The punch line of my last post about the group discussion in Chapter 34 of Emma about the Post Office was my observation about Emma’s attempts to repress and deny her continuing feelings for Frank: “But of course, Emma is not going to reveal to the group…her internal struggle to deny her real sadness about Frank’s abrupt departure (which attempts boil down, basically, to a game of “I love him. I love him not. I love him. I love him NOT.”) . She is never ever going to reveal to the group that listening to their conversation has made her feel a sharp pang of missing Frank. And THAT’s why Emma wonders if she’s unequal to mentioning Frank’s name—she fears her voice may crack if she says his name, “Frank”, and her feelings will be totally exposed to everyone. She wants to pretend to them all that she has no feelings whatsoever for Frank, even though the opposite is true.” END QUOTE
As my Subject Line suggests, my topic today is an extraordinarily parallel situation that unfolds in Pride & Prejudice—i.e., in which the heroine, Elizabeth (like Emma) falls head over heels in romantic thrall to a disreputable sexy suitor, Wickham (like Frank), as to whom she also goes through a complicated process of denial and rewriting of personal history, before she is ready to accept the proposal of the official hero, Darcy (like Knightley).
Today, in Part One, I want to take you on a tour to sightsee the actual textual “peaks” in the first half of P&P which demonstrate that, at least for a while, Wickham was The One in Lizzy’s eyes (and in other parts of her anatomy). In Part Two, I’ll complete the tour through the remainder of P&P, and tie all loose ends together, and give my answer to the little quiz I pose at the end of this Part One.
To begin, in Chapter 15, Elizabeth clearly has a case of lust at first sight when the handsome stranger Wickham shows up in Meryton astride his stallion, and that is only inflamed by their first official meetup chez the Phillipses:
“But the attention of every lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before, of most gentlemanlike appearance, walking with another officer on the other side of the way… All were struck with the stranger's air, all wondered who he could be…the young man wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming. His appearance was greatly in his favour; HE HAD ALL THE BEST PART OF BEAUTY, A FINE COUNTENANCE, A GOOD FIGURE, AND VERY PLEASING ADDRESS…Mr. Wickham, after a few moments, touched his hat—a salutation which Mr. Darcy just deigned to return. What could be the meaning of it? It was impossible to imagine; it was IMPOSSIBLE NOT TO LONG TO KNOW.
…Elizabeth allowed that he had given a very rational account of it, and they continued talking together, with mutual satisfaction till supper put an end to cards, and gave the rest of the ladies their share of Mr. Wickham's attentions. There could be no conversation in the noise of Mrs. Phillips's supper party, but his manners recommended him to everybody. Whatever he said, was said well; and whatever he did, done gracefully. Elizabeth went away WITH HER HEAD FULL OF HIM. SHE COULD THINK OF NOTHING BUT OF MR. WICKHAM, and of what he had told her, ALL THE WAY HOME…”
Lizzy’s fire only burns hotter in Chapter 16, as her superlatives about his sexiness pile up:
“…The gentlemen did approach, and when Mr. Wickham walked into the room, Elizabeth felt that SHE HAD NEITHER BEEN SEEING HIM BEFORE, NOR THINKING OF HIM SINCE, WITH THE SMALLEST DEGREE OF UNREASONABLE ADMIRATION. …Mr. Wickham was as FAR BEYONG THEM ALL IN PERSON, COUNTENANCE, AIR, AND WALK, as they were superior to the broad-faced, stuffy uncle Phillips, breathing port wine, who followed them into the room.
Mr. Wickham was the happy man towards whom almost every female eye was turned, and Elizabeth was the happy woman by whom he finally seated himself; and the agreeable manner in which he immediately fell into conversation, though it was only on its being a wet night, made her feel that THE COMMONEST, DULLEST, MOST THREADBARE TOPIC MIGHT BE RENDERED INTERESTING BY THE SKILL OF THE SPEAKER.
…. Elizabeth honoured him for such feelings, and THOUGHT HIM HANDSOMER THAN EVER as he expressed them.
