In his collection of essays, “Come to Think of It” published in 1930 we find this little gem On Jane Austen in the General Election. I’m not interested in what Chesterton writes about how political commentators are using – or misusing – Austen to argue about the New Woman as much as I am in his observations about George Wickham. When my husband handed be a print-out of the short essay, I was just finished with my annual re-reading of Pride and Prejudice. This includes re-reading the novel, watching the Colin Frith/Masterpiece Theater adaptation, and more recently, re-reading the P.D. James sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley, so everything was fresh in my mind.
For anyone who has not read Pride and Prejudice or seen one of the many adaptations, there is a kind of love triangle between the heroine, Elizabeth Bennett; the handsome, wealthy, brooding Fitzwilliam Darcy; and the charming, handsome, impoverished George Wickham. Darcy is private and quiet; Wickham, open and talkative. When we, and Elizabeth, first meet the men, Wickham is the more attractive. Made more so, perhaps, by the fact that Mr. Darcy, proud and aloof, publicly refuses to acknowledge Mr. Wickham.
It is Wickham’s explanation that Chesterton writes about.
….A writer in a leading daily paper, in the course of a highly optimistic account of the new attitude of woman to men, as it would appear in the General Election, made the remark that a modern girl would see through the insincerity of Mr. Wickham, in Pride and Prejudice, in five minutes.
Now this is a highly interesting instance of the sort of injustice done to Jane Austen. The crowd, (I fear the considerable crowd) of those who read that newspaper and do not read that author will certainly go away with the idea that Mr Wickham was some sort of florid and vulgar imposter like Mr. Mantalini. [Mantalini, a character in Dicken’s Nicholas Nickerby, is a handsome man who lives off his wife and eventually ruins her. Also described as a gigolo.] But Jane Austen was a much more shrewd and solid psychologist than that. She did not make Elizabeth Bennett to be a person easily deceived, and she did not make her deceiver a vulgar imposter. Mr. Wickham was one of those very formidable people who tell lies by telling the truth.
Wickham tells Elizabeth the part of the story that puts Darcy in the wrong. She has no reason not to believe him and neither do we until we learn the rest of the story from Mr. Darcy himself. As the story unfolds we learn that while Wickham may not be vulgar, he has a lot in common with the gigolo, Mantalini. But I digress.
Chesterton, thinking of the General Election, views Wickham as the perfect politician.
….For Mr. Wickham was, or is, exactly the sort of man who does make a success of political elections….And he owes his success to two qualities, both exhibited in the novel in which he figures. First, the talent for telling a lie by telling half of the truth. And second, the art of telling a lie not loudly and offensively, but with an appearance of gentlemanly and graceful regret.
George Wickham as the perfect member of Parliament and perfect politician. I love it! Maybe the problem with politics today is there are not enough George Wickhams.
Photograph is a still of Adrian Lukis as George Wickham in the 1995 BBC/Masterpiece Theater version of Pride and Prejudice.