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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

“Jane Austen and the Master Spy…..whom she longed to know?”

I've been so wrapped up in other Austenian threads this past week, inspired by the JASNA AGM last weekend in Louisville, that, till this morning, I haven’t gotten around to posting about the highlight of the AGM for me, content-wise--the  breakout session presented a week ago by JASNA Newsletter editor Sheryl Craig on ‘Jane Austen and the Master Spy’. With a suggestive title like that, you might’ve guessed that Sheryl was an Austen fanfic author, speaking about a novel in the same vein mined so successfully and skilfully by Stephanie Barron, imagining Jane Austen like a Regency Era Miss Marple, moving stealthily in a world of international intrigue. But Sheryl’s short blurb suggested something even more interesting—because her subject was a real life Mr. Wickham, as she pithily explained:

“William Wickham was the first Master Spy and head of the British Secret Service.  Pride and Prejudice’s George Wickham shares the Master Spy’s name, his good looks, charm, cunning, and duplicity.  George Wickham’s despicable behavior appears to be Jane Austen’s comment on the spy controversy raging in Georgian England.”

Now, had you ever heard of William Wickham before you read this post today? A quick check of my files showed that I came across his name in 2008, but took little notice, and promptly forgot all about it. After all, Wickham was not an uncommon name (for both people and places) in Regency Era England, so I failed to realize there might actually be something of interest in his biography for an Austen scholar.

But my interest level ratcheted up quickly when I read Sheryl’s intriguing blurb two weeks ago. What could it be, beyond his last name, about this real life Mr. Wickham, that made Sheryl suggest that Jane Austen was aware of his career as a secret agent, and interested enough to use him as a source for her most famous villain? I couldn’t wait till Sheryl’s talk to find out, so I researched William Wickham on my own, and today I’ll tell you what I found out, and mentioned during the Q&A that followed her session.

But first, a caveat. At the AGM, Sheryl went into great, and extremely interesting and colorful detail, describing the long and amazing career of the chameleonic William Wickham as a spy and discreet multimillionaire. It was a rare privilege for the 100+ people crammed into the conference room, to be both entertained and enlightened by Sheryl’s extremely well researched presentation. So I won’t jump the gun on what she spoke about, as I’m certain that her Persuasions article-to-come will tell that part of William Wickham’s story perfectly well, and she deserves to tell it herself.

What I will tell you today is my own answer to the question of why JA would’ve alluded to the real life William Wickham in creating the fictional George Wickham. I start from two data points in Wickham’s life that Sheryl did not address in her talk (although I’m sure that she, who clearly had researched his life very thoroughly, was aware of both of them), and I’ll present them to you via a little quiz, that I will promptly answer, below.

So, here’s the pop quiz---what connection do you see, if any, between the following two writings?:

ONE: According to the surprisingly long Wikipedia entry for William Wickham, “…In 1802 Wickham was appointed to the Privy Council and named Chief Secretary for Ireland, a post he held until 1804, when he resigned following the execution of Robert Emmet, as he felt the laws governing Ireland to be ‘unjust, oppressive and unchristian.’    Now read the following longer excerpt from the 1804 letter William Wickham wrote to his friends explaining his guilt-ridden epiphany and abrupt resignation:

No consideration on earth could induce me to remain after having maturely reflected on the contents of this letter, for in what honours, or other earthly advantages, could I find compensation for what I must suffer were I again compelled by an official duty to persecute to death men capable of thinking and acting like Emmet has done in the last moments for making an effort to liberate their country from grievances, the existence of many of which none can deny one, and which I myself acknowledge to be unjust, oppressive and unchristian. I will know that the manner in which I have suffered myself to be affected by this letter will be attributed to a sort of morbid sensibility, rather than to its real cause, but no one can be capable of forming a right judgement on my motives who has not, like myself, been condemned by his official duty to dip his hands in the blood of his fellow countrymen, in execution of a portion of the laws and institutions of his country of which, in his conscience, he cannot approve….Had I been an Irishman, I should most unquestionably have joined him.”

TWO: Now read in Jane Austen’s Letter #98, dated March 5-8/1814, written by her from London to CEA back in Chawton, the following extraordinary passage, which is all about…..William Wickham!:

“Edward [Austen Knight] has had a correspondence with Mr. Wickham on the Baigent business, & has been shewing me some letters enclosed by Mr. W. from a friend of his, a lawyer, whom he had consulted about it, & whose opinion is for the prosecution for assault, supposing the Boy is acquitted on the first [malicious stabbing], which he rather expects—Excellent Letters, & I am sure he must be an excellent Man. They are such THINKING, clear, CONSIDERATE Letters as Frank might have written. I LONG TO KNOW WHO HE IS, but the name is always torn off. He was consulted only as a friend….Mr. W is to be on the Grand Jury. This business must hasten an Intimacy between his family & my Brother’s….Now I have just read Mr. Wickham’s letter, by which it appears that the letters of his friend were sent to my Brother quite confidentially—therefore don’t tell. By his expression, this friend must be one of the judges…”

So, what do you make of the above two excerpts, when read side by side? Take a few minutes, read them both a few times, and see if any passage in one of JA’s novels come to your mind, in particular?





