Sunday, July 23, 2006

P&P Intrigue

If you don't like author/novel intrigues, and/or you haven't read Pride and Prejudice, this post is going to put you to sleep.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite novels of all time, but the character of George Wickham has always puzzled me. Wickham starts out well enough in the story as a charming rogue out to better himself, but ends up smashing through the Bennet family like a wrecking ball. Once Darcy revealed some of Wickham's backstory to Elizabeth, Wickham's actions were clear and clearly reprehensible.

Wickham's motives never really worked for me, though. Stupidity doesn't jive; he's not a stupid guy. Jealousy of Darcy didn't fit, either. Wickham was obviously jealous, but why? He and Darcy grew up together, but in those days the classes were sharply divided. Wickham had to know he wasn't entitled to the same life Darcy had.

If George Wickham were Darcy's illegitimate brother, as author Linda Berdoll suggests in her P&P continuation novels, everything makes all kinds of sense.

Darcy's father's being Wickham's "godfather," as well as his affection and financial support for Wickham is explained: guilt and a sense of obligation. George and Darcy playing together as boys, also a little more logical. Darcy might have been assuaging a bit of his own guilt when he paid off Wickham the first time with three thousand pounds instead of the living promised by his father. Or was it hush money? In the book, Wickham runs through the money and goes back asking for the living, which Darcy refuses to give him. Wickham's subsequent attempt to grab a bigger chunk of the Darcy fortune by trying to elope with Darcy's sister Georgina (gross, too, considering she'd be his half-sister) makes more sense, too. Not good enough to be Darcy's brother, right? There is more than one way to get into a family.

Wickham later running off with Lydia also never made sense to me, it was a supremely stupid thing to do. But if he wanted to avenge himself on Elizabeth for giving him the cold shoulder, or to disgrace Elizabeth's family enough to make it nearly impossible for Darcy to marry into it, that would be the next best thing to marrying Georgina.

Another thing about Georgina Darcy's name: it's an eerie echo of George Wickham's. Why would old Mr. Darcy give his daughter a feminine version of his steward's son's name?

Jane Austen may have written Wickham's backstory to be read between the lines, or she wrote only what she wrote and I'm just obsessing about this too much. But it tickles me to think that Jane did sprinkle some clues to the mystery of Wickham in P&P, and Linda Berdoll picked up on them when she was researching the novel. Makes me wonder what else Jane might have hidden in her books.

P&P fans, what do you think?

16 comments:

  1. I was expecting a rant on postage and packaging ;-)

    My word verification is mildly obscene, and I'm sure they hold these back specially so they can spring them on me: lxfuq. (No bj this time.)

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  2. This actually makes sense. I was a little confused by Wickham, too, but at the time, I was too busy trying to get to the HEA that I didn't pay it much attention.

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  3. Yeah, that illegitimate brother thing makes sense. Wickham's not a stupid man, but he makes no long-term plans and lives for the moment. Makes sense because his motto is that Darcy owes him a living, which means he should be supported as a 'gentleman'--someone who doesn't have to work.

    I buy the argument some character made--that he took Lydia because she was a available and had nice curves. I bet he liked the idea that he'd get some revenge too, but he wouldn't go out of his way to get her. He's too lazy and self-indulgent to be truly cunning. More flashman than villain

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  4. although that georgina thing. . hmmm. That took planning and cunning. But with the pox he picked up (doesn't his type always have pox? or at least gout at some point?) and his excessive drinking, he's probably too dissipated too quickly to keep up that kind of planning.

    Hey, yeah, just noticed the George Georgina thing. just another clue that he is very closely tied to Darcy's family.

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  5. For a start: Darcy's sister is called 'Georgiana' NOT 'Gorgina'. And the reason that some names are repeated in all of the Austen novels (Mary Bennett/Mary Crawford/Mariah Lucas, Catherine Bennett/Catherine Morland) is that there were not many names which could be respectably used by gentle families in those days - hence Jane Austen naming a character after herself (she would have run out of names otherwise).

