Why Do We Not Know Whether Elizabeth Bennet Learns to Despise Mr. Wickham?

By Regina Jeffers

Recently, I was writing a scene for an upcoming Austen release, and in it, I attempted to explain Elizabeth Bennet’s lack of “hatred” for George Wickham. Even after having read “Pride and Prejudice” well over 50 times during my lifetime, I found myself sadly lacking in this endeavour for I held no idea what Elizabeth really thought of Mr. Wickham. Certainly, Pride and Prejudice is told from Elizabeth’s point of view, and we are quite inundated with the alteration of her feelings for Mr. Darcy, but what of her feelings for Mr. Wickham? Did they not also go through an equal unveiling? I went searching for proof within the novel itself, and for better or worse, this is what I discovered.

First, it is a given that without Mr. Wickham’s deceptions, our favorite couple might not have discovered each other. However, let us revisit the scene where Elizabeth takes Mr. Wickham’s acquaintance:

george-wickham-lost-in-austenBut the attention of every lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before, of most gentlemanlike appearance, walking with an officer on the other side of the way. The officer was the very Mr. Denny, concerning whose return from London Lydia came to inquire, and he bowed as they passed. All were struck with the stranger’s air, all wondered who he could be; and Kitty and Lydia, determined if possible to find out, led the way across the street, under pretence of wanting something in an opposite shop, and fortunately had just gained the pavement when the two gentlemen, turning back, had reached the same spot. Mr. Denny addressed them directly, and entreated permission to introduce his friend, Mr. Wickham, who had returned with him the day before from town, and he was happy to say had accepted a commission in their corps. This was exactly as it should be; for the young man wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming. His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.

Then there is the scene where Wickham studies Darcy’s reaction to encountering him with Elizabeth upon the streets of Meryton.

pandp3_wickham2wThe introduction was followed up on his side by a happy readiness of conversation — a readiness at the same time perfectly correct and unassuming; and the whole party were still standing and talking together very agreeably, when the sound of horses drew their notice, and Darcy and Bingley were seen riding down the street. On distinguishing the ladies of the group the two gentlemen came directly towards them, and began the usual civilities. Bingley was the principal spokesman, and Miss Bennet the principal object. He was then, he said, on his way to Longbourn on purpose to inquire after her. Mr. Darcy corroborated it with a bow, and was beginning to determine not to fix his eyes on Elizabeth, when they were suddenly arrested by the sight of the stranger, and Elizabeth, happening to see the countenance of both as they looked at each other, was all astonishment at the effect of the meeting. Both changed colour; one looked white, the other red. Mr. Wickham, after a few moments, touched his hat — a salutation which Mr. Darcy just deigned to return. What could be the meaning of it? — It was impossible to imagine; it was impossible not to long to know.

Elizabeth’s account of the incident is quite exquisite, but what was she thinking of Darcy at that moment? Of Wickham? And more importantly, did Wickham possess the wherewithal to note Darcy’s attention to Elizabeth? Likely, Wickham knows Darcy better than many of Darcy’s acquaintances, except perhaps Colonel Fitzwilliam. In hindsight, we all realize Wickham is a master manipulator, especially of Darcy.

I do not know about you, but I often wondered if Wickham’s appearance in Meryton was coincidental. Perhaps, Wickham and Mr. Denny held an acquaintance in London. Mayhap, in passing, Denny mentioned dining with Mr. Bingley and Darcy and the other officers. [“My brother and the gentleman are to dine with the officers.” – from Caroline Bingley’s note to Jane Bennet in Chapter 7] Is it possible Wickham came to Meryton because Darcy is there? Even more so, if Miss Bingley took note of Darcy’s interest in Elizabeth, could not Denny have reported as such to Wickham’s inquiries on his old friend? Do you recall how at the Netherfield Ball that Denny tells Elizabeth, “I do not imagine his [Wickham’s] business would have called him away just now, if he had not wished to avoid a certain gentleman here.” (Chapter 18) I always read this line to mean that Wickham knew something of Meryton and its residence prior to his coming to Hertfordshire. Even if Wickham did not know of Darcy being in the village prior to his joining the militia, we must assumeDenny and the other officers tell him of Elizabeth and Jane being several days under the same roof as Darcy at Netherfield, of his former friend’s close study of Elizabeth, and after the Netherfield ball, of Darcy’s singularity in partnering Elizabeth on the dance floor.

In a time when being closed lipped was considered a cherished quality, when I read the novel, I thought it most circumspect that Wickham immediately proceeds to inform Elizabeth of Darcy’s contemptuous character.

 Mr. Wickham was the happy man towards whom almost every female eye was turned, and Elizabeth was the happy woman by whom he finally seated himself; and the agreeable manner in which he immediately fell into conversation, though it was only on its being a wet night, and on the probability of a rainy season, made her feel that the commonest, dullest, most threadbare topic might be rendered interesting by the skill of the speaker. (Which was followed by…)

pandp2_fitzwilliam1wMr. Wickham was therefore at leisure to talk to Elizabeth, and she was very willing to hear him, though what she chiefly wished to hear she could not hope to be told — the history of his acquaintance with Mr. Darcy. She dared not even mention that gentleman. Her curiosity, however, was unexpectedly relieved. Mr. Wickham began the subject himself. He inquired how far Netherfield was from Meryton; and after receiving her answer, asked in an hesitating manner how long Mr. Darcy had been staying there.
   “About a month,” said Elizabeth; and then, unwilling to let the subject drop, added, “He is a man of very large property in Derbyshire, I understand.”
   “Yes,” replied Wickham; “his estate there is a noble one. A clear ten thousand per annum. You could not have met with a person more capable of giving you certain information on that head than myself; for I have been connected with his family in a particular manner from my infancy.”
Elizabeth could not but look surprised.
   “You may well be surprised, Miss Bennet, at such an assertion, after seeing, as you probably might, the very cold manner of our meeting yesterday. Are you much acquainted with Mr. Darcy?”
   “As much as I ever wish to be,” cried Elizabeth warmly. “I have spent four days in the same house with him, and I think him very disagreeable.”
   “I have no right to give my opinion,” said Wickham, “as to his being agreeable or otherwise. I am not qualified to form one. I have known him too long and too well to be a fair judge. It is impossible for me to be impartial. But I believe your opinion of him would in general astonish — and perhaps you would not express it quite so strongly anywhere else. Here you are in your own family.”
    “Upon my word I say no more here than I might say in any house in the neighbourhood, except Netherfield. He is not at all liked in Hertfordshire. Everybody is disgusted with his pride. You will not find him more favourably spoken of by any one.”
    “I cannot pretend to be sorry,” said Wickham, after a short interruption, “that he or that any man should not be estimated beyond their deserts; but with him I believe it does not often happen. The world is blinded by his fortune and consequence, or frightened by his high and imposing manners, and sees him only as he chuses to be seen.” 
Wickham shares the news that Darcy is to marry his cousin Miss de Bourgh. Is this to put any “hopes” that Elizabeth may be carrying to rest?

The whist party soon afterwards breaking up, the players gathered round the other table, and Mr. Collins took his station between his cousin Elizabeth and Mrs. Philips. The usual inquiries as to his success were made by the latter. It had not been very great: he had lost every point; but when Mrs. Philips began to express her concern thereupon, he assured her with much earnest gravity that it was not of the least importance, that he considered the money as a mere trifle, and begged she would not make herself uneasy.
    “I know very well, madam,” said he, “that when persons sit down to a card-table they must take their chance of these things — and happily I am not in such circumstances as to make five shillings any object. There are undoubtedly many who could not say the same, but thanks to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, I am removed far beyond the necessity of regarding little matters.”
   Mr. Wickham’s attention was caught; and after observing Mr. Collins for a few moments, he asked Elizabeth in a low voice whether her relation were very intimately acquainted with the family of de Bourgh.
   “Lady Catherine de Bourgh,” she replied, “has very lately given him a living. I hardly know how Mr. Collins was first introduced to her notice, but he certainly has not known her long.”
   “You know of course that Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Lady Anne Darcy were sisters; consequently that she is aunt to the present Mr. Darcy.”
   “No, indeed, I did not. I knew nothing at all of Lady Catherine’s connexions. I never heard of her existence till the day before yesterday.”
   “Her daughter, Miss de Bourgh, will have a very large fortune, and it is believed that she and her cousin will unite the two estates.”
   This information made Elizabeth smile, as she thought of poor Miss Bingley. Vain indeed must be all her attentions, vain and useless her affection for his sister and her praise of himself, if he were already self-destined to another.

Is it not wonderful our Miss Austen has us looking at the “dastardly Darcy” at this point and not at the reason Wickham chooses to share such intimate details of his acquaintance with Darcy with what is essentially a stranger? What was his motivation and why did Elizabeth Bennet (who claims to be an astute observer of human nature) not have “red flags” going off in her head? How can I accept Elizabeth as the intelligent female we all admire and not wonder how she could be so gullible?

Elizabeth does tell us after her Aunt Gardiner presses her to beware of Mr. Wickham that…

At present I am not in love with Mr. Wickham; no, I certainly am not. But he is, beyond all comparison, the most agreeable man I ever saw — and if he becomes really attached to me — I believe it will be better that he should not. I see the imprudence of it. — Oh! that abominable Mr. Darcy! My father’s opinion of me does me the greatest honor; and I should be miserable to forfeit it. My father, however, is partial to Mr. Wickham. In short, my dear aunt, I should be very sorry to be the means of making any of you unhappy; but since we see every day that where there is affection, young people are seldom withheld by immediate want of fortune from entering into engagements with each other, how can I promise to be wiser than so many of my fellow creatures if I am tempted, or how am I even to know that it would be wisdom to resist? All that I can promise you, therefore, is not to be in a hurry. I will not be in a hurry to believe myself his first object. When I am in company with him, I will not be wishing. In short, I will do my best.’’

At this point in the story, I considered Mr. Wickham pursuit of Elizabeth another attempt upon Wickham’s part as revenge directed toward Darcy. If the man held real affection for Elizabeth, Wickham would not have abandoned her for Miss King’s fortune. That is my reasoning. What of yours?

wickham“…And so, my dear sister, I find, from our uncle and aunt, that you have actually seen Pemberley.”
She replied in the affirmative.
“I almost envy you the pleasure, and yet I believe it would be too much for me, or else I could take it in my way to Newcastle. And you saw the old housekeeper, I suppose? Poor Reynolds, she was always very fond of me. But of course she did not mention my name to you.”
“Yes, she did.”
“And what did she say?”
“That you were gone into the army, and she was afraid had—not turned out well. At such a distance as that, you know, things are strangely misrepresented.”
“Certainly,” he replied, biting his lips. Elizabeth hoped she had silenced him; but he soon afterwards said:
“I was surprised to see Darcy in town last month. We passed each other several times. I wonder what he can be doing there.”
“Perhaps preparing for his marriage with Miss de Bourgh,” said Elizabeth. “It must be something particular, to take him there at this time of year.”
“Undoubtedly. Did you see him while you were at Lambton? I thought I understood from the Gardiners that you had.”
“Yes; he introduced us to his sister.”
“And do you like her?”
“Very much.”
“I have heard, indeed, that she is uncommonly improved within this year or two. When I last saw her, she was not very promising. I am very glad you liked her. I hope she will turn out well.”
“I dare say she will; she has got over the most trying age.”
“Did you go by the village of Kympton?”
“I do not recollect that we did.”
“I mention it, because it is the living which I ought to have had. A most delightful place!—Excellent Parsonage House! It would have suited me in every respect.”
“How should you have liked making sermons?”
“Exceedingly well. I should have considered it as part of my duty, and the exertion would soon have been nothing. One ought not to repine;—but, to be sure, it would have been such a thing for me! The quiet, the retirement of such a life would have answered all my ideas of happiness! But it was not to be. Did you ever hear Darcy mention the circumstance, when you were in Kent?”
“I have heard from authority, which I thought as good, that it was left you conditionally only, and at the will of the present patron.”
“You have. Yes, there was something in that; I told you so from the first, you may remember.”
“I did hear, too, that there was a time, when sermon-making was not so palatable to you as it seems to be at present; that you actually declared your resolution of never taking orders, and that the business had been compromised accordingly.”
“You did! and it was not wholly without foundation. You may remember what I told you on that point, when first we talked of it.”
They were now almost at the door of the house, for she had walked fast to get rid of him; and unwilling, for her sister’s sake, to provoke him, she only said in reply, with a good-humoured smile:
“Come, Mr. Wickham, we are brother and sister, you know. Do not let us quarrel about the past. In future, I hope we shall be always of one mind.”
She held out her hand; he kissed it with affectionate gallantry, though he hardly knew how to look, and they entered the house.

Now, this is the part I found most vexing when I was writing my scene: Is Wickham’s ruining of Lydia more revenge on Darcy (by also ruining Elizabeth’s chances at a good marriage) or is it revenge upon Elizabeth for her “desertion”? Could not Elizabeth (now that she knows of Wickham’s true nature) not think of him as something more than Darcy’s enemy? Is Wickham hers, as well? If I could answer these questions, my scene would flow smoother. Do you hold an opinion on this topic?

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in George Wickham, Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, Regency era and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Why Do We Not Know Whether Elizabeth Bennet Learns to Despise Mr. Wickham?

  1. Yes. I get the impression, idea that you are trying to bring in conficts and scenarios that Miss Austen was not contemplating thinking about or giving any thought to, I’ve probably read P & P more times than I wish to admit, whenever I’m down and feeling low (which is becoming more frequent) I pick up my copy and become oblivious to the world we now live in, and I can in all honesty say that the things you have discussed at great length do not ring logical or true to my way of thinking and interpreting Miss Austens work.

    Perhaps had she have lived one hundred years later your propositions would have persuaded me, but Miss Austen lived in simpler times and somehow I don’t think your thoughts feelings would have entered her mind. I think what she wrote was it; the absolute! No place for a sequel follow up, I believe she was content with ‘had been the means of uniting them’ Finis.

  2. juliaergane says:

    Yes, he is ruining Elizabeth’s family, trying to make her an Untouchable because she has seen through his veneer. It is only secondary that Darcy is being hurt in this, since he believes that Darcy will abandon Elizabeth. He really is not that good of a character reader. Wickham is probably one of the most venal characters Austen ever created. He is a total psychopath.

    • Thanks for your comments, Julia. I find Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility is nearly as bad as Mr. Wickham, but Wickham is quite singular in his willingness to be bribed.

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