Austen's Pride and Prejudice follows the education of both its hero and
heroine through to a happy ending, it traces the progression of development in
Elizabeth Bennet with incremental care. Perhaps
part of the reason for this partiality resides in Austen's better insight into
the female mind or her choice of an ideal and distant Grandisonian male figure
for her hero. Darcy, albeit a
humanized and fallible version of Richardson's paragon of masculinity,
remains rather inaccessible to the reader who is tempted to rely on Elizabeth's
own reading of him for information. If
this happens, the experience of reading Pride and Prejudice can become
one of verisimilitude, a movement toward recognition of Darcy as a good man and
abandonment of prejudice against him on the part of the reader that mirrors
Elizabeth's own awakening. However,
Austen does offer subtle signals of Darcy's development throughout her novel; by
comparing him so closely to his childhood companion, Wickham, Austen creates
opposing models of manhood that her readers would equate with other well-known
narratives of fraternal and familial conflict, including the Biblical account of
Esau and Jacob and the contemporary blockbuster, Lord Chesterfield's Letters.
The novel's early bias toward Elizabeth's point-of-view derives in part
from its emphasis on her tête-à-tête conversations with her
confidantes, Jane, Charlotte, and Mrs. Gardiner.
Isobel Armstrong notes that after nearly every large-scale public scene,
Austen inserts a private dialogue between her heroine and a close advisor that
traces their responses to the conversational exchanges, pointed affronts, and
conciliatory gestures that have recently taken place (xvii).
For Austen's main male character, however, interiority must be probed in
a different way, since the author carefully preserves her premise that Darcy is
a reserved man who is reluctant to enter into conversation about himself.
Instead of resounding his thoughts against those of a close friend, such
as Mr. Bingley or Colonel Fitzwilliam, Austen uses a different mode of
comparison to develop his character. In
pairing Darcy with the foil of Wickham, she draws upon both biblical and
contemporary standards of appropriate behavior to delineate the differences
between the two men. Thus, while
her primary women characters develop through personal discussion, her main male
characters develop by allusion to well-known outside standards.
Nonetheless, Jane Austen's male characters in Pride and Prejudice
are just as round, if not as foregrounded, as her female characters. Christopher Gillie observes that while some personages of
both sexes appear as caricatures, such as Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine, and Mr.
Collins, the others remain within the norms of the formal realism of the novel
as a genre at the time (104-05). Because
of Austen's realism, the two men whom Elizabeth most wants to “sketch”
especially resist her attempts to portray them two-dimensionally as villain and
hero. Although the novel details
how Elizabeth comes to see that those labels must be switched in regards to
Darcy and Wickham, it also tells how she comes to temper her definitions into
less absolutist terms. The reader
shares Elizabeth's problems in trying to understand the characters of Darcy and
Wickham, especially when attempting to interpret the men through other
characters' descriptions of them.
The multifarious accounts of Darcy and Wickham's early history, including
those by Miss Bingley, Mr. Bingley, Mrs. Reynolds, and the parties concerned
themselves, lead the reader to questions of how to interpret the past
objectively. Yet while the voices
recounting the story of the men's shared experience are all liable to subjective
distortion, Austen carefully ensures that certain details overlap in each
telling. The core of each person's
subjective narrative recounts a similar history of the close friendship between
old Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham, a friendship which led the latter to abandon the
military life and take the post of steward at Pemberley.
Also common to the various interpretations is Wickham's position as
god-son and favorite of the old Mr. Darcy. Contradictions in these accounts of the past only arise when
issues of legitimacy, inheritance, and loyalty come to the fore, after Mr.
One useful paradigm against which readers can judge the confusion of
Darcy and Wickham's history is the biblical story of birthright and promises,
the narrative of Esau and Jacob (Gen. 25.19-33.14). Just as Jacob, the younger son, has no real right to his father
Isaac's main blessing, Wickham, the god-son, clearly has no legitimate claim to
Pemberley and its purified shades according to the clear and exclusionary
language of entailment. By working
his way into the favor of old Mr. Darcy, however, Wickham has supplanted young
Darcy as the object of his father's most fervent patronage.
Wickham secures his godfather's approbation by hiding his “vicious
propensities—the want of principle which he was careful to guard from the
knowledge of his best friend” (P&P 200). In
disguising his true nature, the deceitful god-son's methods mirror those of
Jacob who steals his elder sibling's birthright by cunning and deception.
While Jacob fools Isaac by taking advantage of the old man's failing
eyesight, Wickham succeeds in duping old Darcy's moral vision by masquerading as
a man fit for the life of the church.
Ironically, although Wickham is a “god-son,” he never repents from
his conduct towards any of the Darcys, and in this point he diverges from Jacob
who later makes great reparations to his family.
