Every bookish girl dreams of a Mr. Darcy. Beyond being merely a romantic figure in his Regency era coats or that puffy shirt as he dives into the lake outside Pemberley (I see you, Colin Firth fans), Darcy is actually rather awkward. An honest and introverted man in a world of intrigue and suave flirtation, Darcy is not initially attractive. Instead, I think most first-time readers of Pride and Prejudice originally fall for his foil: Mr. George Wickham.
“Mr. Wickham was the happy man towards whom almost every female eye was turned.”Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Wickham is a fine figure of a man and charms even the perceptive Elizabeth Bennet. He earns her admiration not only by being handsome and extroverted, but by maligning Darcy.
Listen up, ladies. Our good friend Miss Austen has some subtle advice for your relationships and breakups—in addition to the cliché of waiting for your own personal Mr. Darcy.
Wickham knows every trick in the book. A compulsive liar and extortionist, he is ultimately revealed as the main male villain. What makes him so convincing is his obvious hatred for Darcy. Without being asked, Wickham begins a conversation with Elizabeth, under the pretence of asking after Darcy’s new residence. He acts as though he would rather not discuss the man, but clearly very much desires to tell his practiced sob story. His self-righteous act is one that I am afraid many women fall for in relationships. You see, he makes a great show of being deeply and unreasonably wronged, to the point where even level-headed Elizabeth is fooled into hating Darcy further.
” ‘Oh! no—it is not for me to be driven away by Mr. Darcy. If he wishes to avoid seeing me, he must go. We are not on friendly terms, and it always gives me pain to meet him, but I have no reason for avoiding him but what I might proclaim to the world; a sense of very great ill usage, and most painful regrets at his being what he is . . . His behaviour to myself has been scandalous; but I verily believe I could forgive him any thing and every thing, rather than his disappointing the hopes and disgracing the memory of his father.’ “Wickham (Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
Upon hearing his melodramatic speech, Elizabeth listens with emotional investment, wholeheartedly trusting the rest of Wickham’s story. Of course, we later learn that Darcy’s silence on the dispute shows greater integrity than Wickham’s loquaciousness. Wickham resorts to insulting Darcy to preemptively guard against the truth: that he emotionally and perhaps sexually manipulated his younger sister, leaving her devastated. Rather than own up to his hurtful, conniving choices, Wickham takes the path of all weak individuals: insulting and maligning rather than admitting or apologising. And Elizabeth is nearly taken in by this. After all, what Wickham tells her of his history with Darcy is technically true…just twisted and edited to portray him as the hapless victim.
Readers, the works of literary canon are not just beautiful stories, but truths preserved in narratives. We may be blind in our own lives and relationships, unsure of our paths and our endings, as well as our relationships. Engaging powerful and enduring writing like Pride and Prejudice, however, may prepare us to be better judges of character and more aware of our interactions. Wickham reveals just how effective and dangerous a manipulator can be; he not only does great harm to Elizabeth’s family, but causes her to hate a man without real cause. Ultimately, though, this reveals—in contrast to the reserved, honest Darcy—that what a person says about others says more about him than them.
I know many readers perceive in Pride and Prejudice an insightful glimpse of relationships—healthy and toxic. Narrowing this conclusion a bit, then, perhaps we might find that poor, poor Mr. Wickham also reveals that how a person talks about his ex and her family says more about him than about them.
Don’t be taken in by the Wickhams of the world, my bookish friends. Wait for a Darcy, who will tell you the truth in good time, with good faith, and with the intention of building up rather than tearing down.