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Strong Female Characters: Lizzie Bennet

For those of you that don’t know, Lizzie is the main character of Jane Austen’s hugely influential novel, Pride and Prejudice. Often regarded as the quintessential romantic novel, Austen’s tale of the romantic misadventures of the Bennet sisters has been hugely influential on the modern romance novel, and several adaptations have been made in the two hundred or so years since it was published. Lizzie herself has been the subject of literally millions of high school English essays, and is often a feature on several ‘most beloved literary characters’ lists.

But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

In some respects, Lizzie is in control of her own destiny, but in others, she is not. She puts her own happiness ahead of her financial security, despite the wishes of her mother, and in this respect she’s firmly in control. She refuses both Mr Collins and Mr Darcy’s first proposals despite the social stigma accompanying this. In order to be financially secure, she would have to marry before her father dies, and in a society where women were expected to be married, not liking for your future husband wasn’t always seen as acceptable grounds for turning him down.  This carries extra weight when you consider that Mr Darcy would very definitely be considered Lizzie’s social superior, and that by Regency standards, Mr Collins being a member of the clergy would have made him a real catch.

Hey girl. (image: tumblr.com)
Hey girl. (image: tumblr.com)

However, she’s always going to be limited by the society she lives in. In Regency England (roughly 1790-1830 if you’re going by social indicators, 1811-1820 if you’re measuring by kings) upper-class women were expected to marry someone appropriate to their social station, were denied access to most forms of formal education and careers, and were largely brought up being told that their main goal in life should be to find a nice man, settle down and start a family. Lizzie is no exception to this. It’s taken as read all throughout the novel that marriage is her only path to financial security, and Lizzie is never able to break away from these expectations. She doesn’t seem interested in marriage until she finally falls for Mr Darcy, but never entertains the idea that she even has an alternative. That’s not because there weren’t any women breaking away from societal expectations in Regency England – just look at the selection from Rejected Princesses. Breaking away from those expectations in Regency England would have meant cutting ties with your family, friends, and the entire social sphere you had been brought up in, and it’s no wonder that Lizzie doesn’t entertain this notion. She tries to assert herself and mostly succeeds, but she’s got a hell of a lot to work against.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Lizzie doesn’t have a lot of clearly defined goals or beliefs, but it’s pretty clear that she wants to marry for love. This isn’t explicitly stated in the novel (although it often is in the adaptations), but her actions make it clear that this is a firmly held belief, as it leads her to throw away two chances to secure her future by marrying men she doesn’t love. It’s never explicitly stated, but it’s implied that this belief is the result of watching her parents’ less-than-perfect marriage.

She does, however, indulge in several pastimes that look a lot like hobbies to the modern reader, but are actually called ‘accomplishments’. These take the form of playing music, singing, dancing, drawing and conversation, but whether they technically count as hobbies is another matter. As ‘accomplishments’ were taught to girls as a means of making them more attractive to potential husbands, you have to question whether Lizzie genuinely enjoys these pastimes or if she does them just because she is expected to. She also enjoys walking and reading – much more unusual for a nineteenth-century woman, but by no means beyond the pale – but I’m not entirely sure if this is enough to redeem her, as these were exactly the sort of genteel, sedate things that young women were encouraged to do. With that in mind, I’m giving her a half point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Lizzie’s actually a very consistent character. She’s a very lively, intelligent character prone to making snap judgements, and this remains constant through most of the novel. Her ‘accomplishments’ remain at a constant level throughout the book too, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

Actually, you can’t describe Lizzie’s trajectory as a character without mentioning her love life. Aside from the fact that she’s living in a society that has inextricably linked her love life with her financial prospects, Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel, so Lizzie’s love life is always going to be central to both the plot and to the development of her character. You can describe her personality without mentioning her love life, but this leaves out a huge aspect of her progression through the novel as it doesn’t touch on what she actually does, or her eventual character development. This is something that modern romance novels have to work hard to avoid (and they usually achieve this by giving the heroine a secondary plot where she fulfils a pre-existing goal), but this isn’t the case for Pride and Prejudice because of the historical social restrictions that I touched on earlier.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

While Lizzie does make decisions influenced by her love life, it doesn’t dominate all her decision-making. A lot of her decisions are influenced by her own pride and prejudices (SEE WHAT I DID THERE), and also by her love for her family and desire to secure her own happiness.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Lizzie’s character development has been the subject of countless English Literature essays, so I won’t go into it in too much detail. Over the course of the novel she comes to recognise her own prejudices and judgemental mindset, and works towards overcoming them. This is all fantastic character development – and the fact that she does it all while acquiring a super-hot, mega-rich husband is just an added bonus.

Get ready, here comes the smoulder. (image: giphy.com)
Get ready, here comes the smoulder. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Lizzie actually has quite a few weaknesses, and they actively hold her back all throughout the book. She’s very quick to judge other people but often bases these judgements on surface-level observation, she can hold a grudge even when it flies in the face of not just the facts, but her own best interests, and she’s also very bad at recognising her own weaknesses, even when they’re holding her back. These are all things she becomes aware of in the novel and has to work against, so she passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Lizzie definitely influences the plot, but it’s not always in the decisive ways that other heroines I’ve looked at do. She does make decisions that have an impact on the plot, but the relationships she forms with other characters also play a significant role in directing the action. By siding with Wickham, she ensures that no-one will get close enough to Darcy to find out the truth of his character, indirectly leading to Lydia’s elopement with Wickham.

