Lydia's Elopement and Its Functions in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

29 Pages, Grade: 1,3




1. The essence of the episode
1.1 The character: Lydia as a caricature
1.2 The subject matter: Elopements and their social consequences for families in Austen's times

2. The last-minute crisis: Lydia's elopement and its formal functions regarding the structure and plot of Pride and Prejudice
2. Lydia's elopement and its effects on characterisation
2.1 "Lydia was Lydia still": The static characters of Mrs Bennet and Lydia
2.2 Revealing pride and prejudice: Elizabeth, Wickham and Darcy as dynamic characters




Even today, nearly 200 years after her death, Jane Austen is still one of the best-known writers of English Literature. Her novel of manners bridged the neo-classical period in which she grew up with the gradual oncoming of the Romantic period[1] with its interest in the individual's growth within the boundaries of its environment. Still conservative in her values and morals, she was nevertheless an advanced writer as far as her way of writing is concerned. Disliking the sentimental novel of her time, she managed to provide an accurate and truthful social portrait. On the other hand she reconciled this ironic view with the credible presentation of a man and woman undergoing a serious "change of sentiments"[2]. In this new entertaining genre Austen thus developed a power of character-drawing[3] especially prominent in her dynamic main figures.

Pride and Prejudice (published in 1813)[4], one of her best-known novels, is not exceptional in this respect. Its main figures Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy prove to be a dynamic pair of figures undergoing a profound change of attitudes and opinions. A lot of analytic secondary literature has been written about those two characters and the development of their relationship. Unfortunately, the bulk of subsidiary characters of the book has not enjoyed that much popularity with the critics.

Some of those subsidiary characters belong to the class of comic characters and indeed impact on the development of the novel's structure and plot on the discourse level which should not be underestimated.

Consequently, this paper will analyse one crucial subplot in Pride and Prejudice which is inseparably connected to the subsidiary figure of Lydia. Although mainly serving as a means of irony in the course of the novel's first part, Lydia Bennet and her actions only gain importance in the last third of the book when she chooses to do the one thing her elder sister Elizabeth has always been afraid of and elopes with the officer George Wickham, risking her own reputation as well as that of her family.

It will be the purpose of this paper to analyse this episode in detail which will be done by having a closer look at the following three aspects:

In the first part of the paper I will deal with the general constituents of the episode, that is, the characters involved in it (with an emphasis on Lydia as a comic character and a means for Jane Austen to express her irony). Furthermore, the following section will give a short overview over the subject matter of the episode and what consequences arose out of the elopement of an unmarried couple during the end of the 18th and the early 19th century, since this is essential to understand the shocked reaction of the Bennet's social environment.

In a second part I will consider the formal level of the analysis. This includes an examination of the subplot's functions regarding the structure of Pride and Prejudice as well as its importance concerning the development of the plot and its relevance for the happy ending.

In a last section I will look at the way Lydia's elopement with Wickham affects the other characters and if it really affects all of them. Scrutinising all the characters in the novel would be beyond the scope of this paper. Therefore I have to make a selection of them including Lydia, Elizabeth and Mrs Bennet as well as Fitzwilliam Darcy and George Wickham. I will then have to show that profound changes in the attitudes of the main characters could not possibly have taken place if Jane Austen had not included the elopement-episode.

Thus it will be shown to what extent Lydia's elopement is indispensable on the discourse level, the novel's structure, and on the story-level.

1. The essence of the episode

When looking at a literary subplot of an Austen novel one first has to get a general overview of what the episode consists of. This is particularly important with Jane Austen, since the main topic of her works is the portrayal of the landed gentry's life in her times, i.e. the last decades of the 18th century. Sometimes the modern reader tends to forget that a novel has always to be seen within its historical background. People in Austen's times knew more about their way of life, their habits and the way certain things were perceived than we do today. However, someone who ignores with this part of the setting is likely to miss some of the most important aspects of an episode without even noticing it.

With a wink of the eye Jane Austen uses means of irony and satire to create a realistic portrayal of the environment she lived in, that is "the upper-middle class in rural English settings"[5], focussing on a neighbourhood of some families of similar social status.

The means of her benevolent criticism is caricature. Austen's comic figures are never shown in a way that some member of her society might feel offended. In fact she would not have dared such conspicuous offences, especially as she depended on the network of society surrounding her.[6] All of her satire is based on the exaggeration of absurd faults, amiable foibles, and hypocrisy nearly everyone has probably come across in someone during his lifetime[7], but Austen's masterstroke is the fact that she manages to criticise people without insulting them in any way directly. Most often, her comic figures are no mere static stereotypes and the reader gets a great deal of psychological insight into them (cf. Marsh <239>). Often enough, they are decisive for the development of the plot. They are real people involved in the world of the main figures.[8]

Thus the figure of Lydia has an important part in the progress of the plot, although she is a comic figure. In the following section I will therefore deal with Austen's technique of satire and the way Lydia is depicted as a comic figure.

