The Brilliance of an “Unequal” Marriage as a Plot Point in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”

The top 50 TV dramas of all time| Television & radio | The Guardian
The top 50 TV dramas of all time| Television & radio | The Guardian

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen presents the reader with three very eligible bachelors: the sharp-tongued, prideful Darcy, the amiable and handsome Bingley, and the smooth-talking military officer Wickham. Analysis of these characters is plentiful, but I hope to open up a dialogue on the our favorite villain, Mr. George Wickham, as well as to look at the brilliance of an “unequal” marriage as a plot point.

A more histrionic author than was Jane Austen would likely portray Mr. Wickham as the illegitimate half brother to Darcy, making Wickham’s intense hatred for his childhood friend more logical. Instead, the reader is left to guess at Wickham’s motives in his manipulations of Darcy. Where is the gratitude for old Darcy’s support of his godson? Does Wickham seriously think he has the right to challenge Darcy’s claim to Pemberley?

Needless to say, if Wickham were Darcy’s half-brother, then the light Austen shines on the Darcys and the Fitzwilliams would diminish greatly. “Hear me in silence. My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended, on the material side, from the same noble line; and, on the father’s, from respectable, honorable, and ancient, though untitled, families.” (Lady Catherine to Elizabeth Bennet, Chapter 56 of Pride and Prejudice)

Wickham and Lydia ~ Picture of Pride and Prejudice
Wickham and Lydia ~ Picture of Pride and Prejudice

If Wickham was old Mr. Darcy’s by-blow, then Lydia’s marriage to Wickham would be a representative parallel to that of Elizabeth’s to Darcy. Yet, our dearest Jane does not lead her readers along those lines: Wickham proves his motives as punitive, and the de Bourghs become the symbol of the aristocracy’s degeneration, a high-born example of bad manners and ill breeding. Although in the quote above, Lady Catherine claims both Darcy and Anne de Bourgh as “formed for each other,” Austen tells us of Elizabeth’s first impression of the de Bourghs: “When, after examining the mother, in whose countenance and deportment she soon found some resemblance of Mr. Darcy, she turned her eyes on the daughter, she could almost have joined in Maria’s astonishment at her being so thin, and so small. There was neither in figure nor face any likeness between the ladies. Miss De Bourgh was pale and sickly; her features, though not plain, were insignificant; and she spoke very little, except in a low voice to Mrs. Jenkinson, in whose appearance there was nothing remarkable, and who was entirely engaged in listening to what she said, and placing a screen in the proper direction before her eyes.”

As we all know, Elizabeth vehemently rejects Darcy’s first proposal.

“But 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?”

And later, Elizabeth adds the deepest cut:

“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.”

What Elizabeth is essentially saving is “if you [Darcy] were half the gentleman as Mr. Wickham.”

Pride and Prejudice (2005) – Visual Parables Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet start off on the wrong foot at a ball. (c) 2005 Focus Features
Pride and Prejudice (2005) – Visual Parables
Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet start off on the wrong foot at a ball. (c) 2005 Focus Features

Darcy’s letter then proves to Elizabeth and the reader that he is not the ill-bred male version of his Aunt Catherine. He is not prideful. Just a prig. A man a bit out of step with the world in which he lives. Women love this moment because innately we think we can mold the man we love into a better person. A woman would think it possible to lead Darcy into more comfort in Society, but no woman in her right mind would attempt to change a prideful, prejudiced man. It is at this point in the novel that the reader changes his/her opinion of Darcy.

Austen displays her Tory upbringing in the confrontation between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine. “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”

Needless to say, Lady Catherine does not take well to Elizabeth’s temerity. She attempts to place Elizabeth into Elizabeth’s social sphere and to warn Elizabeth from Lady Catherine’s sphere. “True. You are a gentleman’s daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition.” In other words, Mr. Bennet might marry below him, but Lady Catherine’s family would NEVER consider such an alignment.

Elizabeth’s Tory background as the daughter of a country squire shows her to be made of sterner stuff, a characteristic Pemberley will require if it is to survive the demise of the great estates and the Industrial Revolution. It goes back to the exogamous marriage vs. the endogamous marriage we discussed previously. The inbreeding of the endogamous relationship is creating a vacuum. Elizabeth Bennet will be the shot of new blood that Darcy and Pemberley require to survive. The marriage’s success lies in the fact that it is unequal – a give-and-take that brings new life to Pemberley.

What do you think? Do you have any insights into the ideas presented in this piece? Agree? Disagree? Join in the conversation.