She may be partially hindered by societal expectations, but her actions and opinions are a driving force behind the novel, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In some ways, Lizzie Bennet is a very typical young woman. Her life revolves around young men, dances, and parties – but it’s crucial that we remember that this was exactly what early nineteenth century society expected all upper-class young women’s lives to revolve around, and it would have been very unusual for her to pursue other opportunities.

This is where it gets really interesting. By Regency standards, Lizzie Bennet breaks down all kinds of gender stereotypes – she’s impertinent, intelligent, lively, fond of physical exercise and rarely thinks of her appearance. This was an unusual way to depict a female character in the nineteenth century, because women were mostly expected to behave in a very docile, gentle manner, avoid strenuous exercise and always be clean and pretty. However, by modern standards Lizzie’s personality is nothing new for a fictional heroine, especially one in a romance novel.

There's no reason this is here, I just love the way she skips about (image: tumblr.com)
There’s no reason this is here, I just love the way she skips about (image: tumblr.com)

She was certainly a ground-breaking character when Pride and Prejudice was first released, and she’s certainly had a hell of an impact on modern romance novels – you only have to look at the abundance of ‘love/hate’ relationships, and pretty much all the ‘sexually charged bantering’ scenes in modern romance owe something to her lively, teasing style of conversation. But in terms of modern gender stereotypes she’s a very traditional character who doesn’t really challenge any of the newer beliefs about gender and sexuality, so I can only award her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Lizzie has a whole host of relationships with a range of different female characters. She shares a strangely exasperated love for her mother and younger sisters, a very deep bond with her older sister, Jane, a mutual enmity with Caroline Bingley and outright hostility to Lady Catherine de Burgh. Perhaps her most interesting relationship is with her friend Charlotte Lucas: she is very close to her, but vehemently disapproves of her choices, and must mend her friendship with her after Charlotte marries Mr Collins. That’s a wide range of relationships with a wide range of characters, so she passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

 

Lizzie is an intelligent, witty young woman who struggles against her weaknesses, has a wide range of relationships with a whole host of female characters and drives the plot forward, but she’s still failed my test (but only by half a point). Most of the weaknesses in her character stem from the fact that her entire existence is dominated by her love life, which in turn stems from the society she inhabits. By nineteenth century standards, she was a ground-breaking character, but although she’s had a massive impact on modern literature, she doesn’t quite measure up to modern standards.

That said, she’s been hugely influential in the fields of British literature and the modern romance novel, and Pride and Prejudice is still a story that continues to inspire people all around the world. Even though she’s failed my test, I still love the character, and if you ever try to take away my copy of the BBC mini-series I will fight you.

Next week, I’ll be looking at Discworld, and examining one of my favourite characters. Granny Weatherwax, I’m coming for you.

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7 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Lizzie Bennet”

    1. It’s difficult to say, seeing as a lot of them would be subject to the same social constraints as Lizzie B. I’m definitely thinking of looking at some other classic literary characters (Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw were the ones I was considering) but some more Austen characters would make for an interesting comparison 🙂

  1. I have always been rather fond of Pride and Prejudice and I was one of those students who studied it for high school English so I have to comment here.

    I have to say initially I was certainly surprised that Lizzy would marginally fail the test but now reading through the post I see exactly where you’re coming from now because of setting constraints like this being a romance novel and the prevalent beliefs and attitudes within regency England.

    “She was certainly a ground-breaking character when Pride and Prejudice was first released, and she’s certainly had a hell of an impact on modern romance novels – you only have to look at the abundance of ‘love/hate’ relationships, and pretty much all the ‘sexually charged bantering’ scenes in modern romance owe something to her lively, teasing style of conversation. But in terms of modern gender stereotypes she’s a very traditional character who doesn’t really challenge any of the newer beliefs about gender and sexuality, so I can only award her half a point.”

    I think this part shows very clearly that unfortunately if we are going to compare modern female literature characters with ones written centuries ago the characters from the past will be at a disadvantage given that progressive female characters at that time are not really considered as progressives. Personally I feel she is a stronger character than most of the modern day female characters that people consider as strong (and who scored higher on the test than Lizzy) if we are allowed to adjust for the period in which the character was written.

    However, in answering question 2 you did say:
    “Lizzie doesn’t have a lot of clearly defined goals or beliefs, but it’s pretty clear that she wants to marry for love. This isn’t explicitly stated in the novel (although it often is in the adaptations), but her actions make it clear that this is a firmly held belief, as it leads her to throw away two chances to secure her future by marrying men she doesn’t love.”
    I am not exactly sure why isn’t this good enough for a full point as this in my view is a very progressive and independent goal? Thanks.

    1. The trouble with Lizzie’s goals mainly lies in how often the story has been adapted, and the difference between modern society and Regency England. I’ve put this down as a belief rather than a goal because it isn’t something that Lizzie actively decides to pursue. The boundaries between the two are a little hazy (especially given the restrictions of the time period, which did hamper women going after the things they wanted) but there’s no getting away from the fact that this isn’t something she actively tries to achieve. When you combine that with the fact that she doesn’t really talk about it much, it seems more like a belief that affects her decisions rather than a goal that propels her through the story.

      Of course, modern adaptations do make this clear, which in turn makes her a slightly different character. Those versions of Lizzie do tend to be more progressive and independent, but book-Lizzie has got a few more things holding her back.

      1. OK I got you now thanks. Adoptions would also be slightly different because they are targeted at a different audience to Austen’s original novel. I think we can agree though that Lizzy is probably more progressive for her age than many of the modern female characters who scored higher on the test though?

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