1.1 The character: Lydia as a Caricature

Rachel Trickett remarks that "Jane Austen's fools are to be delighted in, not detested"[9], a statement which perfectly applies to the figure of Lydia Bennet, the fool of the elopement-episode. Naively, she falls prey to Wickham, thus bringing shame over all of her family, although she does not do it on purpose. Her restricted point of view does not allow her to see the full consequences of her action. On her wedding-day she returns to Longbourn, prattling on like ever before, never even noticing that she is touching on weak spots in the circle of her family:

"There was no want of discourse. The bride and her mother could neither of them talk fast enough [...]. They seemed each of them to have the happiest memories in the world. Nothing of the past was recollected with pain; and Lydia led voluntarily to subjects which her sisters would not have alluded to for the world.

[...] "Good gracious! when I went away, I am sure I had no more idea of being married till I came back again! Though I thought it would be very good fun if I was."

Her father lifted up his eyes, Jane was distressed, Elizabeth looked expressively at Lydia; but she, who never heard or saw anything of which she chose to be insensible, gaily continued-"Oh! Mamma, do the people hereabouts know I am married to-day? I was afraid they might not; an we overtook William Goulding in his curricle, so I was determined he should know it, and so I let down the side glass next to him, and took off my glove and let my hand just rest upon the window-frame, so that he might see the ring; and then I bowed and smiled like anything."

Elizabeth could bear it no longer. She got up and ran out of the room, and returned no more till she heard them passing through the hall to the dining-parlour." (PP <242>)

She is an uneducated, naive, untamed, unabashed and noisy girl of fifteen, but far from being nasty by nature. Lydia's fault is her one-sidedness, her simple-mindedness. If she had had more interest in other things than redcoats and balls - or in a connection of both - the catastrophe could have been prevented. But because of her pleasures she unintentionally brings her family into trouble.

And this preferences of hers are the very foible Jane Austen chose to satirise. Nearly in every scene where Lydia makes her appearance, she does nothing more than talk about balls or her latest experiences with the officers at Meryton[10], often being forced to change her momentary preference of one young man by the prospect of him marrying another woman.[11]

Having been introduced quite early into society by her mother (cf. PP <37f>), Lydia knows but one subject: entertainment and officers, respectively, marriage. This fact is often expressed by a pattern in the depiction of characters Austen which can often be found in a comparison between Austen's comic and main figures: literary education.[12] Lydia is far from being educated and consequently, she will not be able to handle her life in terms of morality. When Mr Collins is asked to read to the Bennets, Lydia impolitely interrupts him by one of her senseless monologues, provoking the following contrite answer of Mr Collins:

"I have often observed how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for their benefit. It amazes me, I confess;-for, certainly, there can be nothing so advantageous to them as instruction. But I will no longer importune my young cousin." (PP <56>)

Lydia is a girl who prefers talking to reading, and here Jane Austen employs one of her most frequent devices of satire: Her comic characters often do not know when to stop talking. They indulge in seemingly endless monologues without any real content, thus exposing their own embarrassing superficiality (cf. Marsh <30>). This is done best by setting the caricature off from the main figures in talking; the usual give and take of rational conversation is not observed (cf. Harding 1968 <86>). The caricature simply ignores the tacit laws of conversation by seizing the whole situation, just talking about their interests:

"She [Elizabeth] could think of nothing but of Mr Wickham, and of what he had told her, all the way home; but there was not time for her even to mention his name as they went, for neither Lydia nor Mr Collins were once silent. Lydia talks incessantly of lottery tickets, of the fish she had lost and the fish she had won" (PP <68>).

In this passage one can see how skilfully Austen varies her narration in order to create a certain atmosphere and to imitate Lydia's actual direct speech. It might have been sufficient to stop the comments before relating what Elizabeth Bennet's younger sister was talking about in detail, but because Austen does go on and gives the real content of Lydia's speech, she ridicules her in several ways:

1. The fact that Lydia's speech during a whole journey can be summarised in one short sentence already makes her seem comic.
2. The repetitions: Austen first gives us the general topic "lottery", before going on to give the contrary details which are of no genuine interest for anyone but Lydia herself, for there is nothing as uninteresting as the fish of other people.[13]

All in all, caricature in Jane Austen's works serves as a means of transmitting certain moral attitudes, although Austen does not give them directly. Novels like Pride and Prejudice do not have the explicit didactic intention of the didactic novel, they convey their underlying messages by the plot and the depiction of the characters.[14] The reader himself is expected to draw his own moral conclusions from the novel. Nevertheless, Austen expresses critique and gives warning to those who do not keep to the moral conventions of her time but turn their backs to the acceptance of propriety and rationalism, for disregarding of those principles could easily bring shame over the whole family of those who did wrong.


