Monday 17 June 2024



George Wickham and Lydia Bennet

Is George Wickham, in Pride and Prejudice, more complex than we thought?

Wickham is one the most loathed characters in a Jane Austen novel. 

He first appears in Meryton High Street, an associate of Mr Denny.

“His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance , a good figure, and a 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;…”

The Bennet sisters, with Mr Collins in tow and along with their aunt MrsPhilips had been encouraged by their father to walk to Meryton. Mr Bennet being eager to have a respite from the attentions of Mr Collins. In the high street they came across  an unknown young man in the company of Mr Denny who they do know. This was their first meeting with George Wickham.  They were to dine at their aunts, Mrs Philips’s house the next day. At the behest of the women Wickham was later invited to dine with them too by Mr Philips personally.

As soon as he arrived all the young females were immediately enamoured of him. He had a smooth relaxed way of talking. He came across as being a handsome, confident, assured young man with impeccable manners. Wickham had learned how to ingratiate himself, especially with young ladies. He had learned to come across as the perfect example of the male species. Is this acting , a learned habit, a way of getting others to like him? Probably all of these. What is surprising is how Elizabeth Bennet herself was enraptured and attracted by him. Lydia, of course, is completely taken by him too. The uniform was all to her.

 Somebody who has this sort of charisma and practiced charm is all surface. It cannot possibly be their whole personality, their whole character, but it takes experience to know that.

While talking in the high street Darcy and Bingley happen to ride past and acknowledge the ladies. Darcy and Wickham, their eyes meet, and a strange atmopsphere descends between the two of them. They obviously know each other. Darcy stiffly acknowledges Wickham who stiffly acknowledges him in return.Elizabeth notices the exchange. Obviously everything is not as first appearances make out.

At the Philips’s dinner the next day Elizabeth and Wickham talk. Elizabeth is keen to ask about his acquaintance with Darcy but she dare not. Wickham however begins a conversation about Darcy himself, wondering how long he has been in the area. Elizabeth relates the rumours that Darcy has a large estate in Derbyshire and that he has a large fortune.

“ 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 the family in  a particular manner from my infancy.”

Then Wickham reveals his close connection to Old Mr Darcy and to Darcy himself. Wickham’s father had been the estate manager for Mr Darcy. He and Fitzwilliam Darcy had grown up together. Old Mr Darcy out of his attachment to Wickham’s father and a liking for the son had provided an education at Cambridge,  for Wickham, the same he provided for his own son and had left Wickham  not only £1000 in his will but also the promise  of a rich parish when one came up on his estates. Wickham explained to Elizabeth that he had been brought up to be a clergyman. He also added that how ,after the death of both his own father and also Old Mr Darcy the youmger Darcy, Fitzwilliam had provided the money but when a rich living did come up Darcy had refused him. Wickham describes Darcy  as proud and jealous. And Wickham himself opines,

“ I have been a disappointed man and my spirits will not bear solitude..” 

  Truth but untruth and Elizabeth because of her own initial aversion to Darcy believes it  and we as the readers, perhaps, believe it too.

But there is the alternative explanation of events later in the novel, Darcy’s take on the same events and facts. In an empassioned letter to Elzabeth he explains,

“ With respect to that other more weighty accusation, of having injured Mr Wickham, I can only refute it by laying before you the whole of his connection with my family.”

And so Fitzwilliam Darcy begins. He relates  how Wickham's father was a loved and respected estate manager, and Darcys father’s liking and fondness for George Wickham, the son. He describes how they had a close associationin in their youth and he saw him at unguarded moments.

Darcy goes on to explain.

“ George Wickham, who was his (Old Mr Darcy's) godson,his kindness was liberally bestowed. My father supported him at school, and afterwards at Cambridge;-most important assistance.......My father was not only fond of this young man’s society, whose manners were always engaging he had also the highest opinion of him ……..As for myself, it is many many years since I first began to think of him in a very different manner. The viscious propensities- the want of principle which he was careful to guard from the knowledge of his best friend, could not escape the observation of a young man of nearly the same age with himself and who had the opportunities of seeing him in unguarded moments…”

Wickham had turned down the offer of a parish living when it did come up but had asked for a further £3000 in its stead which Darcy gave him to follow a career in the law. Wickham instead lived a dissolute life. He spent very little time in following the law which he found himself unsuited for and instead spent the money on gambling and drinking.

Old Mr Darcy had in effect tried to raise George Wickham above his birth status. He provided all the means for him to move upwards in society and as such change his class. He was a man of Enlightenment views. So why would Wickham turn out like this when he had been offered so many advantages in life? 

 Britain has a class system which even today is still extant. Many governments over the decades and centuries have talked about making a more equal society but, we still have an aristocracy that owns a large part of the landmass of the United Kingdom, we have a two tier education system, state and private and we have a massive wealth divide. Those divisions in society were much more stark in Jane Austen’s time. She herself was writing  about the gentry and the aristocracy, privately educated men and wealthy landowners.  The serving class , the poor people ,are viritually erased from the world that Jane Austen creates. Where they appear they are generally nice people. We have Mr Martin the farmer in Emma and  some servants who appear briefly in the novels. The Springers,father and son, in the unfinished Sanditon come to mind and have some connection to the situation of Wickham and his father but of course that novel never develops beyond  introductions so we will never know their role in the entirety of the novel.