While it holds, the Esau-Jacob connection between Darcy and Wickham is
important to the extent that it portrays the real threat of what Wickham
represents. If he had succeeded in
eloping with Anne Darcy, then the biblical prophecy of two divided nations, with
the elder brother serving the younger, might have been reenacted, with Wickham
able to blackmail Darcy. In Darcy's
case, however, the voice of forewarning works on his own side.
Notified of the approaching threat at Ramsgate, he saves his personal
honor and his family pride.
Another reason that the Esau-Jacob parallel works well to describe Darcy
and Wickham arises from their diametrically opposed natures. Wickham appears all exterior smoothness and ease, charming
everyone he talks to, while Darcy exudes a chilling hauteur that turns people
away. This contrast between a
smooth exterior manner and a rough one echoes the polarized physical
descriptions of Jacob and Esau, one smooth-skinned and the other hairy.
On the interior, as well, Wickham and Darcy could hardly be more
different. Wickham has no
principles; he spends his life gaming, simply skipping town when his debts get
too pressing. Like Jacob, he is
described as a man who excels in interior environments, but in his case these
are drawing and ballrooms instead of tents, and also like Jacob, he schemes with
a corrupt mother figure, Georgiana's schoolmistress Mrs. Younge.
Darcy, by contrast, behaves like Esau in adopting a forthright manner and
supporting his father. Like Esau,
the simple hunter, Darcy disdains the deceptive art of rhetoric.
He is a man of action who can be “liberal and generous,” a bearer of
“filial pride,” and “a very kind and careful guardian of his sister”
(81-82). Darcy's reliance on and
upholding of tradition clearly establishes him as a dutiful son, carrying out
the role that was meant for him.
Before Austen's novel confirms Darcy as its hero, one other biblical
connection complicates the intertextuality.
Jacob's progress away from his father's house and Wickham's journey away
from Pemberley carry so many similarities that it begins to look as if Wickham
truly is the chosen one, the hero of the novel.
Jacob charts his travels by the word of God, and because of his
smoothness and his apparent kindness, Wickham also seems touched with divine
favor, immediately pleasing everyone in Meryton and securing good fortune for
himself in the town. Wickham appears heroic in his well-received addresses to the
protagonist, Elizabeth, as well. Just
as Jacob leaves the land of his father, moves into the land of Laban, and courts
one of his daughters, Wickham moves into Hertfordshire, the home of Mr. Bennet,
and presses his suit to his second eldest.
Because of his wisdom in singling out the most intelligent and witty of
the Bennet women, Wickham seems destined to prosper. Yet while in the Bible, Laban's family tricks Jacob into
marrying a less desirable daughter before he is allowed to marry the true object
of his affection, Wickham sabotages his own chances in Pride and Prejudice.
Abandoning his expectations with Elizabeth, Wickham leads Lydia to the
corrupt city with intentions of despoiling and discarding her there.
At this juncture of the plot, the strong pull of biblical intertextuality
desists and Wickham's villainy seems all the worse for having been disguised for
While the relationship of Wickham and Darcy receives biblical
reinforcement that complicates rather than simplifies their characters, it also
gathers meaning from an event closer to the novel's chronological frame of
reference. Readers of Jane Austen,
besides being well-acquainted with Old Testament lore, would also most
undoubtedly have heard of the controversial posthumous publication of Lord
Chesterfield's Letters. The
uproar generated by the chillingly candid tone of Chesterfield's epistolary
advice on etiquette marked a turning-point in eighteenth-century manners.
Conduct books afterwards turned away from viewing manners as a facade and
towards a new conception of the well-bred man as a verifiable man of taste.
Like the contrast between Esau and Jacob, the difference between the pre-
and post-Chesterfieldian man concerns a question of sincerity.
This distinction also pervades Austen's portrayal of her leading men,
Darcy and Wickham.
Initial publication of the Earl of Chesterfield's correspondence in 1774,
one year after his death, created a demand which led to eleven subsequent
editions by the year 1800. Immediate
response to the Letters, whose content consisted primarily of
Chesterfield's pragmatic advice to his illegitimate son, seized upon the
usefulness of the nobleman's social prescriptions, but as time wore on, the
reading public's sentiment turned sour. Even
though Chesterfield predicated his conception of the complete gentleman upon a
base of the classical education, he is remembered rather negatively for his
Machiavellian philosophy toward winning influence and power.
The portrayal of Wickham in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
reflects all that the late eighteenth century found wrong with this superficial
approach to manners.
In one of his repeated dictums, for instance, Chesterfield very
particularly warns his son to monitor the external appearance he presents to the
world, a practice that Wickham also tries to master.
In the nobleman's terms, “The height of abilities is, to have volto
sciolto and pensieri stretti; that is, a frank, open and ingenuous
exterior, with a prudent and reserved interior; to be upon your own guard, and
yet, by a seeming natural openness, to put people off theirs” (Stanhope 105).