In Chapter 17, the attraction escalates to a dose of sexual innuendo on the theme of “dancing” and “balls” and delayed satisfaction:
“Elizabeth related to Jane the next day what had passed between Mr. Wickham and herself. Jane listened with astonishment and concern; she knew not how to believe that Mr. Darcy could be so unworthy of Mr. Bingley's regard; and yet, it was not in her nature to question the veracity of A YOUNG MAN OF SUCH AMIABLE APPEARANCE AS WICKHAM.
… though [Kitty and Lydia] EACH, LIKE ELIZABETH, meant to DANCE HALF THE EVENING WITH MR. WICKHAM, he was by no means THE ONLY PARTNER WHO COULD SATISFY them, and A BALL WAS, at any rate, A BALL.
…Elizabeth felt herself completely taken in. She had fully proposed being engaged by Mr. Wickham for those very dances; and to have Mr. Collins instead! her liveliness had never been worse timed. There was no help for it, however. MR. WICKHAM’S HAPPINESS AND HER OWN were perforce DELAYED A LITTLE LONGER..
…Even Elizabeth might have found some trial of her patience in weather which totally suspended THE IMPROVEMENT OF HER ACQUAINTANCE WITH MR. WICKHAM….
In Chapter 18, Elizabeth’s passion for Wickham suffers a major temporary setback, and so she redirects that romantic intensity into an escalation of her anger at Darcy for shooting down her romantic fantasies. In particular, note the uptick in sexual innuendo of Lizzy’s echoing both her earlier sense of having her head full of Wickham, and of her earlier anticipation of satisfaction at a ball, when Lizzy says to Darcy, “"No—I cannot talk of books in a ball-room; my HEAD is always FULL of something else." Wickham is indeed “SOMETHING ELSE” in Lizzy’s head at that instant, and that’s why Lizzy asks Darcy about his unforgiving resentment!:
“Till Elizabeth entered the drawing-room at Netherfield, and LOOKED IN VAIN FOR MR. WICKHAM among the cluster of red coats there assembled, a doubt of his being present had never occurred to her. THE CERTAINTY OF MEETING HIM had not been checked by any of those recollections that might not unreasonably have alarmed her. SHE HAD DRESSED WITH MORE THAN USUAL CARE, and prepared in THE HIGHEST SPIRITS FOR THE CONQUEST OF ALL THAT REMAINED UNSUBDUED OF HIS HEART, trusting that it was not more than might be won in the course of the evening. But in an instant arose the dreadful suspicion of his being purposely omitted for Mr. Darcy's pleasure in the Bingleys' invitation to the officers…This part of his intelligence, though unheard by Lydia, was caught by Elizabeth, and, as it assured her that Darcy was not less answerable for Wickham's absence than if her first surmise had been just, every feeling of displeasure against the former was SO SHARPENED BY IMMEDIATE DISAPPOINTMENT, that she could hardly reply with tolerable civility to the polite inquiries which he directly afterwards approached to make. Attendance, forbearance, patience with Darcy, was injury to Wickham.
… She danced next with an officer, and had the refreshment of talking of Wickham, and of hearing that he was universally liked. …When the dancing recommenced, however, and Darcy approached to claim her hand, Charlotte could not help cautioning her in a whisper, not to be a simpleton, and allow HER FANCY FOR WICKHAM to make her appear unpleasant in the eyes of a man ten times his consequence.
…"What think you of books?" said he, smiling.
"Books—oh! no. I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same feelings."
"I am sorry you think so; but if that be the case, there can at least be no want of subject. We may compare our different opinions."
"No—I cannot talk of books in a ball-room; my HEAD is always FULL of something else."
"The present always occupies you in such scenes—does it?" said he, with a look of doubt.
"Yes, always," she replied, without knowing what she said, for her thoughts had wandered far from the subject, as soon afterwards appeared by her suddenly exclaiming, "I remember hearing you once say, Mr. Darcy, that you hardly ever forgave, that your resentment once created was unappeasable. You are very cautious, I suppose, as to its being created."
