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Lydia has very few lines in Pride and Prejudice and is often absent from the main scenes of the novel. In LYDIA: THE WILD GIRL OF PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, author Natasha Farrant delves into Lydia's time in Brighton to explore what happened while she was there and how her relationship with the young officer Wickham developed.
We asked Natasha Farrant why she wanted to explore Lydia's story - and the challenges she faced in doing so:
Q: Why did you want to write a novel giving Lydia's version of the events that unfold during Pride and Prejudice?
A: It came up during a conversation with publisher Chicken House. I was talking to rights director Elinor Bagenal about a book, Longbourn by Jo Baker, which is Pride and Prejudice told from the point of view of the servants, and we talked about the sisters in Pride and Prejudice. I love the novel but I feel a lot of the characters remain in the shadows. There are things we are never told like what happened to Lydia and Mary; this is Lizzy's story.
Chicken House then asked if I'd be interested in telling Lydia's story and I jumped at the chance; I wasn't given a choice. I immediately heard Lydia's voice in my head saying, 'At last someone will tell my story!'.
Q: How well did you know Pride and Prejudice at that point?
A: I had always liked Jane Austen but it wasn't until the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that I really got it and I realised that there was so much more to her than I thought, especially her humour and comic characters. I had read Austen as a young adult and had always taken her terribly seriously. I loved the romance between Lizzy and Darcy but the real revelation was Mrs Bennett and Mr Collins and Lydia, who was a bundle of energy.
Q: How well did you feel you knew Lydia from reading Pride and Prejudice, before you started writing her yourself?
A: Lydia doesn't appear very much in the pages of Pride and Prejudice, she doesn't have many lines and a lot of the time is completely absent because either she has gone away or Lizzy has gone away. So Austen doesn't give us much to go on but every time I re-read Pride and Prejudice I discovered something new - so although she might not be fully formed in the primary text, she's there in the sub text. For me it was like she came rushing out from between the lines.
Q: How worried were you about following in Austen's footsteps?
A: The best advice I had was from a friend who was an academic and who has studied Austen and he advised not to try to imitate Austen's voice and also, to know that Austen would be laughing at me so not to take it too seriously. Austen was witty, acerbic and didn't suffer fools gladly so yes, she would probably be laughing at this attempt but I also think she would have liked my Lydia.
We often forget how young Austen's characters are, often they are just teenagers, and these days we tend to marry so much later in life. So for me Lydia is a teenager, she is still very young, and perhaps Austen reflects on that too. I always felt Austen liked Lydia; she doesn't get her comeuppance.
Q: Is Lydia perhaps also the most 'modern' of the sisters, so easier to write about?
A: Lydia is the most modern of the sisters in the sense that she's selfish at a time when selfishness could be really damaging to others, and especially to one's family. All Austen's characters do right by themselves, however. Lizzy Bennett turns down two offers of marriage that could have really benefited her family.
Lydia is selfish in the way she behaves but is thinking of herself as an individual rather than as part of a family, which is a very modern thing to do. In those days, it was all about the people that depended on you; your family. Lydia, as the youngest child, has no sense of responsibility.
Q: Why have you introduced a completely new plot line into Lydia's story, with the arrival of French emigres the Comte de Fombelle and his sister at Brighton?
A: The hardest part was writing a novel where the reader already knows the ending, but I also had a lot to explain from Pride and Prejudice. One of the things that had always troubled me was what happened to Lydia after Brighton, and why does Wickham go with her? It's never properly explained. Lydia was obsessed by Wickham but she wasn't a fool so why did she elope with him? And why does Wickham settle for Lydia? So I wanted to address the question of what happens when Lydia goes to Brighton and this is where my new character the Comte de Fombelle comes into it.
The reason I decided to make him French was because of something I had discovered in Austen's background. Her cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, was married to a Frenchman who described himself as a count and was subsequently executed during the French Revolution. Eliza came to live in England and became Austen's favourite cousin and eventually married her brother, Henry.
Eliza is fascinating, she is so caught up in what was going on in the world at that time, and yet Austen doesn't write anything about what is happening as part of her novels. You have all these soldiers about yet why they are there isn't mentioned in her writing. Although she mentions the peace that comes in her later novel, Persuasion, there's no explanation of what the peace is about.
So there are these tumultuous events that are happening around Austen and yet she never uses or mentions them in her writing. I decided I wanted to bring in that aspect of her life and those elements that her characters would have known about but which she doesn't mention.
I am also half French and I like the idea of these characters, the Compte de Fombelle and his sister, running away from France and having to make a life for themselves in England.
Q: Settings are so important in Austen's books. How did you develop Brighton as the setting in your novel?
A: There are lots of different codes in Austen's books around her settings and for her, the seaside equated to decadence. Brighton was already at that time the 'Las Vegas' of the south coast, it had moved on from the time when people went to Brighton to take the waters for medical reasons. The Prince of Wales had begun building the Pavilion, there were theatres and coffee houses and they had vast card assemblies where fortunes were gambled and lost.
There was a breakdown in codes and behaviours in Brighton. You could wear clothes in a seaside town that you couldn't wear anywhere else and you could use bathing machines to swim in the sea. So things could happen in Brighton that could not happen elsewhere and the town was entirely devoted to pleasure.
It was, though, also highly regimented and there was even a Master of Ceremonies whose job it was to introduce eligible young men and women to each other. As long as you were rich and kept things behind doors, it was fine, but the middle classes couldn't afford to make mistakes.
Q: How did you decide to approach Wickham, Lydia's future husband, who is such an unappealing character in Pride and Prejudice?
A: He was tricky. One of the first times you see Wickham and Lydia is at a party and they are playing lottery tickets and when they travel back in the coach, Lydia talks about the cards she won and lost. So Lydia is a bit of a gambler and so is Wickham, so I decided to emphasis those similarities and I show them playing cards together. Lydia is not sure if Wickham is cheating or not and she's fine with that.
Essentially, Wickham is hustling for a better future so I play on that side of him. Everyone is doing the same thing but his gamble is more desperate than the others; he has done bad things but his redemption is in his relationship with Lydia because he does like her.
Austen isn't that hard on Wickham and Lydia; their punishment is that they will tire of each other very quickly but materially they will be alright. In those days families did throw out members who transgressed but Austen chose not to do that with Lydia and Wickham.
Q: Did Austen's timings for Pride and Prejudice provide any logistical complications when you were writing your novel?
A: There was an issue with the timelines in Pride and Prejudice as Austen gives two different timelines for her story. I had a discrepancy between the date on a letter and the timings in Pride and Prejudice so there was a lot of going backwards and forwards on it.
Q: How did writing Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice compare with other books you have written which haven't had the same constraints?
A: It was so much fun to write this book because Lydia inhabited me from the start to finish and I heard her voice so strongly. It was also a very difficult book to write but I enjoyed it more than any other I have written.
I hope that what it does is to remind readers how funny and entertaining Austen is. Every generation we move further away from her language and tradition and the social mores of why girls had to marry rich men and I think for every generation, her humour is further removed. I hope that Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice will remind them of how funny Austen can be.
For people who have read Pride and Prejudice already, this could be a fun addition to their reading material and answer some questions they might have about the novel. I hope it's also a good introduction to Austen's writing for those who haven't read Pride and Prejudice.