For more on Austen’s role as a Tory daughter, I suggest reading Patrick Parrinder’s Nation & Novel: The English Novel from its Origin to the Present Day (Oxford University Press, 2006).

20 Responses to The Brilliance of an “Unequal” Marriage as a Plot Point in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”

  1. In some Austen circles it is supposed that Wickham is either Darcy’s illegitimate half brother ( not at all equal in status to Darcy) or that his father was Darcy’s father’s illegitimate half brother and thus, Darcy’s cousin. People fond it hard to believe that a wealthy man would give a living and money to an unrelated young man for his legacy was greater than what many true nephews received. The unequal marriages in Austen are not between men and women of different social status so much as between men and women of different mental abilities and character. How often do we see a man of some sense marrying a woman for her looks? It is mentioned in several of the novels. I think the Palmers. the Bennets and others made such unequal matches..I fear that in Emma , Jane Fairfax is the one to make the unequal match because Frank is too frivolous and morally weak for her.

  2. What? Poor Mr Collins doesn’t make the grade as an eligible bachelor? Otherwise a very enjoying article and a nice note about Austen not being a histrionic writer, else she might have actually included the duel in S&S.

  3. The one problem I have with this is that I’ve always identified with Darcy, not Elizabeth, so the letter does not change my opinion of him. However her reaction to the letter does change and improve my opinion of Elizabeth. I’ve known many people who may not be as rich as Darcy but who act like he does in social situations. It has taken me years to understand and appreciate the qualities of people I’ve known who are like Elizabeth. Anyway I’ve always thought Elizabeth was too hasty in making her judgements – particularly of Darcy and of her poor mother.

  4. So pleased to come across this among the posts I missed while I was away. Thanks for the very insightful post, Regina, and in particular two points that I enjoyed the most: that no woman in her right mind would try to change a prideful, prejudiced man (I loved that!) and the fact that Wickham’s illegitimacy would make his resentment more justified, but in the same time tarnish the ‘old gold glow’ of the Darcys.

    I’ve always wondered why, in P&P 1995 as Elizabeth walks with Wickham in the garden, at a time when she still likes and trusts him, she says ‘Had old Mr Darcy never had a son’, as in ‘circumstances might have been different, and Wickham would not have needed to mary Mary King for her inheritance and might have been able to marry Elizabeth herself (perish the thought!). It’s too late into the night to check if the phrase is in the novel or just in the adaptation. But it does make me wonder if Wickham was older than Darcy or not. If so, the illegitimacy theory would really give him enormous reason for resentment. Still I’m very glad that Jane Austen didn’t go there, and he is just left to resent Darcy for refusing him the Kympton living.

  5. I’m afraid my mind is too jumbled to come up with anything insightful, Regina. After this excellently worded post, anything I’d try to add would be a rambling mess. LOL! I love how well you are able to dig into the characters. More please!

  6. I was with you until: “Elizabeth’s Tory background as the daughter of a country squire shows her to be made of sterner stuff, a characteristic Pemberley will require if it is to survive the demise of the great estates and the Industrial Revolution.”

    Jane does not know this. It has not happened yet and will not happen in her lifetime. While Elizabeth’s character would definitely allow her to be a good mistress of Pemberley, I believe Austen’s point was that a marriage unequal in fortune could survive because it was equal in good character and love.

    Wickham did not need to be a half-brother to justify his motives. He is a wanna-be (in today’s wording). He wants more because he wants it and hates others who have it. I think he is also jealous of Darcy’s good character and not just his property and standing in society. He wants what he cannot have or be, like a child, and if he cannot have it honestly, will scheme to get it or destroy it in the process so no one has it. We see this every day.

    • Although I agree with your point of of “a marriage unequal in fortune could survive because it was equal in good character and love,” there were early rumblings of what was to come during Austen’s lifetime. P&P was released in January 1813. The “Puffing Billy,” an early steam locomotive was introduced in Wylam colliery, County Durham that same year. Westminster Bridge in London was illuminated by gas lighting provided by the Gas Light and Coke Company from the world’s first gasworks, which was nearby. The Cape of Good Hope became a British colony. An abolishment of the India trade monopoly of the British East India Company occurred. 1816 was the Year Without Summer. The months prior to her death in 1817 saw a liberal newspaper founded in Edinburgh, the last of the Luddite attacks, the suspension of Habeas Corpus, the Blanketeers march and the Pentrich Rising. Shortly after her death, the SS Savannah had crossed the Atlantic to land in Liverpool and radicals such as Henry Hunt were capturing the attention of many.

