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The Secret Diary of Lydia Bennet

Review

The Secret Diary of Lydia Bennet

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Lydia is the most interesting of the Bennet sisters.  Oh, was that just me?  Well, even the staunchest Lizzy fans will find that Natasha Farrent makes a convincing case for Lydia in THE SECRET DIARY OF LYDIA BENNET. What appears as frivolous naiveté in Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICEbecomes compelling motivation for a complex young woman.  Lydia’s diary tells her side of the story, explaining everything from her enamor with officers to what really happened in Brighton.

"THE SECRET DIARY OF LYDIA BENNETis a fun read for Jane Austen fans because it expands the world they love to inhabit, but I strongly recommend it for readers who haven’t quite found their point of entry into Austen yet."

For those who may be unfamiliar with the origins of Lydia Bennet, you needn’t go out and read PRIDE AND PREJUDICEto enjoy this book, but you may want to start with some basics (even, dare I suggest, one of the excellent film adaptations). Through festive parties, social calls, and the clever navigation of the labyrinthine manners that dictated such rituals at the turn of the nineteenth century, Austen’s characters waltz in and out of the forms of courtship.  There are five sisters in the Bennet family (Lydia is the youngest), and getting them all successfully married is quite a daunting task in their somewhat slow, country circles.  When two rich, eligible bachelors and an army regiment full of dashing young officers appear on the scene, things begin to happen. In-the-know readers will recognize the arrival of Bingley and Darcy and the assembly ball, Mr. Collins’s unpleasant visit, the Bennet sisters’ acquaintance with the handsome Wickham, and Lydia’s trip to Brighton with Colonel and Mrs. Forster, but these things are all given due context in SECRET DIARY to read it as a standalone.

If I am being honest, the first half of the book can in places be a somewhat flat retread of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, with only a handful of original additions to lay the groundwork for Lydia’s character growth. Farrent, to her credit, makes no attempt to disguise her writing as Austen’s, and takes care to orient things from Lydia’s perspective.  The convention of the diary obviously helps keep this focus, but unfortunately for readers, Lydia is not the most enthralling narrator at this point.  In her defense, nothing much happens to her at Longbourn, and that’s part of the problem for her as much as it is for the reader.  Hang in there.  

Once Lydia arrives in Brighton, Farrent and Lydia both come into their own.  Because most of this happens off-page in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Farrent was able to build her own world, create new characters, and allow Lydia to move through the story more freely. The writing is released from the constraint of Austen and the narrative becomes less stilted, the pacing more enticing, and Lydia more real. 

At Longbourn, Lydia doesn’t even know what she doesn’t know about the possibilities out there in the wide world.  She only knows that she wants something more, and this desire asserts itself within the narrow potential of 1810s feminine country life; bonnets, dancing, socializing with new people who have a wider scope of experiences.  She isn’t vain and boy-crazy, she’s just bored.

In Brighton, Lydia discovers possibility.  And she pursues it with courage and conviction, two traits no Austonian would ever ascribe to the Lydia of PRIDE AND PREJUDICEThe situation with Lydia and Wickham that helps to drive the climax of PRIDE AND PREJUDICEis the conclusion of SECRET DIARY, and it becomes a surprising twist even as it is a foregone conclusion.  It represents for Lydia a certain compromise.  Farrent gives Lydia agency to make the choice that, if not ideal, is at least the best option available to her in order to have some measure of freedom to explore the newfound things she really wants.

Farrent’s research into Georgian-era Brighton and the creativity she uses to re-cast Lydia’s vacuous ways as a blighted desire for adventure and freedom weaves her story seamlessly into PRIDE AND PREJUDICEcanon and rights what I always saw as a wrong done to her character.  Lydia is mostly a secondary player in Austen’s book.  Her main purpose in it is to provide a plot point to complicate and ultimately help resolve the relationship between Lizzy and Darcy.  Lydia’s reasons are not important because she is not the subject of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and she comes off as flighty or insipid.  By repositioning Lydia as the subject in what happens, Farrent explores her reasons for it and thereby rounds Lydia out into a full-fledged character, every bit as astute and headstrong as Lizzy.

THE SECRET DIARY OF LYDIA BENNETis a fun read for Jane Austen fans because it expands the world they love to inhabit, but I strongly recommend it for readers who haven’t quite found their point of entry into Austen yet.  Lydia is fashioned into a protagonist any modern reader can relate to, passionate and curious, pushing at her boundaries.  Not only does it make PRIDE AND PREJUDICEa lot more interesting, it also serves as a nice reminder that even minor characters are the protagonists in their own lives.

Reviewed by Tia Vasiliou on November 15, 2016

The Secret Diary of Lydia Bennet
by Natasha Farrant