The doubleness stressed between exterior and interior in Chesterfield's
advice effectively describes Wickham's mode of social conquest.
His pleasing manner deceives everyone, even the keen-eyed Elizabeth, into
thinking him a good man. Wickham's
skill in Chesterfieldian gentility even surpasses that of the true aristocrat,
Colonel Fitzwilliam, who displays rather “less captivating softness” in his
public persona even though he may really possess “the best informed mind”
(180). “Captivating” truly is
an appropriate word to describe Wickham's method since he circumvents the usual
rational process of measuring a person's character by creating a strong first
herself considers that his “countenance may vouch for [his] being amiable”
(80-81) and tells Jane that "there was truth in his looks" (86).
That she judges by appearances is clear; yet the extent to which she gets
taken in solely by Wickham's charm or, alternately, by his appeal to her hurt
vanity, cannot be so easily measured.
Wickham's amiability by itself would not be blameable if he only used it
to attempt to move on from past misdeeds, but he also manipulates and defames
people through the use of his false front.
This quality of duplicity drew complaint against Lord Chesterfield's
similar commentary on conduct as well. According
to Chesterfield, not only should a gentleman carefully regulate his countenance,
he should also carefully study others' in case their weaknesses might be
employed to personal benefit. The
observant up-and-comer should not only cultivate currently valuable contacts,
but carefully note the strengths and weaknesses of all acquaintances so as to
capitalize on the peculiarities of each individual nature.
As Chesterfield's Letters admonish:
to have that constant attention about you, which flatters every man's little
vanity . . . most people (I might say all people) have their weaknesses; they
have their aversions and their likings . . . your care to procure for him what
he likes, and to remove from him what he hates, shows him, that he is at least
an object of your attention. (Stanhope
the case of Wickham, this quickness of perception alerts him to Meryton's
aversion to Darcy. Elizabeth's receptiveness to Wickham's hardly appropriate
gossip, allows him to probe her for information and further encourage her
personal prejudice while disseminating a lie that makes him look virtuous.
Wickham plays his cards wisely, manipulating not only Elizabeth's
malleability but also counting on Darcy's reluctance to publicize the incident
that occurred at Ramsgate. Yet when
by a wild chance Wickham's ruse is penetrated, he still acts according to
Chesterfield's pragmatic rules and salvages what he can of the situation.
Although Wickham's looks cannot totally conceal his misgivings, and
Elizabeth does perceive his “apprehensive and anxious attention”
upon their first meeting after her trip to Kent (234), Wickham repeatedly
tries to adopt “a gayer tone” (234) and “the appearance, on his side, of
usual cheerfulness” (235). The same sort of attention to artificial manners
that Chesterfield so carefully advocated to his son also sees Wickham through
Wickham's ability to read people and adapt himself in a chameleon-like
manner marks him as a superficial figure who never stops to consider the
appropriateness of an entirely self-serving philosophy of life.
Social advancement is also primary in Chesterfield's dictums, yet the
nobleman's advice worked against him in his own case, ironically destroying all
potential in the son he so earnestly wanted to succeed.
Wickham, graced with a natural assurance that Chesterfield's son never
had, takes dissimulation as far as it will go and therefore represents the
supreme danger to the class hierarchy posed by skillful use of the nobleman's
dictates. Because Wickham was
brought up in close proximity to the upper classes and was educated as a member
of that group, he is especially qualified to use Chesterfield's exhortations to
advantage. His targeting of naive
young women as victims, moreover, also echoes the misogynist tendencies of the Letters
which regard women as discardable attachments to be shed as one moves up to a
higher level of society and woman.
To counterbalance the clear threat to class boundaries and propriety
posed by Wickham, Austen offers Fitzwilliam Darcy as a foil. Just as the late eighteenth century turned in vehement denial
against all that Chesterfield described as gentlemanly, Darcy offers a new take
on what it means to be a good and gentle man.
In Austen's time, an eager desire to please had begun to signal danger
much more than it counted as an asset (Mason 78-79). As an alternative to the gallant address of courtly-love
traditions, a solid, undemonstrative demeanor was coming into favor.
This shift in the aesthetics of the masculine ideal goes all the way back
to an early distinction between the Greek emphasis on proportion and the Roman
stress on duty in a man. The Greek
ideal calls for a balance of exterior strength and physical beauty with interior
wisdom, and in the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, Wickham's
pleasing countenance most certainly seems to be complemented by a becoming sense
of wise generosity toward Darcy, the supposedly villainous withholder of his
living. Once Wickham's genuine
villainy is revealed, however, Elizabeth chooses a different model of masculine
behavior to uphold. Instead of
honoring a blend of physical and spiritual perfection, the Roman mark of
achievement chiefly underscores gravitas, an innate grounding in moral duty
(Mason 22). With Wickham exposed as
an imposter, Darcy emerges as this alternate hero whose moral anchoring is of
the staunchest material. As an
honest landlord and brother, Darcy steps forward as the type of man who could
lead England forward toward a rejuvenated aristocracy, especially once he is
joined by his natural complement, the virtuous and wise Elizabeth.
