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In a novel alert to the complexities and insecurities of social position, preoccupied with questions of responsibility and respectability, the episode, in respect to Lydia’s downfall, emphasises the vulnerability of the Bennet daughters and give rise to considerations of primary responsibility for Lydia’s downfall.
“She has no money, no connections” (p225).
The fault, for Lydia’s downfall, does not lie with Wickham; I do not excuse the soldier’s behaviour nor suggest that he is not at fault for carrying out such a ridiculous, care-free affair but he has no duty to be responsible for Lydia. Mr Bennet, however, is supposedly the established pinnacle of his family and hence is to be held accountable for his family’s actions especially as his spawn so happen to be female, and in such a world (that Austen habited and wrote about) where women were, seemingly, entirely dependant on the whim of men, even more so. The figurehead of the Bennet family does not appear to take his paternal duties seriously. Indeed, it appears that the chief reason for Mr Bennet’s keenness for Lydia’s departure is that she will be gone, for a short while,
‘We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Lydia does not go to Brighton’ (p190)
and may return more erudite, in the fields of behaviour,
‘Let us hope, therefore, that her being there may teach her her own significance. At any rate, ahe cannot grow many degrees worse, without authorizing us to lock her up for the rest of her life.’
as he, himself, cannot be bothered to educate her properly
‘Let her go then.’
Mr Bennet has five daughters; it gives him no grief that his obvious favourite, Elizabeth, has ‘three very silly sisters.’ This ‘favourite’, however, appears to be quite concerned not necessarily for Lydia but for the family’s reputation,
‘[Lydia will] be the most determined flirt that ever made of herself’ and …
more importantly, in Elizabeth’s eyes, ‘her family ridiculous.’
Following this statement, and an argument with an overly keen father regarding Lydia’s departure, our heroine reminds the audience that she has, what no other member of the family has, ‘performed her duty’. Elizabeth acted out of duty, not out of care for his youngest sibling.
‘the cares that must now fall wholly upon her [Elizabeth], in a family so deranged; a father absent, a mother incapable of exertion, and requiring constant attendance’ (p227).
In fact, the only person who appears to want Lydia’s best interests is, someone who at a younger age would have sympathised with these same ‘interests’, Mrs Bennet.
‘…such prospects and such realities as these’ [‘herself [Lydia] the object of attention’… ‘tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.’]… ‘could have only been understood by her mother, who might have felt nearly the same.’ (p191)
Lydia has become this pitiful creature through mirroring her role model, her mother. Some blame can be endowed on the child’s mother; under Mrs Bennet’s foolish eye her youngest daughter has become a pathetic woman who enacts conventional melodrama or mistaken, self-indulgence and passion.
Mr Bennet does learn from the unfortunate episode, of Lydia’s romantic attachment, and becomes a more responsible father,
‘though Mrs Wickham frequently invited her [Kitty] to come and stay with her, with the promise of balls and young men, her father would never consent to her going’ (p310).
However, this sternness may not be out of nurturing care but from laziness; not wanting to go through the fiasco of the last ordeal.
The incident allows Darcy to demonstrate the extent of his committed love to Elizabeth; he shows that he has learned his lesson; that is to adjust to adjust his ‘mistaken pride’ (p259) and welcome into his intimate ‘family party’…
Elizabeth’s ‘low connections’, as he works in a close partnership with Mr Gardiner, Elizabeth’s uncle from Cheapside, and saves Lydia from the worst social consequences of her liaison with Wickham. As Mrs Gardiner tells Elizabeth, Darcy’s ‘mistaken pride’ at first made him think it ‘beneath him’ to share his knowledge of Wickham’s character and behaviour (p259). By entering into a more open form of government and giving others access to that knowledge, Darcy is instrumental in returning Lydia – and Wickham – to a kind of respectability. Wickham is effectively disempowered as the new alliance, between Darcy’s wealth and influence and Mr Gardiner’s professional expertise, acts to guarantee public morality and order. Darcy acts out of love for Elizabeth.
‘Her heart did whisper that he had done it for her,’ (p263) and her instincts are triumphantly confirmed when Darcy confesses that his main motivation in saving Lydia was “the wish of giving happiness to you” (p295). Romantic love makes individual happiness both the motivation and the goal of moral and social change. As a result of Elizabeth’s influence, and in the hope of pleasing her Darcy rethinks his pride, opens himself up to new social alliances and acts to ensure Lydia’s respectability.
His reward, when Elizabeth accepts his second proposal, is ‘happiness… such as he had probably never felt before’ (p295). By the end of the novel, as a result of Lydia’s downfall, Darcy has been converted into a figure of comic reconciliation. Darcy, the new aristocratic man, uses his power and knowledge to re-establish social harmony, a harmony symbolized by multiple marriages: Lydia’s to Wickham, Jane’s to Bingley, and most important, his own to Elizabeth. Darcy is shown to be loving and therefore lovable; thorough his desire for the heroine, he is transformed from an aggressive and potentially threatening figure into an ally and a husband.