“In theory, it should be terrible. In practice, it’s pure genius.” Thus The Guardian’s Katie Welsh summarises The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modernised, Americanised, YouTube adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It is hard not to be skeptical – from Bollywood dance numbers to zombies, additions to Austen’s classic often seem like unnecessary attempts to revamp a writer who remains relevant without them.
Yet the changes made in the Emmy-award winning Lizzie Bennet Diaries are smart, savvy, and aptly mirror modern concerns. Released bi-weeky as fictional vlog posts from Lizzie, a debt-ridden grad student, the diaries turn Darcy into a hipster and his inherited family estate Pemberly into a media company. The show is fiercely feminist in a way the original Elizabeth Bennet could only hint at being, focussing on female relationships and showing Darcy on screen for only ten out of one hundred episodes. Austen’s fault-line of financial stability versus personal fulfilment still looms large, but here the conflict is found not in marriage but in career choices, as Mr Collins’ proposal, unappealing but financially necessary, has morphed into a job offer. Crippled with student debt, Charlotte accepts the career move which Lizzie refuses, both women torn between artistic ambition and the realities of low-pay and unemployment in the creative industries.
The surprise winner of the show, though, is Lydia Bennet, played by Mary-Kate Wiles. In Austen’s original the youngest sister, at just fifteen, brings shame and near-ruin upon her family. Her crimes? Sexuality and silliness. Most modern adaptions have tended towards slut-shaming, depicting Lydia as an irresponsible, self-absorbed, boy-crazy teenager and pretending the rest of us weren’t like that at fifteen. At first this version appears to follow the same track, introducing Lydia as the party girl who dials up the “adorbs”, primps in front of Lizzie’s camera, and ignores her education in favour of dragging her sister to the bar nightly.
But Lydia never becomes a cautionary tale. Instead, she is a tragic figure who forms one of the emotional cores of this largely comic show. While the main narrative arc consists of Lizzie Bennet’s one hundred short vlogs, the side playlist of Lydia’s videos lets us helplessly observe her downward spiral, as she parties in Las Vegas to cope with her loneliness and in her words, “simply catalogues a car crash”. Insecurities merely hinted at in Lizzie’s videos are shown in full-form in Lydia’s, and are deftly manipulated by the emotionally abusive George Wickham. Lizzie stops watching Lydia’s videos because of her frustration with her sister. The audience too, caught up in the main narrative of the Lizzie-Darcy love story, can all too easily forget about her younger sister and her separate playlist until she returns to Lizzie’s narrative in crisis.
The crisis lies at the feet of Wickham, who sets up an online countdown clock marking the hours until the release of a sex tape with “Youtube star Lydia Bennet”. It is one of the few modern equivalents of the female public shaming of ‘living in sin’ in Regency England, and is frighteningly resonant for a show released a year before Emma Watson, Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities all received threats that their private pictures would be leaked online. Lydia’s subsequent break-down and Lizzie’s apology for her poor judgment and treatment of her sister forms the best, most discussed and third most-watched episode of the entire run.
With more than 1.5 million views of its first episode and over half a million for its 100th, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has begun a cottage industry of Youtube vlog adaptations of classics. It remains the most inventive and interactive of those that follow, perhaps indicative of how Austen’s sharp social satire is malleable for a new age. Yet through reshaping Lydia, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries reminds us that the best modernising is also about re-evaluating.
Lizzie is reflecting Austen’s original presentation when she begins Episode 2 by introducing Jane as “practically perfect” and Lydia as “problematic”. Rewriting a work from the perspective of the monster of the piece confronts us with our own judgements and assumptions, and the fictional vlogging form offers new opportunities for adapting personalised stories which do not fit the mainstream narrative. Even the choice to place Lydia’s videos in a side-playlist alters the reception, forcing us to share Lizzie’s guilt at focusing on romance to the neglect of her vulnerable youngest sister. In a work which concentrates on righting poor judgements ruled by pride and prejudices, the rewriting of Austen’s neglected character is an apt place to start.