All posts by Brett Harris

About Brett Harris

Brett Harris is an undergraduate student majoring in European Studies and Comparative Literature at UNC Chapel Hill. In between classes, jobs, and excessive amounts of baking, Brett enjoys rereading his dog-eared copy of Pride and Prejudice.

Another look at Lydia Bennet

A new discovery sheds new light on an old character

When it comes to irritating Austen characters, Lydia Bennet is certainly high on the list. Trampling her own reputation and flaunting her disregard for that of her sisters, Lydia is the selfish younger sister that we never wanted. Readers aren’t alone in this sentiment: a recent article from “The Guardian” suggests that Austen’s inspiration for the character arose from an undesirable sister-in-law. According to the article, Mary Pearson, the alleged archetype for Lydia, was deemed an unlikely match for Austen’s brother, Henry— a prediction that came true after only a few months of their engagement. While the exact reasons for this break are unclear, the article does associate both Pearson and Lydia with a reckless urge to be wed.

Although Lydia is definitely approaches marriage without consideration for the consequences of her dalliances, it’s a little difficult to believe that Austen only wanted a thoughtless static character to fill in her plot. For instance, the time that other characters spend deliberating over the significance of Lydia’s plight is quite substantial — suggesting that it should also weigh on our own minds. In a similar vein, Mary’s reaction to Lydia’s elopement, though disregarded by Lizzie, speaks to the complexity of Lydia’s predicament:

“Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson; 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.”

-Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice”

Though it does ring of the excessive moralizations to which Mary is prone, her words tap into the problematics of femininity in the Regency era. Why should it be that there is no forgiveness for a false step, particularly when Lydia’s marriage to Wickham elicits every reaction from joy to condemnation? Furthermore, why should a young girl bear the blame for living in a social structure that predisposes her to helplessness?

Later iterations of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” also tap into the contemplative currents that surround this character. Uzma Jalaluddin’s “Ayesha at Last” emphasizes the vulnerability of girls like her Hafsa, a contemporary analog of Lydia. Jalaluddin uses Hafsa’s fall from grace (the publication of explicit photos on the Internet without her consent) to illustrate the systemic disregard for women’s reputations, as law enforcement refuses to acknowledge that a crime has been committed. Yet this is also a moment of heartening solidarity between women, as Ayesha stands by her cousin:

Ayesha at Last book cover

“Hafsa is not ruined, Ayesha said.
“Her reputation is in tatters and the vultures are circling.”
“Let them circle!” Ayesha said loudly.

-Uzma Jalaluddin, “Ayesha at Last”

Here, Jalaluddin highlights a sympathy toward Lydia that was less apparent in Austen’s own work. Moreover, she refuses to allow her protagonist to engage in the victim-shaming that so often accompanies discourse surrounding Lydia-type figures.

This trend has its roots in an earlier “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation, “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.” A series of YouTube videos detailing the life of Lizzie Bennet and her sisters, the vlog’s handling of Wickham’s taking advantage of Lydia and the responses to it work to normalize practices of supporting victims of relationship abuse. Furthermore, it emphasizes the importance of solidarity between women in a heartwarming sequence of exchanges between the Bennet sisters.

Lydia, from “The Lizzie
Bennet Diaries”

So, just as the mystery of the “real” Lydia’s identity continues to excite and engage Austen scholars and readers alike, I find that the character is just as fascinating. Though Lydia Bennet might raise eyebrows and tempers alike, this character and her actions open the door to myriad societal critiques, and show us the importance of looking beyond appearances.

Order Up: Spotlight on Marcel’s Catering Cafe

A longtime JASP partner makes a difference in Chapel Hill

Driving along Fordham Boulevard in Chapel Hill with the windows down, one would be hard-pressed to ignore the tantalizing aromas wafting from the nearby Marcel’s Catering Cafe. For over 30 years, this family-run business has served the Chapel Hill community, not only catering events, but also building connections and memories within this slice of blue heaven.

