Sexual Purity in Pride and Prejudice
While reading Pride and Prejudice (P&P) in class, I noted a similarity between the culture of Regency/Georgian England to that of modern Arab culture. This similarity was regarding gender norms and purity culture that existed during the time era that P&P.
The storyline reminded me of how harsh purity culture is in the Middle East (ME). To be specific, Arabia will rule out harsh retribution for any deviation from the norm. Unfortunately, ME gender norms are Draconian at best, with hundreds of thousands of women across Arabia still treated as legal minors – despite reaching adulthood. Violence towards women is supported by the government. For instance, legal action can be taken against a woman by her father if he believes her to be sexually impure of Qamar, a Saudi Arabian girl, who was slaughtered by her brother for merely opening a Snapchat account. Now imagine what would happen if they had actually been caught with a guy?
What Happened to Lydia in Pride and Prejudice?
She was groomed by a soldier named Wickham, to run away and elope with him. Lydia, a hopeless romantic, agreed, thinking that it would be okay since he promised to marry her. During that period, people wanted to marry up the social ladder. Marrying Lydia does not provide any social or financial benefits to Wickham.
So the only reason he manipulated her into believing that he wanted to marry her was so he could have sex with her. His behaviour endangers Lydia’s wellbeing, and though he knows this, he proceeds with his false promise of marriage, anyway.
Sexual Purity and Gender Norms in Pride and Prejudice
During the Regency and Georgian era, the concept of sexual modesty for women was prevalent across England. A woman was expected to not have sex outside of wedlock, as it was seen as an immodest and cowardly practice. But If she does, then only two options stand before her 1) get disowned by her family and try to make it on her own; or 2) marry the man who she had sex with.
Both of these options were considered by Lydia’s family. In a letter to Mr. Bennet, Mr. Collines (her cousin) wrote, “Let me then advise you, dear sir, to console yourself as much as possible, to throw off your unworthy child from your affection forever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence.” (Austen 199) In this quote, Mr. Collins advises Lydia’s father to disown her and to let her deal with the consequences of her “crime” alone. The implication of what he says here is that Lydia’s actions are irredeemable.
To Mr. Collins’ dismay, Lydia is Mrs. Bennet’s favorite daughter; there is no chance of being disowned. So the only way to save Lydia and her family was through a union between her and Whickham. During this time, her mother bellowed to Mr. Gardiner, “find them out… and if they are not married already, make them marry.” (Austen 193) The Bennets have five daughters; they cannot risk losing face by bringing Lydia back home without facing the consequences of her actions.
These two options highlight the concept of “the fallen woman.” Although, this ideal was not fully apparent until Mary (Lydia’s sister) stated “that [the] loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin; that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful.” (Austen 194)
In this quote, Marry implies that the very worth of a woman lies in her virtue – in this case, she means virginity. If that virtue was lost, in any way, shape or form, it “is irretrievable,” there is no going back, no path to redemption. The loss of her virtue shatters her reputation, which ensures her inability ever to be seen in good light by English society after running away to elope with Wickham.
Although she was not at immediate risk of being honour killed due to her impurity, Lydia still risked losing everything she loved because Wickham persuaded her to elope with him. She risked possibly becoming homeless and alone, with no one by her side. Her family cannot accept her on her own since they want to marry their other daughters swiftly. They cannot do so if her tarnished reputation darkens the reputation of her sisters. Who would you choose to save Lydia or her four sisters?