      I did mean to indicate that Austen knew the Industrial Revolution, rather that she knew something of business and politics. If nothing less, her brother Henry would speak of such items. Henry was handsome and clever and anxious to be rich. He had a large acquaintance among military men and in society as the paymaster of the Oxfords. Henry knew both success and failure in speculation schemes. He made contacts in the wine trade thanks to his wife Eliza. Henry held connections to the 2nd Earl of Moira, William Hastings, Admiral Nelson, etc. He became a partner in three country banks by late 1806. Jane Austen was able to write on 11 January 1809 that: “The progress of the bank is a constant source of satisfaction. With such increasing profits, tell Henry, that I hope he will not work poor High-diddle [a bank clerk] so hard as he used to do.”

      From “Jane Austen’s Banker Brother” published by JASNA, we learn, “During the early part of 1811 Sense and Sensibility was accepted for publication by Thomas Egerton, and Jane Austen thus became a professional writer. Henceforth she made many visits to Henry in London to supervise the birth of her literary offspring. In a series of letters she wrote from Sloane Street in April (18-30 April 1811) we learn that Henry was confined to the bank the whole day on the 16th, went to the Admiralty on the 19th to get news of brothers Frank and Charles, and was trying to hurry Jane’s printer. Jane visited galleries and theaters, and corrected proofs. Henry left for a visit to Oxford and wrote from Wheatfield, the home of Lord Charles Spencer. Spencer’s
      son John was Receiver of Taxes for Oxfordshire, and Henry would have been discussing his own Deputy Receivership. On 6 June, back at Chawton, Jane writes of a flying twenty-four-hour visit from Henry and James Tilson, which must have been on bank business, perhaps the move of the Alton bank from 10 High Street—sold in 1812 to Miss Mary Smith—to property adjoining Baker’s Alley (Natproban 31-32) E.W. Gray took over exclusive operation of the Alton bank at about this time. Austen & Co. added another regimental agency on 25 July—the Royal West Middlesex Regiment. The colonel was Edward Bayly, but the patronage may have been engineered by Major James, who had once been a captain in this corps. On 30 October 1811 Sense and Sensibility, after much delay, was at last published.

  7. Excellent post to make me think, Regina. I always enjoy your insight into Jane’s work and your thoughts on why Wickham is not shown as Darcy’s half-brother is right on! I do believe that Wickham wanted to believe he was Darcy’s brother, as anything less would be unacceptable. Unfortunately old Mr. Darcy created a monster by giving him the education (and appearance) that his ‘station’ would not support. I can see why George felt entitled and hated Darcy.

    • Sometimes charity becomes dependence. Good intentions are not always for the best. Brenda. Although the elder Mr. Darcy thought he was doing right by the elder Mr. Wickham by supporting Wickham Younger, he did “create a monster.” Linked with narcissism and borderline personality disorder (BPD) in the world of psychoanalysis, having a sense of entitlement can easily be mistaken as natural, and even healthy. After all, don’t our parents and societies constantly tell us that “we’re unique”, “we’re special”, and “we’re number one”?
      The truth is, having a sense of entitlement is a malignant form of Self-Love, because it often harms the people around us, which indirectly harms us in the long term. In essence, a sense of entitlement is established and upheld by the belief that we are the center of the universe, and if the universe doesn’t meet our needs and desires, all hell will break loose.

  8. Regina, Thank you. There was a lot of food for thought in your post. Wickham’s history was yet another brilliant Jane Austen touch. It would have been too predictable if she had chosen to make him Darcy’s half-brother— plus it would have tarnished the Darcy family name. Pride and Prejudice is plotted like a lovely tapestry, with twists and turns in just the right places.

  9. I enjoyed this and totally agree, also. I never thought of Bennet marrying below his sphere, but you are right. Lady C does bring that out in heer diatribe, but I never really focused upon that before. Elizabeth would be the new blood that Pemberley would need to survive the upcoming changes that destroy other estates. And Wickham, he thinks everything is to be handed to him, not that he needs to earn anything. He should be grateful for everything je has not asking what he’s owed.

    • Thank you for you comments, Deborah. Our Mr. Wickham would fare well in today’s society where we give “thank you for coming awards” for participation. There is no striving for excellence, just for mediocrity.

  10. I totally agree. I think Wickham is lazy – he has grown up with things handed to him and expects it to continue. And there is a reason why now first cousins don’t marry. As you say Elizabeth is perfect for Darcy which is lucky or I wouldn’t have so many great books to read today!!!! Thank you ?

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