G. K Chesterton, Jane Austen and Mr. Wickham

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.





Elizabeth, Darcy and Jane

The two hundredth anniversary of my favorite book was celebrated a couple of days ago.  I re-read it at least once a year and then I get into the various spin-offs, the best of which are by Pamela Aiden and P.D. James.  I haven’t read any of the zombie ones and don’t intend to read them.  I will then watch Colin Firth go swimming.

In his happy birthday post for the New Yorker, William Deresiewicz wrote

Two hundred years. But there seemed little chance, two hundred years ago,  that many people would remember either the novel or its author by now. The draft  that she produced at twenty-one was rejected by a London publisher sight unseen.  Other disappointments followed, and after a series of personal upheavals, she  gave up writing altogether. But circumstances stabilized and hope returned, and  by the time of her death, just four years after “Pride and Prejudice” came out  (four years during which she finished “Mansfield Park,” and wrote “Emma” and “Persuasion” from scratch), her brother was willing to venture the claim that  her novels were fit to be placed “on the same shelf as the works of a D’Arblay and an Edgeworth.”

How she got from there to here is a long story. The public soon forgot her,  but her memory was kept alive, like Bach’s, among the cognoscenti. George Eliot  reread all six of her novels aloud with her lover George Henry Lewes before  setting sail on “Middlemarch.” Mark Twain and Charlotte Brontë hated her;  Rudyard Kipling adored her; Henry James learned more from her than he was ever  willing to admit. Virginia Woolf installed her at the head of the canon of  English women novelists (“the most perfect artist among women, the writer whose  books are immortal”). F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling certified her academic  prestige. Then came the movies, and feminist criticism, and more movies, and  Colin Firth, and the fan fiction, and now the ever-growing, ever-changing  multi-platform media phenomenon and global icon.

One can re-read Pride and Prejudice again and again even knowing the story by heart.  You want to tell Elizabeth to beware of Wickham and Jane not to worry Mr. Bingley will come though in the end.  And Mrs. Bennet will always be insufferable. Back when I was teaching workshops on sexual harassment, I would name my scenario characters after those in Pride and Prejudice and once or twice one of the women would catch on.

Here are Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.  Elinor Lipman watched all the film versions for us and the Huffington Post. “I announce that the head-and-shoulders winner of Best Mr. Darcy is Colin Firth (1995 Masterpiece Theatre, 300 minutes.)”  I agree.  But back to Mr. Deresiewicz

So why do we love the novel so much? Because while Austen sacrifices  Elizabeth’s feelings, she lavishly indulges ours. Austen’s heroes usually aren’t  the wealthiest men around, or the handsomest. In many of her novels, there is  something troubling about the way that things work out. But not in “Pride and  Prejudice.” Here she gives us everything we want: the wittiest lines, the  silliest fools, the most lovable heroine, the handsomest estate. And a hero who  is not only tall and good-looking, but the richest and most wellborn man in  sight.

He’s also kind of an asshole, which makes it even better. Do women love  assholes, the way that everybody says? Well, if the novel’s epic popularity is  any proof, they seem to love to win them over, anyway. “Tolerable, but not  handsome enough to tempt me”—Darcy’s famous insult, the first time he  and Lizzy meet. That’s the real story, underneath the one about Wickham and  Bingley and Jane, the misperceptions and coincidences. Darcy wounds Elizabeth’s  sexual pride, and her victory comes—and with it, ours—when he’s made to recant  and repent. Wish fulfillment doesn’t get much wishier than that. Austen tells us  that our feelings aren’t necessarily right, but boy does she ever make the  lesson feel good.

May Pride and Prejudice be read for another two hundred years.  (And if you haven’t read the book, but just seen one of the movies, please read it – you don’t know what you are missing.)  Time to start my annual reading!

Title page from the first edition of the first...

Title page from the first edition of the first volume of Pride and Prejudice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)