The Scandalous Confessions of Lydia Bennet, Witch by Melinda Taub

This was simply delightful. I’ve always wished for Lydia Bennet and Mary Crawford to run away together and be pirate queens. This is not that book – but it’s the next best thing. Told from Lydia’s point of view, the book posits that Lydia is a witch and that her sister, Kitty, is in fact a cat and Lydia’s familiar. In a world of secret magic where every spell has a cost, Lydia must figure out who to trust and how to save Kitty and the rest of the world from ruin – even if it means allowing the world to believe that she has eloped and married that shiftless George Wickham.

Well. That opening paragraph was a lot! Allow me to slow down. Many twists abound in this book that I shall not spoil, but this much is revealed early on. At an early age, Lydia discovers that she can do magic. Indeed, without even trying, she convinces the entire community that her cat is actually a human sister named, conveniently, Kitty. Her aunt takes her on as a pupil and teaches her small spells until Lydia is invited to Brighton, where she is taken under the wing of a more powerful witch and taught more powerful magic. Unfortunately, she also finds that she is obligated by oath to locate a magical item, and who is forced to shadow her until the job is done? None other than George Wickham, of course.

This part of the story is told in flashback as a present-day Lydia copes with the reality of living with Wickham (a situation which is vastly more complicated than Pride and Prejudice suggests), her estrangement from her family, and a mysterious spell that afflicts Georgiana Darcy.

Lydia’s voice is utterly delightful. Here she is bringing us all up to speed. It’s long but so funny, especially the last bit (burn!), that I can’t resist putting it here. SPOILER ALERT FOR PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:

Must I really go over the whole tiresome business again? You already know the particulars as far as the public is concerned. Rich Mr. Bingley came to Meryton; mooned after Jane; Jane mooned after him, Bingely brought the even richer Darcy; Darcy looked down his nose at us all, and set up a year’s worth of trouble by refusing to dance with Elizabeth; Jane and Bingely continued to be moon-calves; the regiment came to town, full of delectable officers, the handsomest being Wickham; Lizzy set her cap for Wickham in the most shockingly forward fashion, whatever she may now say; Caroline Bingely made her brother leave town without offering for Jane, which just goes to show how dangerous it is to pay too much heed to one’s older sisters; Lizzy met Darcy again near Rosings, where he offered for her; having now heard from Wickham what a shocking rascal he was, she refused him; then later, after seeing the extent of his estates, she accepted him; I went to Brighton, married Wickham, and left with him for London, though not in quite so correct an order; Jane married Bingley and became rich; Lizzy married Darcy and became richer, and at some point Mr. Collins was there.

Much as I love Pride and Prejudice, there are a few plot holes, and they are filled in nicely here. Why did Mr. Collins marry Charlotte Lucas, when Mary Bennet would have been a much better match in terms of convenience, family obligation, interest, and (alas) personality? Why does every sister in Pride and Prejudice get at least some interesting characterization except Kitty? Why does Mary King show up and promptly disappear, and whatever did become of her? Why is Georgiana Darcy so odd? All this and more is delightfully explained by Lydia in her caustic, funny, incisive voice.

Lydia’s narration and her substantial and believable character development is what makes this book so delightful, but there are other elements I enjoyed. Lydia describes a world of women in which men play vital but supporting roles. The character of Miss Lambe is a fascinating one, a foil for Lydia’s personality who is, in fact, more interesting than Lydia herself. Although the book is generally a lighthearted-fantasy, the emotional stakes are powerful and the book does address issues of class, racism, sexism – and the fact that Lydia is so totally, unfairly, and tragically condemned for her indiscretions despite being only fifteen years old:

Do you know what Lizzy was like when she was fifteen? She may have forgotten, but I haven’t. She drove the entire household mad for a year. She got hold of the wrong sorts of books, declared herself a Wollstonecraftian, and told our mother that she was repressing her rights as an individual…My point is that every girl of fifteen is trying. I was not some remarkable example of wickedness. Jane and Lizzy grew up, and grew calmer…my mistakes just happened to be the kind that time cannot remedy.

I have a confession of my own and it is that five seconds after reading this book I completely forgot almost all of the plot. Lydia’s comments are incisive and the stakes feel real, but most of the actual plot, people doing things, is fluffier than meringue. Lydia has to find a thing, I’ve already forgotten what or why except that it’s purple: a classic macguffin. Massive events take place that are seemingly ignored or forgotten by the populace. While some characters are layered and developed, others have barely any characterization at all and might as well be called “Evil Dude” or “Mean Girl”.

Fear not, reader, for Lydia gains the respect of many in this book. Would I steer you otherwise? Although the book is set up quite nicely for a sequel (yes, please) it ends on a satisfying, if slightly bittersweet, note. Overall I very much enjoyed this book which paid lovely tribute to the original while doing something very different. I liked the relationships between women, which varied widely in nature as real relationships between women often do. I enjoyed the idea that every spell must be paid for, which resonates with Austen’s constant references to money and class in her books. Above all, I adored Lydia and was happy for her voice to be heard. I hope I hear more of it!

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The Scandalous Confessions of Lydia Bennet, Witch by Melinda Taub

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