The Secret Diary of Lydia Bennet
Chicken House, October 2016
First a confession. I have never read anything by Jane Austen, so I wasn’t encumbered or biased by feeling as though I had to compare the plot and characters to those in her work. Lydia is the youngest of five daughters. While their bloodlines are good and of a quality to allow the girls and their parents a place in English society, the family finances are such that there’s a push for all five sisters to marry well and into wealth. Each sister has a distinct personality. Mary is bookish and could care less about a husband. Kitty qualifies as boy crazy, while Jane is the ‘adult in training’ as the eldest. Kitty is easily led, particularly by Lydia. As for Lydia, I found myself alternating between admiring her free spirit and wanting to shake some sense into her.
Shortly after the story opens, Redcoats come to encamp in a nearby town. As soon as the sisters learn of this, they finagle a visit to their aunt in town so they can view these new young men. While their parents admonish the girls about soldiers not being suitable husband material, for Lydia, at least, the warning slides off like water on a duck. As a result, she meets and begins a connection to a handsome fellow named Wickham. He’s dashing and suave, but his tendency to lose frequently when gambling, coupled with an instinctive sense of which females to con, make him doubly dangerous.
Fast forward to Lydia getting invited to spend time with her new friend Harriet in Brighton on the seashore. When Harriet takes her to the beach where they are to try the bathing machines (contraptions where ladies change and are hauled into the water where they jump in and freeze), Lydia not only takes to swimming, but she’s entranced by a red haired girl and her brother who strike her as extremely exotic. She soon learns they’re survivors of the war with the French and have spent time in India where their stepfather still lives. Enter Alaric and Theo. Theo is determined to make a name for herself as a dressmaker, while Alaric is rather flighty and somewhat of a romantic.
It isn’t long before Lydia has herself convinced that Alaric is her soul mate, but what ensues makes for a neatly twisted plot that involves her getting ever deeper in a swirl of untruths, acting completely unlike a single lady of her time is expected to, followed by an inevitable return to reality. When that happens, it is of a magnitude that would break many ladies of her time, but Lydia, for all her faults, is a resilient lass. Read the book and find out exactly what did happen. You won’t be disappointed.
Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, January 2019.