How a Minor Character Controls the Story’s Action: Jane Austen’s Use of George Wickham
On Monday, I interviewed our favorite Austen bad boy, Mr. George Wickham. Actually, I held a celebrity intervention, but as an afterthought to that momentous event, I thought we might take a closer look at George Wickham’s importance to the Pride and Prejudice’s plot. For a minor character, with few lines and little description, the action of Pride and Prejudice greatly rests on the scoundrel’s shoulders.
What do we know of George Wickham? There is much in Jane Austen’s introduction of Mr. Wickham.
But 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. The 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 Bennet’s observation lays the basis for her believing Mr. Wickham’s lies about Mr. Darcy. What we do not see in this passage is what Mr. Wickham notes during the exchange. Some scholars believe that Wickham is a good “reader” of Darcy’s notice of Elizabeth Bennet, and that the man sets his sights on Elizabeth as part of his revenge on Darcy. At a minimum, Wickham, as Darcy’s childhood friend, would recognize how Darcy would react to Wickham’s presence. Poor Darcy operates within a strict code of behavior, and Wickham holds no scruples in manipulating his former friend.
Wickham is very much a scoundrel and a cad. He is perceptive. Likely, he has heard of Darcy’s snub of Elizabeth at the Meryton Assembly. It was common knowledge among several families in the neighborhood. Such gossip would provide Wickham with the opportunity to build on the general dislike of Mr. Darcy’s manners by coloring Darcy’s actions. Wickham is looking for a rich wife, and gossip is important to him in that cause. He will use whatever he discovers to his benefit.
Mr. Denny confirms that Wickham has spoken ill of Darcy to the regiment when he says, I do not imagine his business would have called him away just now, if he had not wished to avoid a certain gentleman here.
One must notice how Wickham’s attacks on Darcy’s reputation increase after the Netherfield Ball. First, Darcy has withdrawn, and Mr. Wickham no longer fears that anyone will “correct” his insinuations. Secondly, it is likely that Denny and the other officers have informed Wickham of Darcy’s attentions to Elizabeth at the ball. Because Darcy has danced with no other female from Hertfordshire, he has labeled Elizabeth as someone he admires. Wickham would understand this fact.
Please recall it is Wickham who tells Elizabeth that Darcy will marry his cousin Anne De Bourgh, an assumption of Lady Catherine’s, but never a possibility in Darcy’s mind. Instead of listening to what Mr. Wickham does not say, Elizabeth concentrates on the irony of Miss Bingley’s ill-fated pursuit of Mr. Darcy.
He tells her that he is an expert on Mr. Darcy. You could not have met with a person more capable of giving you certain information on that head myself – for I have been connected with his family in a particular manner from my infancy. Elizabeth’s unexpected obsession with Mr. Darcy leads her to believe Mr. Wickham’s falsehoods. The man later reinforces her prejudices when Austen says, And in his manner of bidding her adieu, wishing her every enjoyment, reminding her of what she was to expect in Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and trusting their opinion of her – their opinion of every body – would always coincide, there was a solicitude, an interest which she felt must ever attach her to him with a most sincere regard. Notice this is right before Darcy and Elizabeth reunite and Darcy’s disastrous first proposal.
After her return from Rosings and Mr. Darcy’s letter, Elizabeth has a better understanding of Mr. Wickham’s character, and she baits him. However, Mr. Wickham is not easily swayed from his goal of destroying Mr. Darcy. “You, who so well know my feelings towards Mr. Darcy, will readily comprehend how sincerely I must rejoice that he is wise enough to assume even the appearance of what is right…I only fear that the sort of cautiousness, to which you, I imagine, have been alluding, is merely adopted on his visits to his aunt, of whose good opinion and judgment he stands much in awe. His fear of her, has always operated, I know, when they were together, and a good deal is to be imputed to his wish of forwarding the match with Miss De Bourgh, which I am certain he has very much at heart.” Obviously, Elizabeth has first hand knowledge that Darcy does not intend to marry his cousin Anne. He has proposed to Elizabeth and has been refused.
Even after Wickham marries Lydia and returns to Longbourn, he does not abandon his tale. Did you go by the village of Kympton? 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.
So, I ask dear readers what would Pride and Prejudice be without George Wickham’s manipulations? A bland short story? Mr. Wickham is the impetus behind Elizabeth’s continued blindness regarding Mr. Darcy’s true character; the designer of a carefully constructed “revenge” plan that disrupts the lives of each of the story’s families; a scoundrel and a cad; a master manipulator. George Wickham is the man we love to hate.