Sunday, January 13, 2013

Lydia and Lizzie Bennet: shadows and light between birches.

Denise Levertov wrote several poems about her sister, Olga. In one of them she says:
As through a wood, shadows and light between birches,
gliding a moment in open glades, hidden by thickets of holly
your life winds in me.
I am reminded of this as I watch the Lizzie Bennet Diaries explore the relationship between Lydia and Elizabeth Bennet. If you've not heard of the LBD, they're an on-going and interactive verson of Pride and Prejudice. Dreamt up by Hank Green and Bernie Su, they're told via YouTube, Twitter et al. While certain essentials of the plot are maintained - boy meets girl, boy appears to despise girl, boy tells girl he likes her despite the fact that she's completely unsuitable and has a terrible family - the dilemmas and crises of the original plot are translated into current day USA. If you're a fan of P&P, and have a spare day or so, I highly recommend catching up on the archives.

This is one of the deftest adaptations of a well-known story to a modern setting that I've seen, well, ever. It's presented not so much on as through the internet - it manages to be multi-dimensional and interactive without losing its integrity as a story. The characters' interaction with followers does not occur through self-conscious fourth-wall breaking, but is instead woven in.* There are various challenges here - how do you keep characters in ignorance of one another's actions when they follow each other on Twitter? - but the way in which the writers meet those challenges could well turn up in textbooks some day, and is no doubt being used in classrooms and lecture theatres as I blog.

What I really like - possibly love, even - is the way LBD explores unfamiliar angles of these familiar characters and this story I've read countless times. Lydia Bennett is, I think, the best example of this. Lydia's never seemed much more than a shallow, pleasure-seeking creature who is eventually punished by the gods of narrative for her addiction to instant gratification. Previously I thought of her as a minor character, written to add light and shade to Elizabeth Bennett's story. This is the first version I've seen portray Lydia with more depth, but they do so without betraying the character presented in the novel. Lydia is Lizzie's light and shade, but what LBD brings out is that Lizzie is also Lydia's - it is painfully, heartbreakingly clear how much she is reacting against Lizzie's story in an attempt to create her own, and how oblivious Lizzie is to this, or to how much influence she could have on Lydia.

While much is due to the writing, Mary Kate Wiles is also to blame. She suggests Lydia's vulnerabilities and insecurities without overacting, and allows us to see Lydia's pain even when Lizzie can't. Lizzie's prejudices have always been clear in relation to Darcy, but what the LBD bring into relief is the impact of Lizzie's prejudices on Lydia.

This may be P&P heresy, but I'm currently more interested in the exploration of Lydia's sad (tragic?) ending than Lizzie's happy one. I and the rest of the internet know that Lydia is heading for a fall, but thanks to the modernisation, we don't know how that will manifest.  It could be anything from leaving college to falling pregnant to (according to some fanfic) Wickham leaving Lydia with a mysterious corpse. It could also be what happens in the original; Lydia is committed to an imperfect relationship. I've never minded that much in the novel and in fact have often felt sorrier for Wickham than for Lydia.** I might not be sure what will happen in this version of the story, but now that the LBD have made me care about Lydia, I am sure that I'm going to mind what happens to her a lot more in all of the versions, including the novel.

*Blending good story-telling with a marketing strategy; these folks are good.
**This may be the influence of the BBC version.