When Lizzy next speaks to Wickham in Chapter 21, he says all the right things to her to explain his no-show at the Netherfield Ball, and it works so well that he gets to meet the parents (can wedding bells be far behind?) and that “even from Wickham” speaks volumes:
“She highly approved his forbearance, and they had leisure for a full discussion of it, and for all the commendation which they civilly bestowed on each other, as Wickham and another officer walked back with them to Longbourn, and during the walk HE PARTICULARLY ATTENDED TO HER. His accompanying them was a double advantage; SHE FELT ALL THE COMPLIMENT it offered to herself, and it was most acceptable as an occasion of INTRODUCING HIM TO HER FATHER AND MOTHER.
...Elizabeth FELT AN ANXIETY on the subject which DREW OFF HER ATTENTION EVEN FROM WICKHAM; and no sooner had he and his companion taken leave, than a glance from Jane invited her to follow her up stairs.”
And then, in Chapter 26, Aunt Gardiner, who has been observing Lizzy’s making gaga eyes at Wickham, tosses some icy cold water on Lizzy’s hots for Wickham--- but Lizzy, like an immature teenager, insincerely yesses her aunt to death. And, along the way, we hear about the Lydiaesque lengths Lizzy has been going to, to sneak more facetime alone with Wickham:
"Well, then, you need not be under any alarm. I will take care of myself, and of Mr. Wickham too. He shall not be in love with me, if I can prevent it."
"Elizabeth, you are not serious now."
"I beg your pardon, I will try again. At present I am not in love with Mr. Wickham; no, I certainly am not. But he is, BEYOND ALL COMPARISON, THE MOST AGREEABLE MAN I EVER SAW—and if he becomes really attached to me—I believe it will be better that he should not. I see the imprudence of it. Oh! that abominable Mr. Darcy! My father's opinion of me does me the greatest honour, and I should be miserable to forfeit it. My father, however, is partial to Mr. Wickham. In short, my dear aunt, I should be very sorry to be the means of making any of you unhappy; but since we see every day that where there is affection, young people are seldom withheld by immediate want of fortune from entering into engagements with each other, how can I promise to be wiser than so many of my fellow-creatures IF I AM TEMPTED, or how am I even to know that it would be wisdom to resist? All that I can promise you, therefore, is not to be in a hurry. I will not be in a hurry to believe myself his first object. When I am in company with him, I will not be wishing. In short, I will do my best."
"Perhaps it will be as well if you discourage his coming here so very often. At least, YOU SHOULD NOT remind YOUR MOTHER OF INVITING HIM."
"As I did the other day," said Elizabeth WITH A CONSCIOUS SMILE: "very true, it will be wise in me to refrain from that. But do not imagine that he is always here so often. It is on your account that he has been so frequently invited this week. You know my mother's ideas as to the necessity of constant company for her friends. But really, and upon my honour, I will try to do what I think to be the wisest; and now I hope you are satisfied."
Her aunt assured her that she was, and Elizabeth having thanked her for the kindness of her hints, they parted; a wonderful instance of advice being given on such a point, without being resented. “
But, as all good Janeites know but perhaps shockingly to the first time reader, it turns out that this marks the abrupt end of the brief but super-intense sexual thralldom of Elizabeth to Wickham. When you think about it (despite the narrator saying not a word to make you do so), it almost seems like Mrs. Gardiner was psychic, doesn’t it? Could her cold shower speech to Lizzy have been based on some inside information that Aunt Gardiner already knew about Wickham being about to jilt Lizzy, at the very moment when Lizzy, from all we had read in the previous ten chapters, was ready to “go all the way” with him?
And, in that same vein, isn’t it very curious, again, when you think about it on your own initiative, that, after 25 chapters filled with dramatically enacted scenes that could be (and have been) readily adapted to theatrical performance, JA chooses NOT to enact the very scenes (which would have been of the greatest interest to the reader) in which Wickham remains in Meryton but redirects all his romancing from Lizzy to the suddenly rich Miss King. It reminds me of the way JA ends most of her novels, where she abruptly turns off the camera at the very moment when passions are supposed to be running highest.
