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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, June 29, 2015

Why Elizabeth takes an eager interest in Wickham's concerns even after he has just deserted her for Miss King

Yesterday evening, while surfing for interesting Austen material in Twitter, I was struck by a thunderbolt, in the form of the following Tweet by Bethany Villarreal aka  @BetaniAnne, posted nearly a week ago:

“Honestly confused why Lizzy was so offended Darcy "hurt" Wickham after the latter picked another girl #prideandprejudice #notyourboyfriend”

As I read this, I quickly realized that I could not answer it off the top of my head. Indeed, it was a real head scratcher, once you really thought about it. Why would Lizzy get so worked up about Darcy’s having done Wickham wrong, when Wickham had himself just done Lizzy very wrong, by deserting her, without so much as a Dear Lizzy letter, in favor of his mercenary pursuit of the new heiress the freckly Miss King.

Jane Austen’s coy narrator did not give us any hints as to why Lizzy would hurl an accusation at Darcy about Wickham, but, with a few minutes thought, I was able to come up with two tentative explanations for what was going on inside Lizzy’s head:

THEORY ONE: Lizzy was such an evolved human being, that even though Wickham had just dropped her like a hot potato, an action which would destroy any sympathy for him in the heart of a woman so scorned, Lizzy nonetheless was able to keep separate in her heart her sadness at his bad action towards her from the sympathy she felt for him for the harm she believed he had suffered at Darcy’s hands.

THEORY TWO: Lizzy was so angry at Darcy that she just threw the kitchen sink at him, and that included his previously reported crimes against Wickham. But inside, Lizzy no longer felt sympathy for Wickham, but Darcy was not worthy of knowing that little fact. And further, since she figured that Darcy could easily have heard about Wickham’s interest in Lizzy while in Meryton, but that Darcy didn’t know that Wickham had deserted Lizzy (because he and the Bingleys had already left Meryton before that occurred, and so why would he even care), she thought that she could really jab the jealousy needle in --- i.e., let Darcy believe that she was still interested in Wickham, and, indeed, preferred Wickham to Darcy. Let Darcy twist in the wind, thinking that Lizzy preferred Wickham to Darcy-that would be sweet revenge indeed!

Of the two theories, the second had greater appeal for me, as I just didn’t think Lizzy was that good of an actress, so as to be able to sound so genuinely aggrieved at Darcy having done Wickham wrong, if it was not true. But I then realized, it was not necessary to guess. Everything I know about Jane Austen’s writing M.O., especially in P&P, which she had revised a number of times over 15 years, told me that she must have already anticipated this question—indeed, that she had written the novel so as to provoke some sharp elves to ask that very question that Bethan Villarreal had Tweeted---and therefore, she must have played fair, and given us the answer somewhere in the text of the novel—indeed, exactly where we’d expect to find it. So I went back to the very spot where it should have been, in Chapter 34, during the first proposal scene……….and I found it immediately!!!!

See if you can find it. If you can’t, don’t worry, I give my answer below, right after the quoted passage, which (as will be obvious) begins right after Lizzy confronts Darcy with his having convinced Bingley to abandon Jane. But don’t give up with trying hard, you may surprise yourself by finding the answer on your own, armed with my assurance to you that the clues are there, like low hanging textual fruit:

With assumed tranquility 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."

Darcy then lashes out at Lizzy, prompting her to level him with her final verbal counterpunch:

"From the very beginning—from the first moment, I may almost say—of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry."

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And my answer to the question of why Lizzy (in Darcy’s words) takes such an eager interest in Wickham’s concerns is neither of the two theories I presented, above, but a third one, one that may shock you at first. It is that Lizzy, right after voicing her conscious blaming of Darcy for his having blasted Jane’s prospects with Bingley, immediately follows up by unconsciously blaming Darcy for having in effect blasted Lizzy’s prospects with Wickham!!!!

Sounds crazy? Well, read again what Lizzy says to Darcy---she focuses repeated on the financial damage that she believes Darcy has unjustly inflicted on Wickham. And why would that subject be of particular interest to Lizzy of all people?

Well, just think back only a few chapters, going back only a few weeks, to Chapter 27, to the very moment when Lizzy and her Aunt Gardiner discuss Wickham’s having jilted her only a very short time before:

Mrs. Gardiner then rallied her niece on Wickham's desertion, and complimented her on bearing it so well.
"But my dear Elizabeth," she added, "what sort of girl is Miss King? I should be sorry to think our friend mercenary."
"Pray, my dear aunt, what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive? Where does discretion end, and avarice begin? Last Christmas you were afraid of his marrying me, because it would be imprudent; and now, because he is trying to get a girl with only ten thousand pounds, you want to find out that he is mercenary."
"If you will only tell me what sort of girl Miss King is, I shall know what to think."
"She is a very good kind of girl, I believe. I know no harm of her."
"But he paid her not the smallest attention till her grandfather's death made her mistress of this fortune."
"No—why should he? If it were not allowable for him to gain my affections because I had no money, what occasion could there be for making love to a girl whom he did not care about, and who was equally poor?"
"But there seems an indelicacy in directing his attentions towards her so soon after this event."
"A man in distressed circumstances has not time for all those elegant decorums which other people may observe. If she does not object to it, why should we?"
"Her not objecting does not justify him. It only shows her being deficient in something herself—sense or feeling."
"Well," cried Elizabeth, "have it as you choose. He shall be mercenary, and she shall be foolish."
"No, Lizzy, that is what I do not choose. I should be sorry, you know, to think ill of a young man who has lived so long in Derbyshire."
"Oh! if that is all, I have a very poor opinion of young men who live in Derbyshire; and their intimate friends who live in Hertfordshire are not much better. I am sick of them all. Thank Heaven! I am going to-morrow where I shall find a man who has not one agreeable quality, who has neither manner nor sense to recommend him. Stupid men are the only ones worth knowing, after all."
"Take care, Lizzy; that speech savours strongly of disappointment."

Despite Lizzy’s bravado about her supposedly understanding why Wickham has acted mercenarily in switching his wooing from Lizzy to Miss King, all sharp readers must agree with Aunt Gardiner that Lizzy’s sarcasm does indeed savour very strongly of bitter disappointment. And a key element in that disappointment, I now see, is that Lizzy believes that Wickham would have stuck with her, and would not have switched horses to the newly-enriched Miss King at the last minute, had Wickham received his due financial entitlement from the Darcy family, as had been long expected from Wickham’s second “father”, the elder Mr. Darcy.

And who is to blame for Wickham lacking financial solidity, as far as Lizzy knows? Of course, it’s Mr. Darcy! And we actually get one other big hint, right in between these two quoted scenes, where we can discern, with 20:20 hindsight, that this topic was actually fermenting in Lizzy’s mind right before  Darcy proposes to her. Check out this portion of her tete a tete with Colonel Fitzwilliam in Chapter 31:

"[Darcy] likes to have his own way very well," replied Colonel Fitzwilliam. "But so we all do. It is only that he has better means of having it than many others, because he is rich, and many others are poor. I speak feelingly. A younger son, you know, must be inured to self-denial and dependence."
"In my opinion, the younger son of an earl can know very little of either. Now seriously, what have you ever known of self-denial and dependence? When have you been prevented by want of money from going wherever you chose, or procuring anything you had a fancy for?"
"These are home questions—and perhaps I cannot say that I have experienced many hardships of that nature. But in matters of greater weight, I may suffer from want of money. Younger sons cannot marry where they like."
"Unless where they like women of fortune, which I think they very often do."
"Our habits of expense make us too dependent, and there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marry without some attention to money."
"Is this," thought Elizabeth, "meant for me?" and she coloured at the idea; but, recovering herself, said in a lively tone, "And pray, what is the usual price of an earl's younger son? Unless the elder brother is very sickly, I suppose you would not ask above fifty thousand pounds."
He answered her in the same style, and the subject dropped.

We now can see that this conversation is a way station on the way to Lizzy accusing Darcy of having denied Wickham his financial due. What the narrator is not telling us, but the context of the conversation strongly implies, is that when Lizzy blushes as she wonders whether Fitzwilliam is telling her that even he, the second son of an earl, cannot afford to propose to her, she is thinking back to Wickham’s jilting her as well, and beginning to see a pattern. Darcy can do what he likes, because he’s rich, but other, less well-heeled men, cannot.

So it’s only a very small step from there to Chapter 34, when Lizzy explodes her pent-up anger on this topic all over Darcy. The master of Pemberley seems to her to be a very perverse sort of matchbreaker, who specializes in blasting the marital prospects of the two most eligible and worthy Bennet sisters!

And so, in the end of the novel, how trebly ironic it is, in light of all of the above, that the way Darcy wins Lizzy over is by taking extraordinary steps to make the match between Lydia and Wickham!

Such is the unfathomable genius of Jane Austen to hide this crucial interlocking plot structure and subtle psychological motivation in plain sight during one of the most dramatic scenes in the history of fictional courtship, and yet it has not (to the best of my knowledge) ever been sussed out before now.

And finally, how ironic it is that I only solved this particular puzzle with a big assist from Twitter, which made me aware of Ms. Villarreal’s brilliant question!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


 Diane responded to my post as follows:
"I agree that Elizabeth is angry at Darcy not only for interfering with Jane and Bingley, but also for, as she understands it, for denying Wickham the income that would have made it possible for him to marry her. That's actually an excellent catch and completely consistent with Austen's irony: characters feel outrage ostensibly on the behalf of others that they really feel for themselves. Yes, of course Lizzie is furious that Darcy's arrogance has messed up her match with Wickham. Of course, she's furious when he proposes--HE's not the one she wants. And yes, her feelings are very mixed, because, like her mother, whether she admits or not, she is a girl with her eye on the bouncing ball of money--which the quote you supply about prudence only underscores. She understands Wickham going after the money. She's defending him to her aunt: she's in love with him."

