Fiction Reviews

The Scandalous Confessions
of Lydia Bennett, Witch

(2023) Melinda Taub, Jo Fletcher Books, £16.99, hrdbk, 393pp, ISBN 978-1-529-42624-3


Anyone familiar with Jane Austen will know that Lydia is the youngest of the five Bennett sisters in Pride & Prejudice and by far the least sympathetic. As Austen depicts her, she’s a flibbertigibbet: carefree to the point of recklessness and with no sense of propriety or responsibility. Her role in the novel is more or less to act as a counterpoint to the virtues of her sisters. Ultimately, her elopement with the dashing scoundrel Mr Wickham facilitates Lizzie’s reconciliation with Mr Darcy and the happy ending we all know.

But what if we all had it wrong? What if Lydia was the unsung heroine of the entire story. And what if she was also a witch?

That, in a nutshell, is The Scandalous Confessions of Lydia Bennett, Witch (hereafter, The Confessions) a high concept attempt to  a) rehabilitate Lydia for the contemporary reader while  b) attempting a magical retelling of Pride & Prejudice.

The story is narrated by an older, somewhat wiser Lydia, living in semi-genteel poverty with Wickham and writing her life story. She starts with her childhood and introduction to the art of witchcraft. Here, the fourth Bennett sister, Kittie, also gets a surprising re-launch in one of the nicest ideas the book has (the clue is in her name). Lydia swiftly gets in over her head with ancient powers and makes rash promises which come back to drive the plot forward later on.

The Confessions then take advantage of the fact that Lydia is rarely centre stage in Pride & Prejudice, and often elsewhere entirely, to plot a different course around the original novel’s familiar landmarks. We get different takes on Jane, Lizzie and Mr Darcy – none of whom come off particularly well – while Mr Wickham is upgraded from dastardly to demonic.

This being fantasy, of course we get a quest, in this case to fashionable Brighton with the regiment in search of a mysterious and magical jewel as Lydia attempts to wriggle off the hook of promises she made to a dragon when she was much younger. Here in another high point, Taub borrows Caribbean heiress Marie Lambe from Austen’s unpublished Sanditon to perceptively dissect the racism and colonialism of Regency England.

And if that wasn’t enough, the story then periodically jumps into Lydia’s present as she attempts to help lift a curse from Mr Darcy’s sister Georgiana.

In principle, as someone who loves both Austen and regency fantasies like Zen Cho’s Sorceror To The Crown, this book should be right up my street. But I found that there was a lot going on in The Confessions – the narration, the plot, the multiple timelines and yes, the use of characters from a much-loved classic novel – perhaps too much, and at any rate a tall order for Melinda Taub to fulfil. While the best regency fiction achieves the illusion of effortless poise, this felt like work.

This may well also be my problem rather than the novel’s, but I’m still to be convinced by the need to rehabilitate the dreadful Lydia Bennett. Sorry.

That said, The Confessions is very much the kind of book people should be trying to write inside or outside the genre – it’s smart, it’s in dialogue with the past but not bound by it, and it’s trying to do a lot of interesting things at once. If the setting appeals, do give it a try.

Tim Atkinson

See Ian's review of The Scandalous Confessions of Lydia Bennett, Witch.


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