But then, P&P is a novel that was written not only to be read, but to be REREAD, and reread countless times—and isn’t that the case with countless Janeites, including most of you reading this post today? So, part of the genius of Jane Austen was to handle the matter of Elizabeth’s passion for Wickham so that it would be reread very differently than it was originally read without knowing what would happen.
I.e., on rereading, the reader has already been permanently reprogrammed to experience the security of knowing that Lizzy will actually wind up with Darcy after all. In that frame of mind, it is not surprising that the intense heat generated between Elizabeth and Wickham tends to be skimmed by, if not actively ignored, by Austen scholars and ordinary Janeites alike. Unless I am forgetting something, we really don’t get a strong sense from any of the film adaptations of Lizzy being REALLY into Wickham, nor do I recall this topic ever being discussed as a separate topic in any of the online Austen forums I’ve participated in the past 15 years.
In fact, my friend and fellow Janeite, Elaine Bander, is the only Austen scholar I can find who has addressed, more than in passing, the intense romantic vibe that flares between Lizzy and Wickham during the second quarter of P&P. Elaine, in her 2012 Persuasions article, “Neither Sex, Money, nor Power: Why Elizabeth Finally Says “ Yes !”, recognized that Elizabeth’s attraction to Wickham was just not a small pothole on the highway to true love with Darcy.
And that almost universal ignoring actually makes perfect sense, when we look at it within the chronology of Austenmania. Thanks in part to P&P itself, and in part to the Firth/Ehle/Davies 1995 P&P2, the central and by far the most significant “commandment” in the religion of Janeism, is the successful uniting of Elizabeth and Darcy in true love, with each of them having overcome all sorts of struggles to reach each other in the ultimate romantic embrace in the middle. For all except the most knowledgeable Janeites, P&P is the be-all and end-all of Jane Austen, and Darcy’s wet-blouse scene is Christmas and Easter all rolled up in one. That means Lizzy’s love for Wickham must be seen as something akin to Jesus tempted by Satan in the desert. Not something we want to be reminded of too much.
In that light, to remind ourselves that Lizzy has tipped her cap bigtime for Wickham for several chapters in the novel, feels almost sacrilegious —it strikes a dissonant chord that disturbs the final harmony of that Darcy-Lizzy embrace.
And that brings me to the end of Part One of Two posts on this topic of Elizabeth’s passion for Wickham. In Part Two, which I’ll post in the next day or two, I’ll show you how her passion dies surprisingly hard, and in complex, even mysterious ways.
I conclude today with the suggestion that there is much more than meets the eye in the way that Wickham ceases to court Lizzy—can you guess what it is? Is it possible that we’ve been given a giant hint in the last chapters of the novel, which sheds like on the rest of the story behind Wickham’s abrupt desertion of Lizzy?
Think about it, as you reread the following paragraph just before the end of Chapter 26, below. The answer is right there, if you only put on the proper pair of “skeptical spectacles” that enable you to see past the usual interpretation, and grasp the full meaning of the hint hiding in plain sight!:
“Mrs. Gardiner about this time reminded Elizabeth of her promise concerning that gentleman [Wickham], and required information; and Elizabeth had such to send as might rather give contentment to her aunt than to herself. His apparent partiality had subsided, his attentions were over, he was the admirer of some one else. Elizabeth was watchful enough to see it all, but she could see it and write of it without material pain. Her heart had been but slightly touched, and her vanity was satisfied with believing that she would have been his only choice, had fortune permitted it. The sudden acquisition of ten thousand pounds was the most remarkable charm of the young lady to whom he was now rendering himself agreeable; but Elizabeth, less clear-sighted perhaps in this case than in Charlotte's, did not quarrel with him for his wish of independence. Nothing, on the contrary, could be more natural; and while able to suppose that it cost him a few struggles to relinquish her, she was ready to allow it a wise and desirable measure for both, and could very sincerely wish him happy.”
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