Wickham is the closest approximation to a villain in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. He is a manipulative, manoeuvering and adroit schemer who puts on the façade of a good man thereby feeding off the reputation of the hero, i.e, Fitzwilliam Darcy. In her novel, Austen provides several instances and encounters with Wickham, creating an evolving character curve seen through the eyes of the heroine Elizabeth Bennet. Wickham is an artificial posturer and holier-than-thou villain.
Immediately after Jane’s recuperation and return from Netherfield Park with Elizabeth, the Bennet sisters (all except Mary) conceded to Lydia’s whim of walking to Meryton, fuelled by a desire to run into the officers of the regiment. On the pretext of wanting something in the shop on the opposite pavement, Lydia and Kitty deliberately cross paths with Mr. Denny and his fellow officer, introduced to them as Mr. Wickham. Wickham, a dashing lieutenant had caught the attention of every lady with his pleasing address and “a readiness of conversation perfectly correct and unassuming.”
Almost immediately, the party is greeted by the brief company of Darcy and Bingley who were on their way to Longbourn to enquire after Jane. In the midst of civilities, Elizabeth’s sight is arrested by a peculiar exchange of body language between Darcy and Wickham– “Both changed colour, one looked white, the other red.”
Wickham touches his hat in a salutation to Darcy, a gesture the latter does not deign to return. Elizabeth is left wondering.
Sometime later at the Philips’s gathering, a freely engaging Wickham greatly impresses Elizabeth with his conversational charm. When Lydia joins the congregation preoccupied with playing Whist, Wickham makes a silent entry with Darcy absent. Elizabeth, curious to know the nature of his acquaintance with Darcy, indulges his empty flirtatiousness for purposes of her ego. Wickham, a dissembler and liar, needs no entreating for he himself broaches the subject of how long Darcy had been staying at Hertfordshire. He reveals he had been connected to Darcy’s family since infancy. Subsequently he gains Elizabeth’s trust and resorts to mud-slinging at Darcy.
Wickham capitalizes on Elizabeth’s error of judgement. Her opinion of Darcy is clouded by prejudice. Wickham first gauges the perils of lying by encouraging Elizabeth to articulate her impression of Darcy before her family and then switches on his safety valves by making Elizabeth believe he is reluctant to share his account. Actually, he is quite eager to do so, “I have no right to give my opinion.”
The moment Wickham ascertains Darcy is perceived as “proud” by everyone in the neighborhood, he adds fuel to the fire. He surmises that “the world is blinded by his fortune and consequence, or frightened by his high and imposing manners.” At the next opportunity of speaking, Wickham stealthily asks Elizabeth about how much longer she expects Darcy to stay. Elizabeth who knows nothing of the tenure of Darcy’s stay anxiously enquires if Darcy’s presence would jeopardize his stay. Wickham, immediately defensive, replies with the half-truth, “…it is not for me to be driven away by Mr. Darcy. If he wishes to avoid seeing me, he must go.”
Yet, he is the one who is missing from the Netherfield ball. He subtly proceeds into his sob-story and unfortunate past to elicit Elizabeth’s sympathy. Recounting Darcy’s father’s benevolence, he paints his son as scandalous and jealous. Darcy had apparently disappointed his chances at a good life and was responsible for his poverty. Wickham’s lies play a huge role in Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy’s untimely proposal.
In his letter to Elizabeth, Darcy unmasks Wickham and divulges all the details of their acquaintance. Wickham, the son of a respectable steward entrusted with management of Pemberley estates, was greatly endeared by Darcy’s father. In his will, Mr. Darcy had “recommended” to his son that Wickham be endowed a sum of one thousand pounds. He had also mentioned that if Wickham chose to “take orders” by serving as a clergyman, he be given possession of a valuable living and every advancement possible. Wickham, after his father’s death, had resolved and communicated that he intended to undertake legal study. To that effect he sought mercenary favours and Darcy dissolved all professional connections after bequeathing him with three thousand pounds.
For Wickham who had lived in town, studying law was “mere pretence”. He lived a life of “idleness and dissipation” and Darcy heard very little of him as the former was never entreated to Pemberley. We get to know how Wickham had then laid claim on the property he had earlier renounced. He had gambled extravagantly and bad-mouthed Darcy in all quarters.
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