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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The War of the Roses between Wickham and Darcy: Pride & Prejudice reduced to red and white

In a continuation of the thread set forth in my immediately preceding post, there was further discussion in Austen-L and Janeites regarding the thorny question of who is good and who is bad, as between Wickham and Darcy.

First Ellen Moody responded: "Wickham is the one we are to reprobate but in some previous version the second half was more complicated than what we have.

Then Nancy Mayer chimed in: "In the version we have of P & P, Wickham seduces Lydia away with promises of marriage -- which he has no plans to offer--.In the first half he lies to Elizabeth. If Elizabeth hadn't been ticked off by Darcy's snub towards her she wouldn't have paid so much attention to Wickham. She knew it was bad manners to disclose such history to a stranger at first meeting. His behaviour wasn't at all well bred. He doesn't reform. His character doesn't change.

I then offered an outside the box new perspective. Apropos the point they were discussing, we all know by heart the following exchange between Elizabeth and Jane right after the Hunsford/Rosings episode:

"Most earnestly did [Jane] labour to prove the probability of error, and seek to clear the one [Wickham] without involving the other [Darcy].
“This will not do,” said Elizabeth; “you never will be able to make both of them good for anything. Take your choice, but you must be satisfied with only one. There is but such a quantity of merit between them; just enough to make one good sort of man; and of late it has been shifting about pretty much. For my part, I am inclined to believe it all Darcy’s; but you shall do as you choose.”
It was some time, however, before a smile could be extorted from Jane...."

I long ago recognized that this was another one of those many passages scattered throughout all of JA’s novels, which I’ve been steadily collecting over the years, in which JA hides a giant hint at an alternative interpretation of what happens in the story. JA perfected this art, by having the hint be expressed by an unreliable character – unreliable, that is, in the eyes of the fallible heroine, and therefore ignored at the expense of the accuracy of the heroine’s understanding.

Here’s the hint – in so many words, Elizabeth, beneath her playful tone, is unwittingly revealing the zero-sum assumption upon which she is basing her opinions about Darcy and Wickham: i.e., that, as between these two main romantic interests of hers, if one is good, the other must be bad. The only question she believes she must answer is, who is the good guy, and who the bad?

But note the context in which Elizabeth makes this pronouncement to Jane—although it is often overlooked, it is crucial. Elizabeth makes this claim in specific rebuttal to Jane’s attempt to assess Wickham and Darcy in a very different way—i.e., as separate, independent persons – which, if you think about it, is exactly the way we ought to judge any other two people we meet.

That Elizabeth conflates Darcy and Wickham in her mind, almost as if they were conjoined twins, is a kind of “prejudice” which impedes her ability to judge their respective characters accurately. She finds both Darcy and Wickham attractive, and so she can’t quite separate them in her mind. And Jane Austen even gives us a clever foreshadowing of Elizabeth’s confusion, and the ambiguity of the presentation of Wickham and Darcy in the novel, when Wickham first appears, in Chapter 15:

“Mr. Darcy…was beginning to determine not to fix his eyes on Elizabeth, when they were suddenly arrested by the sight of the stranger [Wickham], and Elizabeth happening to see the countenance of both as they looked at each other, was all astonishment at the effect of the meeting. Both changed colour, one looked white, the other red. 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.”

As I’ve written in the past, there is absolutely no way for the reader to ascertain from the above passage who turned white and who turned red—and, even more importantly than that superficial ambiguity, there is no way the reader can determine whether turning white was a sign of anger, fear, and/or surprise, and similarly regarding turning red. That moment is a microcosm of Elizabeth’s conflation of Darcy and Wickham in her mind, and of the ambiguity that is everywhere in the epistemological treatise disguised as a novel that is Pride & Prejudice.

But, back to the question of who is good and who is bad, generations of readers have been so deeply enmeshed in, and charmed by, Elizabeth’s endlessly light, bright, and sparkling speeches, that precious few have been able to step back and realize that Jane is not a foolish Pollyanna in this instance, that is just how Elizabeth sees her. Jane can actually be plausibly viewed by the reader as the clear-eyed “studier of character” of the two eldest sisters, the one who understands that there are no simple dichotomies in human personality. Whereas Elizabeth, with her inflated sense of her own psychological acuity, is the fantasist, the poor student of character, who reduces everything to black and white—or rather, as the above passage suggests, to red and white.

And so, with all that as introduction, now I am going to actually follow the above-quoted hint that JA put in Jane Bennet’s mouth, and suggest to you that what JA is hinting at is that there are actually (at least) TWO plausible possibilities regarding relative goodness and badness, as between Darcy and Wickham:

ONE: That Wickham is a bad man who tells lies about Darcy, who is a good man who tells the truth about Wickham. That of course is the view that Elizabeth arrives at eventually, and is therefore also the view of almost all readers of P&P. But I claim that this is only what happens in the overt story of P&P, one of the two parallel fictional universes that Jane Austen deliberately created.

TWO: Wickham is a bad man who however does tell the truth about Darcy, who is also a bad man and who however does also tell the truth about Wickham. That is a view that I believe I am currently alone in holding, and I claim that this is exactly what happens in the shadow story of P&P.

If you think about it, it’s really obvious that Elizabeth is not stating an objective fact about Wickham and Darcy to Jane, all she’s revealing is her own subjective and very confused point of view. How many times in human history, on both the personal and the national level, have there been situations in which two persons or groups are in conflict with each other, and both are bad, but in different ways. Just think Hitler and Stalin. The battles in life are not always between good and evil, sometimes they’re between Evil #1 and Evil #2.

And haven’t we seen this same pattern presented many times in literature as well? Sibling rivalries in the Bible are not all clearcut battles of good vs. bad, nor are they in Shakespeare, to name two huge examples. And that brings me to my final point, which is that perhaps most aptly to Wickham and Darcy, we have the War of the Roses as depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. That scene about Darcy and Wickham turning red and white turns out to also be a giant hint by Jane Austen suggesting the sublminal allusive presence of the long bloody conflict between the Red Rose and the White Rose.

I’ve previously written about various aspects of Shakespeare’s tetralogy dramatizing the conflict between the Yorkist and the Lancastrian branches of the Plantagenet family, as I believe they were alluded to by Jane Austen in Pride & Prejudice:  “Henry VI, Part 2: The first thing we do, let’s kill….Lady Catherine! (in Cheapside)”

But I believe this is the first time I’m explicitly stating that Wickham and Darcy have part of their origins in Shakespeare’s warring cousins. And the allusion fits so well, because there are no clearcut good guys and bad guys in Shakespeare’s complex fictional universe. It’s pretty clear that Shakespeare spread the blame for the horrors of that war, in which (as Henry VI realizes as he watches the battle from his molehill) killing was a family affair, very generously between both sides, who take turns committing atrocities, each believing themselves justified by an ever spiraling cycle of revenge.

And of course, Jane Austen could not putting one final hint at that conflict in the mouth of Mrs. Bennet, as she sneers at Elizabeth who has just rejected Mr. Collins’s proposal:

“Aye, there she comes,” continued Mrs. Bennet, “looking as unconcerned as may be, and caring no more for us than if we were at YORK, provided she can have her own way.” 

York indeed!

All of which tells me that JA, from her radical feminist perspective, with clear-eyed objectivity, catalogued many varieties of male no-goodness, and, to those who could discern her double stories, was in effect imagining what the dying Mercutio, who got caught in the crossfire between Montagues and Capulets, might’ve said about Wickham and Darcy: “A plague on BOTH their houses!”

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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