[1] cf. Susan Morgan, "Jane Austen and Romanticism." In: J. David Grey, ed. 1986. The Jane Austen Companion. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, pp. 364f.

[2] Reuben A. Brower, "Light and bright and Sparkling: Irony and Fiction in Pride and Prejudice." In: Southam, Brian C., ed. 1991, Jane Austen. Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. Basingstoke: Macmillan (Casebook Series), p. 185. Quotes from this essay will from now on be referred to as (Brower <page>)

[3] cf. Brian C. Southam. ed. 1991. Jane Austen. Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. Basingstoke: Macmillan (Casebook Series), pp. 18f.

[4] I will use the following edition: Jane Austen. 1994. Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin Books. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as (PP <page>).

[5] Nicolas Marsh. 1998. Jane Austen: The Novels. New York: St. Martin's University Press, p. 94. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as (Marsh <page>)

[6] cf. Denys W. Harding, "'Regulated Hatred': An Aspect in the Work of Jane Austen." In: Gray, Donald, ed. 2001. Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice. New York / London: W. W. Norton & Company (Norton Critical Editions), p. 297. Quotes from this essay will from now on be referred to as (Harding 2001 <page>).

[7] cf. Denys W. Harding, "Caricatures as criticism of real people in real society." In: Southam, Brian C.. ed. 1991. Jane Austen. Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. Basingstoke: Macmillan (Casebook Series), p. 166; Harding 2001 <296> and Marsh <238>.

[8] cf. In his essay "Character and Caricature in Jane Austen." (In: Southam, Brian C. ed. 1968. Critical Essays on Jane Austen. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 89) Denys W. Harding illustrates this fact by the example of Mr. Collins who - although an obviously comic character to the reader - means a real problem for Elizabeth Bennet. Quotes from this essay will from now on be referred to as (Harding 1968 <page>).

[9] Rachel Trickett, "Jane Austen's Comedy and the Nineteenth Century." In: Southam, Brian C., ed. 1968, Critical Essays on Jane Austen. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 173.

[10] A selection of examples will already show how frequent Lydia's speeches about officers, balls and pleasures or hints at those preferences by the other figures or even the authorial narrator are: cf. PP <25, 27, 49, 52f, 60, 68, 70, 166, 169-173, 177, 178-180>.

[11] At first Lydia's interested in Colonel Carter (cf. PP <25>), than in Colonel Forster (until there is new of him marrying, cf. PP <49>) before she is finally crazy about Wickham.

[12] It is striking, that the figures in Pride and Prejudice seem to be either well-read or uneducated. You hardly find one positive main character who does not read. Further information on this topic: cf. Brigid Brophy, "A remorseless realist." In: Southam, Brian C., ed. 1991, Jane Austen. Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. Basingstoke: Macmillan (Casebook Series), pp. 192-194.

[13] When using direct speech Austen emphasises the absurdity of Lydia's talk with a unnaturally great amount of exclamation marks or the construction of endless compound sentences connected by "and", cf. e.g. PP <242>.

[14] cf. Harding 2001 <297> and Richard Whatley, "Technique and Moral Effect in Jane Austen's Fiction." In: Gray, Donald, ed. 2001. Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice. New York / London: W. W. Norton & Company (Norton Critical Editions), p. 290.

Excerpt out of 29 pages


Lydia's Elopement and Its Functions in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
RWTH Aachen University
19th Century Women Novelists: Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte
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ISBN (eBook)
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The author consulted and assimilated an unusually large number of secondary sources, but also approaches her topic in a truly analytical manner, availing herself of formal analytical tools of her discipline as well as some highly useful background information on the social significance of elopements in Austen's times, which is very skillfully interwoven with the close reading of the text. The paper's a document of genuine creativity, developing much out of a comparatively small topic.
Lydia, Elopement, Functions, Jane, Austen, Pride, Prejudice, Century, Women, Novelists, Jane, Austen, Charlotte, Emily, Bronte
Quote paper
M.A. Isabel Blumenroth (Author), 2003, Lydia's Elopement and Its Functions in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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