although Jane 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,1 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. Darcy’s death.
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 Georgiana 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 so long.
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 impression.2 Elizabeth 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:
Remember 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 47)
In 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 the crisis.
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 agreeable.
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).
1. 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 94-99, respectively.
2. First Impressions was the first title given to Pride and Prejudice in its original epistolary form.
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Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1965.
Gillie, Christopher. A Preface to Jane Austen. London: Longman, 1976.
Gilmour, Robin. The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.
Mason, Philip. The English Gentleman: The Rise and Fall of an Ideal. New York: Morrow, 1982.
Saisselin, 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.
Stanhope, Philip Dormer. Lord Chesterfield's Letters. Oxford: OUP, 1992