In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen presents the reader with three very eligible bachelors: the sharp-tongued, prideful Darcy, the amiable and handsome Bingley, and the smooth-talking military officer of Wickham. Analysis of these characters is plentiful, but I hope to open up a dialogue on the our favorite villain, Mr. George Wickham, as well as to look at the brilliance of an “unequal” marriage as a plot point.
A more histrionic author than was Jane Austen would likely portray Mr. Wickham as the illegitimate half brother to Darcy, making Wickham’s intense hatred for his childhood friend more logical. Instead, the reader is left to guess at Wickham’s motives in his manipulations of Darcy. Where is the gratitude for old Darcy’s support of his godson? Does Wickham seriously think he has the right to challenge Darcy’s claim to Pemberley?
Needless to say, if Wickham were Darcy’s half-brother, then the light Austen shines on the Darcys and the Fitzwilliams would diminish greatly. “Hear me in silence. My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended, on the material side, from the same noble line; and, on the father’s, from respectable, honorable, and ancient, though untitled, families.” (Lady Catherine to Elizabeth Bennet, Chapter 56 of Pride and Prejudice)
If Wickham was old Mr. Darcy’s by-blow, then Lydia’s marriage to Wickham would representative parallel to that of Elizabeth’s to Darcy. Yet, our dearest Jane does not lead her readers along those lines: Wickham proves his motives as punitive, and the de Bourghs become the symbol of the aristocracy’s degeneration, a high-born example of bad manners and ill breeding. Although in the quote above, Lady Catherine claims both Darcy and Anne de Bourgh as “formed for each other,” Austen tells us of Elizabeth’s first impression of the deBourghs: “When, after examining the mother, in whose countenance and deportment she soon found some resemblance of Mr. Darcy, she turned her eyes on the daughter, she could almost have joined in Maria’s astonishment at her being so thin, and so small. There was neither in figure nor face any likeness between the ladies. Miss De Bourgh was pale and sickly; her features, though not plain, were insignificant; and she spoke very little, except in a low voice to Mrs. Jenkinson, in whose appearance there was nothing remarkable, and who was entirely engaged in listening to what she said, and placing a screen in the proper direction before her eyes.”
As we all know, Elizabeth vehemently rejects Darcy’s first proposal.
“But is not merely this affair,” she continued, “on which my dislike is founded. Long before it had taken place my opinion of you was decided. Your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr. Wickham. On this subject what can you have to say? In what imaginary act of friendship can you here defend yourself? or under what misrepresentation can you here impose upon others?”
And later, Elizabeth adds the deepest cut:
“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.”
What Elizabeth is essentially saving is “if you [Darcy] were half the gentleman as Mr. Wickham.”
Darcy’s letter then proves to Elizabeth and the reader that he is not the ill-bred male version of his Aunt Catherine. He is not prideful. Just a prig. Women love this moment because innately we think we can mold the man we love into a better person. A woman would think it possible to lead Darcy into more comfort in Society, but no woman in her right mind would attempt to change a prideful, prejudiced man. It is at this point in the novel that the reader changes his/her opinion of Darcy.
Austen displays her Tory upbringing in the confrontation between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine. “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”
Needless to say, Lady Catherine does not take well to Elizabeth’s temerity. She attempts to place warn Elizabeth not to stretch Elizabeth’s social sphere. “True. You are a gentleman’s daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition.” In other words, Mr. Bennet might marry below him, but Lady Catherine’s family would NEVER consider such an alignment.
Elizabeth’s Tory background as the daughter of a country squire shows her to be made of sterner stuff, a characteristic Pemberley will require if it is to survive the demise of the great estates and the Industrial Revolution. It goes back to the exogamous marriage vs. the endogamous marriage we discussed previously. The inbreeding of the endogamous relationship is creating a vacuum. Elizabeth Bennet will be the shot of new blood that Darcy and Pemberley require to survive. The marriage’s success lies in the fact that it is unequal – a give-and-take that brings new life to Pemberley.
What do you think? Do you have any insights into the ideas presented in this piece? Agree? Disagree? Join in the conversation.
For more on Austen’s role as a Tory daughter, I suggest reading Patrick Parrinder’s Nation & Novel: The English Novel from its Origin to the Present Day (Oxford University Press, 2006).