The difference between those others  compared to Wickham, is that they  are portrayed as honest, hard working and likeable characters and George Wickham is not. They all remain apparently happy  within their strata of society and in relation to the gentry. They have no ambitions to move upwards in society.

Wickham seems to be an experiment where Austen is saying, if you try and move upwards in class, get above yourself, there are terrible consequences. You will destroy yourself and damage others around you. She is making a case for the extant societal structure and the status quo. Maybe she sees it as a natural way of existence as Edmund Burke the philosopher and statesman, believed.  

We have heard from both Wickham himself and Fitzwilliam Darcy. His father was obviously a talented  estate manager and may well have earned a good salary from Old Mr Darcy but he was still of a lower class. The Old Mr Darcy seemed to have attempted, because of his fondnes for the father and the boy, to move him out of his class into a higher class through education, encouraging and allowing an association with his own son and by providing money and a future position in life. Nowadays we think of education as the answer to a fulfilling life and in many ways it is but in a cruel twist, the education of the masses, as we have today ,still leaves us with a world of poor and rich, the upper classes and the lower classes. 

The effect of this attempt to raise George Wickahm in society, in Jane Austen’s mind, was to create a  monster.

Darcy had noticed the bad side of Wickham as they grew up together. Can you imagine a boy from one class trying to be the equal of somebody in a higher class? Surely in the 18th century it was impossible. He must have felt torn between his own father and Old Mr Darcy,  what advantages and socialisation  Fitzwilliam Darcy received as a natural course  and was heir to and what he himself was being offered out of generosity in what must have seemed an unatural way. He must have felt an imposter. He must have felt bitter, mixed up and vengeful. All of which is apparent in Pride and Prejudice. His way of coping was to copy the actions and demeaner, of a member of the upper classes but he had become neither one nor the other. And so his response was to sink into dissipation.

Examples of his dissipation are his attempted seduction and elopement in Ramsgate,  of Darcys young sister Georgiana aided by, probably  just as bitter a person, Mrs Younge,who was put in charge by Darcy and his cousin, to run the establishment set up for her . Then of course there is his later elopement with Lydia and unhappy marriage. In the final chapter Darcy has accepted the situation and he keeps Wickham financially viable, financing his dissolute ways for the sake of his wife’s sister and perhaps his own conscience. It’s a mess and It’s all very sad and in many ways a grotesque life for Wickham.

 Austen portrays throughout her novels society changing and developing in an organic way.  Much of the plot of each of her novels is about human and societal development but as a gradual process. Wickham stands out from all this because he is an experiment outside of  the  process of gradual change.  Wickham’s effect on society is sudden and brutal.

“The Enlightenment,” which dominated Europe in the 18th century was centred around  the idea that reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy. Modernisation, scepticism and liberty were its main traits and influenced much of the political and social thinking of the 18th century either  agreeing or  opposing those ideas.

Pride and Prejudice was published in January 1813.   The American Revolutionary War (April 19, 1775 – September 3, 1783) ended thirty years before.  Jane had been working on the novel since the 1790s. There is the famous statement in the American Declaration of Independence, a version of enlightenment thought, that says,

“we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”

The Declaration of Independence..

All of this statement is important but with relation to Wickham and his predicament the bit which says ,”all men are equal,” is the pertinent phrase. Equality with Fitzwilliam Darcy and the gentry was impossible  for him. So from a young age he became, bitterand twisted. 

A Vindication Of The Rights of Men.

Mary Wollstonecraft had written, by the time Pride and Prejudice was published, both her enlightenment statements including The Vindication of the Rights of Men 1790. A long letter counteracting the  views of Edmund Burke who  believed that sexual, social and other inequaliies were a natural order of things.The French Revolution begun in 1789 was reverberating around Europe and the World with its cry for,”Liberty , Equality and Fraternity.” Charles James Fox (1749-1806), the great Whig politician was sympathetic both to the American cause and the French Revolution. Wordsworth the poet was sympathetic to many of the ideas espoused by the French too. There were many others in high positions. 

Britain and the British monarchy were nervous to say the least. The Austens were traditionalists, they supported the monarchy, the church, were friends with members of the gentry, Edward Austen being part of the gentry and Mrs Austen descending from a gentry family,  they joined the navy and the military and so supported the traditonal social norms.

The new French Republic continues with the Girondists.

Wickham can be seen as a fictional metaphor  for Jane Austen’s view of ,The Enlightenment.  In many ways he is Austen's emotional reaction to the revolutions of France and America.

Perhaps if Wickham had been born and brought up across the Atlantic he would have had different opportunities in a different social climate and turned out differently? 


The Declaration of Independence 1776,

Wollstonecraft Mary, The Vindication of The Rights of Men, 

Online Library of Liberty,

The French Revolution,

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Penguin Classics 1996. (First published 1813)

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