Thank you, Diane, for your extraordinary reply. As I will briefly confirm through the remainder of this post, it is clear that you and I have a perfect meeting of the minds as to what I wrote. You've amplified and extended my insight in a half dozen significant ways, all in your usual elegantly, modestly, and insightfully written and reasoned style that I always enjoy so much.

I particularly liked the following extraordinary textual sleuthing on your part, showing how the passages in Chapter 46 continue the thread that I described from the passages I quoted in those three earlier chapters:
"And Austen TELLS us this plainly. The wicked irony extends to the passage where Elizabeth is at the inn near Pemberley in chapter 46. She receives the letter that Wickham has eloped with Lydia, and it is not until this point that she gives up hope of Wickham. She may have thought the day
before how wonderful to be mistress of Pemberley, but it is really not until Wickham is off the market that she really, truly entertains the idea.
And she understands the situation in all its irony: what makes it possible that she could change her feelings towards Darcy ([Wickham's] elopement) is what exactly will make (she thinks) the marriage with Darcy impossible (the disgrace of the elopement): she "sighed at the perverseness of those feelings which would NOW have promoted it continuance [the relationship with Darcy], and would formerly have rejoiced in its termination." The NOW is NOW--after Wickham is gone to her."

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

And when you wrote....
"Austen then goes on to tell us that Wickham is the first love and Darcy the consolation prize: "her partiality for Wickham and  ... its ill success" will now lead Lizzie "to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment" based on "gratitude and esteem."  In other words, NOW Lizzie is willing to settle. This is MP is reverse. This is what could have happened to Fanny had she received the letter that Edmund had married Mary."
...I can only stand and cheer at your showing how JA played with the same themes from novel to novel--theme and variation, constructed by the greatest novelistic "composer" we've ever had.

And you were on a hot streak this morning, Diane, when you then wrote:
"With this in mind, we can also read the typical Austenian ambiguity in the pronoun "her' as Lizzie ruminates on her suddenly quite changed situation: "Never, since reading Jane's second letter, had she entertained a hope of Wickham meaning to marry her." We take this her to mean Lydia, but it could
well mean Lizzie: After the second letter, she thinks, all my lingering hopes that somehow Wickham might marry me are gone."
And as you are well aware, that is yet another perfect example of the deliberate pronomial ambiguities we find all over the place in P&P, that she so aptly (but mischievously) referred to in her "dull elves" quote in her Jan. 1813 letter to Casssandra as "errors"-- AS IF!!!.

And you saved perhaps your best for last:  "At this point the irony is complete: Lizzie does end up marrying just like Charlotte, for pragmatic reasons, and can't even see that her father's astonishment at her revelation of this mirrors her own astonishment when Charlotte tells her about Collins."

Bravo, Diane!  All of which are the telltale winks and nods that JA left in her novel texts, to confirm to readers like you and me that we are getting the largescale irony and doubleness.

"It's all wonderful and wonderful how we tend to miss it."

That is an extreme understatement! It's the greatest miracle in the history of literature, that she pulled off this stunt a hundred times throughout all of her novels, and yet it's only two centuries later that they are coming to light!

Cheers, ARNIE


Sylwia said...

I don't think Lizzy was in love with Wickham. She got over him far too soon.

In my opinion Lizzy used Wickham as a valid reason to dislike Darcy. As she admitted herself, her ill opinion of Darcy was formed very quickly, long before she even met Wickham. But her dislike wasn't reasonable - it was self-centered at best. She liked to say that everyone in Meryton disliked Darcy, but we really know only about her and her mother, and her father perhaps. Her closest friends: Jane, Charlotte Lucas, Sir Lucas - all liked him. Only when Lizzy met Wickham her dislike got some solid foundation, which she wasn't going to abandon even after Wickham abandoned her. This is also why she was so eager to defend Wickham (even though she was very harsh on Miss Lucas in similar circumstances).

It's all about perception. Her opinion was formed and construed from many small pieces. If she allowed for one of the pieces to come off, the entire picture would be ruined. Which happens eventually after she reads Darcy's letter. Once she allows for the truth and lets go of her former image of him, her new perception of Darcy is formed rather quickly.

Ironically, it's much easier for Lizzy to forgive Darcy for ruining her sister's engagement to Bingley (which he was really guilty of) than to admit that Wickham was a cad and Darcy a victim. That's because in the first case she was right, and in the latter she was wrong.

Lizzy prides herself in her ability to judge people. She judged the two men at the very beginning, so she wasn't eager to admit she was wrong. It is, first of all, her own image of her self that she was defending.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thank you for your reply, Sylwia, but as you might guess, I don't agree with you-- or, to be more precise, I believe that your interpretation (which is a variant on the second of the theories I at first entertained) is plausible, but mine is more plausible. And if you read the reply I received this morning from Diane Reynolds, which I reproduced at the end of my post, you'll see a great deal more textual evidence to support the view that Lizzy never quite gets over Wickham.

Th. said...


Here's additional evidence of your claim from chapter 39, Lizzy'z reaction to Lydia's unkind words re Miss King:

"Elizabeth was shocked to think that, however incapable of such coarseness of expression herself, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had harboured and fancied liberal!"