Virtue and Reputation
By Mary Smythe, author of A Case of Some Urgency
“Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson; that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable—that one false step involves her in endless ruin—that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful—and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.”
-- Mary Bennet, Pride & Prejudice, Vol III
Though Mary’s observation isn’t especially appreciated by her sisters when she first shares it with them in the wake of Lydia’s elopement, she does summarize the situation quite neatly for the reader. In the off chance that said reader was as ignorant as poor, naïve Kitty on the subject of their family’s downfall, Mary is happy to illuminate the exact reasons for their ruination. To whit:
Once your virtue is gone, it’s not coming back.
It only takes one misstep to ruin said virtue forever.
A woman’s reputation is both important and easily destroyed.
Men are generally the instrument of a woman’s ruination and thus, she ought to be cautious.
Harsh, but undeniably true for women of the Regency era—and, to a lesser extent, our own. Even today, a woman can be called ugly names and see her value tarnished for 'loose' behavior while men are afforded the umbrella protection of 'boys will be boys'—but I digress on that point.
The only consequence which Mary left out, and one which Elizabeth feels most keenly since reuniting with Darcy at Pemberley, is that Lydia’s ruination is not confined solely to herself. All of Lydia’s sisters will share in her disgrace and be treated with the same sort of derision as if they were the ones to elope. Why? Because, as Mr Collins so kindly points out in his ‘condolence’ letter to Mr Bennet, most people of good society will assume that “this licentiousness of behaviour in your daughter, has proceeded from a faulty degree of indulgence.” That is, all the Bennet girls are cut from the same cloth, and so the sins of one belong to all the others in nearly equal measure. Hardly fair, but then public scorn is not always rational.
Given the marriage laws of the time, an elopement was seen as the ultimate bucking of parental authority, and left everyone shocked, appalled, and often titillated. Even more shocking would be an incomplete elopement, as was feared in Lydia’s case; the only thing worse than running off to Scotland with a penniless soldier would be coming back alone and unmarried. At that point, there were really only two remedies available: to marry off the runaway bride (preferably to her original bridegroom, but a desperate family was unlikely to be picky in the end); or to ‘throw off your unworthy child from your affection forever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence’. Most loving parents would presumably prefer the former, but when the respectability of your entire family—including your other children—was at stake, desperate times often called for desperate measures. They would have considered the disownment of a wayward child the same as the amputation of a limb—an ugly, painful necessity to preserve whatever was left.
When Mr Collins unfeelingly states that 'the death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison’, he’s unfortunately not far off. In his perspective—and as Jane Austen’s stand-in for society at large—Lydia’s death would have at least preserved the rest of the Bennets from social scorn. One would prefer a more Christian sense of forgiveness in a clergyman, but again, he speaks for what most people will think. Lydia’s elopement, undertaken on a lark, is a grim and serious situation for all involved.
Thanks to Darcy’s intervention, the Bennets were not forced to cast Lydia out into the streets, but it was a close call. I think we all know that Wickham wouldn’t have married Lydia without the financial incentive laid out by his former friend, leaving the already comparatively impoverished Bennet sisters without any hope of making good matches. Lydia’s marriage might have been a ‘patched-up business’, but it held water and that was good enough for their sinking ship.
With so much at stake, one assumes that the Bennet sisters would have been taught from an early age to follow the above-mentioned strictures to guard their reputations. Most likely, they were, as every young lady of their class would have been. Mary’s quotation proves as much, even if it might have been partially informed by her own research. It’s also no particular mystery to either Elizabeth or Jane—so what went wrong with Lydia?
On that score, Mr Collins again offers us a potential answer when he writes, “I am inclined to think that her own disposition must be naturally bad, or she could not be guilty of such an enormity, at so early an age.” This conclusion is, perhaps, a touch unforgiving on its face, but Lydia’s behaviour upon returning to Longbourn with Wickham, her new husband, bears it out. Instead of being properly repentant, or even acknowledging that she has done wrong, Lydia is boastful of her supposed triumph. There’s not a shred of remorse in her for the disaster she nearly brought upon them all. Mrs Gardiner reports, “But [Mr Darcy] found Lydia absolutely resolved on remaining where she was. She cared for none of her friends, she wanted no help of his, she would not hear of leaving Wickham. She was sure they should be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when." (Emphasis mine.) Lydia displays not a single iota of concern for anyone besides herself, and age alone cannot explain away so much unrepentant selfishness. Her parents might have done more to instil good values and common sense, but I doubt they could have entirely overcome Lydia’s narcissism. In this way, she and Wickham are an excellent match.
In my most recent novella, A Case of Some Urgency, Lydia’s elopement and selfishness are an integral part of the ongoing conflict. One helps bring Darcy and Elizabeth together, the other is intent upon driving them apart. Such drama!
Gossip, Charles Haigh-Wood -- Wikimedia Commons
The Beau Monde, J. B. Bell & J. Decamp
Pride and Prejudice, Vol 3, Chapter 9, illustration by C.E. Brock