    Wickham was well born and as a Steward's son he would have been well educated and brought-up but not of a noble or wealthy family like Darcy. He would have been seen as a respectable friend for young Fitzwilliam, hence their playing together. But he was too much indulged by Darcy's kind father and so came to expect to be treated as a real part of the family - an expectation which Darcy obviously crushed as soon as possible on taking over the estate, because he knew (from their experiences at university together) that at the core Wickham was rotten.

    Wickham was lazy and self-indulgent and didn't want to apply himself to his studies enough to be ordaned, so he took money instead and ran, but later, when the money ran out, he came to regret this and went back to try and beg what he could, money or a living. When he was repulsed he nutured feelings of ill-use and anger, and like all weak and lazy people, he blamed others for his misfortune and the state of penury in which he found himself.

    He probably reckoned on trying to use his charm and good looks to find a wealthy wife - or at least to be bought off by a wealthy girl's family. When Georgiana happened to cross his path, he decided to try his luck with her, because he knew that Georgiana had always had a bit of a crush on him. Not only was she a rich prize, and easy to cozen, but eloping with her would be one in Darcy's eye. When this plan was foiled he again persuaded himself that he had been persecuted and ill-used by Darcy.

    Wickham eloped with Lydia because he was going to have to leave Brighton to escape gaming and trade debts. She was obviously infatuated with him and had no morals or sense of duty to her family, so he took her along as a side-benefit of his necessary escape, but with no intention of marrying her. He would eventually have abandoned her, but Darcy stepped in and forced the marriage.

    Jane Austen never implied that Wickham was a bastard son of Old Darcy, because in doing that she would have been saying that Old Darcy was an unprincipled and disreputable person (he was never portrayed as such in the novel). Despite the common modern belief, illegitimate children were NOT looked on with complaisance in Regency times. Bringing a natural born son up beside his legal heir would have been a gross insult to his family. Besides which, a 'natural' son would not have felt any more sense of entitlement to Darcy's estate than someone entirely unrelated would. Legitimacy made ALL the difference in those days. Lastly, having any character trying to elope with his own half-sister would have been a depravity utterly beyond the sheltered, virginal mind of Austen. Writing something like that would have put her beyond the pale, especially in her small circle of provincial family and friends.

    Sorry, but Linda Bertoll (in her historically inaccurate novels in which she is unable to even spell Elizabeth's name correctly) is way off the mark.

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  6. The illegitimate brother thing never occurred to me and frankly, I don't buy it. I think Wickham went after Georgiana for her money and because he was jealous of Darcy. Of course, belonging to different classes would have made it impossible for Wickham to expect the same sort of life as Darcy, but not being able to have something doesn't stop you from wanting it. Growing up with Darcy, he would have chafed at the unjust class division that prevented him from enjoying the same privileges. As for Lydia, there was nothing stupid about it. He never intended to marry her - he was just planning to have his fun then dump her. She would have been ruined but not him.

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  7. As other people have pointed out, JA reused names like whoa. (Keep an eye on the Williams and Fitzwilliams running around.) Catherine is used twice in novel, for instance. The theory is interesting, but not for me. It doesn't jibe with what we know of the times and the characters. I've always seen Wickham's affection for the Darcies (at least until he and Fitzwilliam fall out for the first time) as totally sincere; I think it's more than jealousy at work, it's also scorned love.

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  8. Just a note to Sam -- any misspellings in the post are mine; VR software sometimes creatively spells things I say to it and often don't catch before I post.

    Jennifer Preston Wilson has an interesting article here about the development of Darcy's character, as well as commentary on Wickham, which includes a very interesting analogy to Esau and Jacob from the Holy Bible.

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  9. Interesting take on things - I'd never thought of the illegitimate child angle but it would explain things. The jealousy thing always confused me too - why was he jealous?

    But also, Wickham could just be a rotter - the dastardly villain of the piece, which every good romance needs. ;)

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  10. About the names, I think it's possible that old Mr Darcy's name was George, and both George Wickham (because he was old Mr Darcy's godson) and Georgiana (because she was his daughter) were named after him.

    There is no way that a marriage between Wickham and Georgiana would have been legal had they been half-siblings, and a secret of that magnitude would have been difficult, even impossible to hide, given that neither of the families removed themselves from the vicinity.