Marcel’s entrees look positively scrumptious!

Case in point: Marcel’s has provided the catering for the Jane Austen Summer Program since the inaugural conference in 2013, nourishing our attendees and the marvelous relationships that JASP fosters. “We have always enjoyed working with JASP and are missing it this year,” says Marcelle Prater, who owns and operates the catering cafe with her husband, Larry. The feeling is certainly mutual, as UNC graduate fellow Eric Bontempo states, “For the last two years, I have had the great pleasure of working with Marcel’s Catering Cafe to plan the menu for the JASP banquet and the Regency ball. I have taste-tested numerous menu items (I take my job very, very seriously), and they’re all delicious!” Likewise, JASP co-director Inger Brodey highlights the business’s accommodating nature. “Marcel’s has been a joy to work with,” Brodey says. “[Prater] has been very understanding of our small budget and has helped us with a variety of configurations for our banquets.” Whether arranging box lunches or providing last-minute support, Marcel’s has been an invaluable partner for JASP.

But the story doesn’t stop there: Marcel’s continues to support the Chapel Hill community, even in the midst of crisis. Throughout the pandemic, Marcel’s has worked to provide affordable entrees while maintaining social distancing, with options such as vegetarian lasagna and pork tenderloin with apricot chutney available for preorder and pickup from the cafe. 

UNC’s covid-19 workers show their appreciation for Marcel’s with a signed card

Beyond this, Marcel’s is also providing meals for UNC Hospital’s covid-19 workers. Funded by donations, Marcel’s has empowered the community to show its support for our front-line health-care professionals.

While we’re sad not to be seeing each other this June, we applaud the impact Marcel’s Catering Cafe continues to have in the Chapel Hill community.

Interested in donating food to UNC’s covid-19 workers? Email Marcelle Prater at or call at (919) 967-0066. For more information on menus, hours, and pricing, visit the Marcel’s Catering Cafe Facebook Page.

The soundtrack of Jane Austen’s daydreams?


Like those of her characters, Austen’s life was far from quiet.

Though the 2005 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” might not be particularly memorable for its historical accuracy or costuming, Dario Marianelli and Jean Yves-Thibaudet’s tracks added nuance and layered emotion, and provided a spectacular sonic backdrop to Lizzie’s narrative. 

Video: Click here to listen to “The Secret Life of Daydreams” composed by Dario Marianelli & performed by Jean Yves-Thibaudet

That film and other adaptations also lead us to wonder: What songs comprised the soundtrack of Austen’s life? Did she spend her days plucking out the strains of somber hymnals, or did she have a rebellious phase of rock and reels?

From her letters, we can suss out that she enjoyed listening to the harp (from a letter to Cassandra, April 18, 1811) and that her soundscape was populated by szuch marvelous tracks as “Poike de Parp pirs praise pof Prapela,” “In peace love tunes,” “Rosabelle,” “The Red Cross Knight” and “Poor Insect” (in a letter to Cassandra, April 25, 1811). Likewise, a brief review of Marian Kimber’s article, “Jane Austen’s Playlist,” reveals that Austen was familiar with such composers as Beethoven and Haydn, and a great admirer of Ignaz Pleyel’s works, but such a search feels rather dissatisfying on the whole.

However, for those looking for a more substantive set of evidence, a trove of time-worn folios, with curling, marbled covers and faded ink might be just the thing. A tour guided by Professor Jeanice Brooks of the University of Southampton explores the music books of the Austen family, while placing them within the geopolitical context of the Regency Era.

Video: Click here to see “Songs of Home: Jane Austen’s sheet music collection” produced by Sydney Living Museums

And for anyone who is still curious— the rabbit-hole doesn’t stop here. Digitized by the University of Southampton, a collection of the Austen family’s music books and sheets — 21 works in total, and approximately 600 songs — brings Austen’s playlist to life. With the turn of each virtual page, musings on the margins, handwritten titles, and carefully drawn notes (some written by Austen herself!) are sure to excite and enchant.