Without further ado, here’s the passage in an Austen novel that came immediately to my mind when I looked at the above two passages in tandem:

“...Had not my feelings decided against you—had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?"
As she pronounced these words, Mr. Darcy changed colour; but the emotion was short, and he listened without attempting to interrupt her while she continued:  "I have every reason in the world to think ill of you. No motive can excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there. You dare not, you cannot deny, that you have been the principal, if not the only means of dividing them from each other—of exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, and the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind."
She paused, and saw with no slight indignation that he was listening with an air which proved him wholly unmoved by any feeling of remorse. He even looked at her with a smile of affected incredulity.
"Can you deny that you have done it?" she repeated.
With assumed tranquillity he then replied: "I have no wish of denying that I did everything in my power to separate my friend from your sister, or that I rejoice in my success. Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself."
Elizabeth disdained the appearance of noticing this civil reflection, but its meaning did not escape, nor was it likely to conciliate her.
"But it is not merely this affair," she continued, "on which my dislike is founded. Long before it had taken place my opinion of you was decided. Your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr. Wickham. On this subject, what can you have to say? In what imaginary act of friendship can you here defend yourself? or under what misrepresentation can you here impose upon others?"
"You take an eager interest in that gentleman's concerns," said Darcy, in a less tranquil tone, and with a heightened colour.
"Who that knows what his misfortunes have been, can help feeling an interest in him?"
"His misfortunes!" repeated Darcy contemptuously; "yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed."
"And of your infliction," cried Elizabeth with energy. "You have reduced him to his present state of poverty—comparative poverty. You have withheld the advantages which you must know to have been designed for him. You have deprived the best years of his life of that INDEPENDENCE which was no less his due than his desert. You have done all this! and yet you can treat the mention of his misfortune with contempt and ridicule."  END QUOTE

In a nutshell, my working hypothesis is that sometime during the decade between 1804 and JA’s completing the writing of P&P in January 1813, she somehow became aware (via perhaps a chain of gossiping informants) of at least the above quoted portion of the repentant confession of William Wickham. Apparently, Wickham copied the letter and showed it many times to others over a period of decades.

And so I believe JA was so moved by what William Wickham wrote about the martyr Robert Emmet, and how his Christ-like forgiveness of Wickham right before he was brutally executed blew Wickham’s mind, that she transmuted what he wrote into Eliza Bennet’s condemnation of Darcy for his “crimes” against both her sister Jane and also against George Wickham. And, in turn, I believe that artful paraphrase was itself only the tip of an allusive iceberg.

I.e., I think JA (in the shadow story of P&P in which, I claim, Darcy does not repent for his meddling, but only pretends to do so) constructed P&P to also work as an allegory of rival “brothers”—just as we find repeatedly in Genesis, with Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, etc.---an allegory repeated a century after JA by James Joyce---in which the powerful arrogant domineering “brother” Darcy stands for England, and the weaker, “bastard  brother” George Wickham stands for poor, oppressed, heroic Ireland.

But that’s not all. A little more than a year after JA’s darling child P&P entered the world, JA apparently had the lucky opportunity, via William Wickham’s fortuitous involvement in the Baigen stabbing case, to actually read Wickham’s 1804 letter itself, in full, and perhaps to communicate directly with Wickham. This serendipity occurred because, in 1812, William Wickham happened to retire to a large estate, Binsted Wyck, located less than five miles from Chawton Cottage, where he became a magistrate (and cultivated fig trees).

So William Wickham was in the right place in the right job at the right time for JA to get within only one degree of separation from him, and she didn’t squander her luck. And after Edward was able to deliver copies of Wickham’s letters to her, and she read them, she obviously found reading them so moving, that she could not wait for her imminent return to Chawton to describe it, albeit necessarily in code, to Cassandra (who would have already been well aware of WW’s presence in the subtext of P&P) in that passage in Letter 98!  That’s why we hear her rhapsodize about the letters of the lawyer friend of Wickham, whom I believe was none other than Wickham himself!

In a followup post, I will be glad, if requested, to explain in detail more of the reasoning behind my above inferences, and why I am so confident that William Wickham’s impassioned, remorseful 1804 letter to his friends was a primary source for Eliza Bennet’s impassioned “J’accuse!” But I wanted to just get this out there today.

When I briefly made the above suggestion to Sheryl Craig at her AGM presentation, she was wary of my inferences, suggesting that the William Wickham she has researched was a sly manipulator of extraordinary powers, and she was skeptical of the sincerity of his repentance. To me, that only adds to what I believe JA would have found irresistible about William Wickham as an allusive source for George Wickham.

I have long seen George Wickham as being far from an angel—but rather a small, somewhat dangerous fish being controlled by the all-powerful “whale” in the story, Darcy—maybe even a good person who has been manipulated by Darcy, and who has tried to warn Eliza about Darcy.  The real William Wickham having been such a complex, contradictory personality, a mixture of much good and much bad, would fit perfectly with the two George Wickhams I believe JA had in mind when she wrote the two stories of P&P.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Alina K. Field said...

Very interesting post, Arnie. I'm anxious to see Sharon's paper on this.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thanks very much, Alina!