Darcy's sense of duty, pride, and honesty qualifies him as an early
example of the Victorian standard of “manliness . . . [connoting] a new
openness and directness, a new sincerity, in social relations” (Gilmour 18).
The popular reaction against Chesterfield's contrivances and insincere
facades called for role models such as Darcy who were forthright and principled.
In the cult of manliness, a new naturalness was exalted, favoring
sincerity over Chesterfield's constant reading of the social pulse and
adaptation to its beat. Characters
like Darcy's, unremarkable for their manners, came to be valued for being free
of dissimulating meanness. Darcy
fits the “manly” description because even when he tries to please, he does
not do so in a manner which is insincere and thus does not violate these new
standards. When he and Bingley
return to Hertfordshire after the marriage between Lydia and Wickham, Darcy
still does not shine in conversation, even though he would very much like to
show Elizabeth that he is capable of acting in a social and gentlemanlike
manner. After the revelation about
Wickham's base nature and dissimulation, however, Elizabeth seems able to slowly
accept this conversational awkwardness as a character trait and not a
shortcoming. Even though she
worries about his silence during his first visit back at Longbourn, small
details like Darcy's compliment to Mrs. Bennet on the cooking of the partridges
show that at least compared to his usual taciturn reserve, he is trying to be
Besides thus looking ahead to Victorian conceptions of manliness, Darcy's
refusal to act against his nature also might be taken as a sign that he is a man
of taste. In an attempt to distance
social conventions from those of earlier generations and to add new rungs to
the ladder of class rankings, the category “man of taste” rated the
characteristics of the connoisseur above those of the gentleman. Described in Shaftesbury's Characteristicks as the
virtuoso, the man of taste is “a man of integrity in whom taste and morality
are inseparable. He is also beyond
mere personal interest” (Saisselin 121).
In Darcy's case, while his upkeep and careful additions to Pemberley,
that most perfect of estates, qualifies him on the one hand to be regarded as an
upholder of taste, his steady standard of judgment sets him apart as well.
Most particularly, Darcy's decisive action to save the Bennets from the
stain of Lydia's rash elopement marks him as a man of taste because it
illustrates that he has no need to think constantly of self.
Altogether, Darcy's disinterestedness, his sincerity, and his reserve herald a new arbiter of masculine conduct. While Wickham proves unworthy in his reliance on false manners and manipulation, Darcy shows himself capable of new courtesy once he overcomes Elizabeth's justified challenge to his pride. Because of Darcy's characteristic taciturnity, Austen could not develop him primarily through use of dialogue. To supplement her portrayal, the conflicting models of manhood help to define his nature and give the reader a sense of the shifting standards for a gentlemanly behavior at the time. The vituperative impulse which led Samuel Johnson to describe Lord Chesterfield's Letters as cultivating “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master,” led to a general landslide away from superficially pleasing deportment and toward a greater estimation of a sincere heart in evaluating manhood (Gilmour 17). Although Darcy will never be a smooth-mannered man, Elizabeth has cured him of his selfish inclination and in the process has taught herself which “one has got all the goodness” (225).
Gerard A. Barker's Grandison's Heirs: The Paragon's Progress in the Late
Eighteenth-Century Novel (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1985) details Darcy's
modeling on Sir Charles Grandison. For
more on Richardson’s influence on Austen, see Kenneth L. Moler’s “Literary
Allusion in Pride and Prejudice,” and Jocelyn Harris’s “The
Influence of Richardson on Pride and Prejudice,” both in Approaches
to Teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (New York: MLA, 1993), 89-93 and
First Impressions was the first title given to Pride and Prejudice
in its original epistolary form.
Isobel. Introduction. Pride and Prejudice.
By Jane Austen. Oxford: OUP,
Jane. Pride and Prejudice.
Ed. R.W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1965.
Christopher. A Preface to Jane Austen.
London: Longman, 1976.
Robin. The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel.
London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.
Philip. The English Gentleman: The Rise and Fall of an Ideal.
New York: Morrow, 1982.
Remy G. “The Man of Taste as
Social Model, or, ‘Sense and Sensibility.’”
The Crisis of Courtesy: Studies in the Conduct-Book in Britain,
1600-1900. Ed. Jacques Carré. New York: E.J. Brill, 1994.
Philip Dormer. Lord
Chesterfield's Letters. Oxford: