would flirt with him; and while Meryton was within a walk of Longbourn, they would be going there forever.

Lt. General William Stuart, by Henry Raeburn

Lt. General William Stuart, by Henry Raeburn

No wonder, then, that when the Bennet ladies discovered the regiment was removing to Brighton, they were desolate:

The dejection was almost universal. The elder Miss Bennets alone were still able to eat, drink, and sleep, and pursue the usual course of their employments. Very frequently were they reproached for this insensibility by Kitty and Lydia, whose own misery was extreme, and who could not comprehend such hard-heartedness in any of the family.
“Good Heaven! What is to become of us? What are we to do?” would they often exclaim in the bitterness of woe. “How can you be smiling so, Lizzy?”

Their affectionate mother shared all their grief; she remembered what she had herself endured on a similar occasion, five-and-twenty years ago.

“I am sure,” said she, “I cried for two days together when Colonel Miller’s regiment went away. I thought I should have broken my heart.”

Even the Prince of Wales and future King George IV wore a red coat from time to time. An 1815 painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Even the Prince of Wales and future King George IV wore a red coat from time to time, as in this 1815 painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence

With that kind of encouragement ringing in her ears, Lydia was more determined than ever to capture the heart of an officer. And when Lydia was invited to travel to Brighton with the regiment, she had a picture in her mind of what would happen once she got there:

In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing-place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp—its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and, to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.

Cavalry Officer by Antoine-Jean Gros

Cavalry Officer by Antoine-Jean Gros

It’s always been interesting to me how much the officers—and the Bennet family’s involvement with them—drove the story of Pride and Prejudice. In a way, the story’s climax (Lydia’s elopement with Wickham) never would have happened had Jane Austen not set the stage by introducing Lydia’s and Mrs. Bennet’s infatuation with officers early in the story and then built on it throughout the novel.

Lieutenant Alexander Graham Spiers by Henry Raeburn, 1814 (courtesy The Keep Military Museum; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Lieutenant Alexander Graham Spiers by Henry Raeburn, 1814 (courtesy The Keep Military Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

So decided to see for myself what the attraction was for a man in a red coat. I’ve collected some portraits and illustrations of British officers from about the 1790s to 1820s. They’re displayed on my new Pinterest board, which you can view here. I hope you enjoy it!