    As mentioned above, Wickham's the sort to take advantage of opportunities which present themselves. He flirts and lies to attract Elizabeth. Then he switches to Miss King because she's richer. Then Lydia was available and easily duped. He didn't plan to marry her, but was persuaded to do so because he was offered a financial incentive. At the time he ran away with Lydia he didn't know there was any connection beyond acquaintance between Elizabeth and Darcy. Yes, she does say to Wickham, after her return from Hunsford, that 'I think Mr Darcy improves on acquaintance', but I really don't think that would be sufficient to let Wickham guess that Darcy had proposed. Furthermore, although Wickham doesn't like Elizabeth's changed opinion of Darcy, she doesn't say enough to make Wickham into an enemy who would want revenge: 'they parted with mutual civility, and possibly a mutual desire of never meeting again'.

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  11. I always saw Wickham as irresponsible and opportunistic - bad but not evil - somewhat immoral, but certainly not immoral enough to seduce his own half-sister.

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  12. Wickham never puzzled me. He was lazy, indulged, immoral and opportunistic. I agree with Sam and a few others who have commented here. I have never read any of Linda Berdoll's continuation books, and now, thanks to this post, I know that I never want to read them.

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  13. Lori wrote: I have never read any of Linda Berdoll's continuation books, and now, thanks to this post, I know that I never want to read them.

    I'm glad to be of service, unless you meant this comment in a hostile sense, in which case, I apologize for offending you.

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  14. Anonymous9:11 PM

    I like the theory. I now see why you seldom discuss books on the blog, too.

    L.

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  15. PBW said...
    "Lori wrote: 'I have never read any of Linda Berdoll's continuation books, and now, thanks to this post, I know that I never want to read them.'

    I'm glad to be of service, unless you meant this comment in a hostile sense, in which case, I apologize for offending you."

    I'm sure Lori didn't mean it like that. The fact is that Jane Austen fans tend to separate into two camps - rapid ones who would like to jump up and down on 'continuation novels' and would *never* read them, and ones who think that seeing Elizabeth and Darcy some more might be fun. For those in the second camp, it's nice to be fore-warned that certain novels of this kind might actually upset and offend you by violating what is percieved as the 'truth' of Austen's work (by sticking illegitimate children in there, for instance). So you've done a public service, PBW - I wish someone had warned me before I bought that stupid book...

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  16. To Sam who said: "Jane Austen never implied that Wickham was a bastard son of Old Darcy, because in doing that she would have been saying that Old Darcy was an unprincipled and disreputable person (he was never portrayed as such in the novel)."

    Me: "As for Sam's contention that having the senior Mr. Darcy have a child out of wedlock meant he was automatically unprincipled &disreputable is a little harsh. Only a life of debauchery would warrant that. Leading a very circumspect life doesn't mean that he wasn't human and troubled by human foibles. Bedsides, in Berdoll's sequel the existence of the bastard was a well-kept secret.

    Sam: "Despite the common modern belief, illegitimate children were NOT looked on with complaisance in Regency times. Bringing a natural born son up beside his legal heir would have been a gross insult to his family. ...Legitimacy made ALL the difference in those days.

    Me: "I beg to differ. The home of the Duke of Devonshire, Chatsworth in Derbyshire has long been thought to have been Jane Austen's model for Pemberley. Although they were titled, that family was essentially on the same level of society as the ficticious Darcys. Just prior to the Prince Regent's reign, the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana, lived there with her husband, the Duke, his mistress, their children, his children with Georgiana, and her child by her own lover -- one big happy family. (This was certainly not a unique situation.) When it came to inheritance, the first born, legitimate son was the heir to the title. As to what and how this all came about, read "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire" by Amanda Foreman. What is curious is that Jane Austen named one of her virginal characters after a notoriously flamboyant woman who lived in that house.

    Regency was an era of a certain level of piousness, but, as now, there was plenty of hypocrisy. It might soothe some of us to believe it was a time of nothing but gentility and prayer, but there are plenty of historical works that prove otherwise. I suggest to anyone who is curious as to what was actually going on with the upper classes in particular read, "An Elegant Madness," by Venetia Murray."

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