One of my favorite parts in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is when George Wickham runs off with Lydia Bennet and everyone learns the truth about his character.
From a writing craft perspective, it’s one of the best story twists in all of literature, and it showcases Jane Austen’s masterful use of what we in the 21st Century call “the climax” in a story arc.
From a reader’s perspective, it’s just great storytelling. Of course our heroine, Elizabeth Bennet is blindsided by the revelations of Wickham’s true character, and we get to discover the delicious details of his perfidy along with Lizzy and her family and friends.
When Wickham first appeared in the novel, Austen described him in this way:
He had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.
In short, Wickham was a charmer. He easily sweet-talked the good citizens of Longbourn and Meryton into doing his will. He was even able to charm his way into Mrs. Philips’ drawing-room, despite the fact he had never met the woman.
Wickham must have learned at a very early age that good looks and good manners could get you anywhere you want to go in life, including a life of richness and style.
Darcy, in his letter to Elizabeth at Hunsford, reveals that Wickham may have learned his spendthrift ways from his mother, writing:
My father supported him at school, and afterwards at Cambridge—most important assistance, as his own father, always poor from the extravagance of his wife, would have been unable to give him a gentleman’s education.
Darcy hints that from a young age Wickham spent money imprudently and extravagantly, without any plan or intention of honoring his debts.
In Meryton he was “in debt to every tradesman in the place” —scandalous as well as dangerous behaviour because with such debts Wickham ran the risk of being sent to a debtors’ prison.
Even worse (as everyone discovered after Wickham eloped with Lydia), Wickham also left behind “debts of honor.” Jane Bennet heard the news with horror:
“A gamester!” she cried. “This is wholly unexpected. I had not an idea of it.”
As a man with unpaid debts of honor, Wickham ran the risk of being shunned, because people who didn’t honor their gaming debts were considered repugnant and deceitful. As his wife, Lydia would have shared his shame.
Mr. Darcy paid out £1,000 to settle Wickham’s debts, which was a lot of money at the time. Allowing for cost of living and inflation, that’s the equivalent of over £46,000 in today’s money (according to the U.K. National Archives).
Thanks to Mr. Darcy, George Wickham and Lydia Bennet embarked upon their married life together debt free and with their reputations intact. But that clean slate did not last long.
By the end of the book, we learn Wickham and Lydia were “always spending more than they ought,” and they regularly applied to Elizabeth and Jane for money to help them get by.
Unfortunately, that’s where Austen ended Wickham’s story. After all the mayhem and distress he caused, Wickham escaped having to make any atonement for his bad behavior. Nowhere in the story was Wickham punished for his “vicious propensities” and “want of principle,” as Darcy would say.
That never did seem right to me.
Luckily, in the JAFF world we can write our own endings to Pride and Prejudice, and make Wickham pay for his foolishness and dishonesty, so I’ve been trying to come up with a suitable punishment for him.
Perhaps Wickham ends up doing hard time in a military prison after he swindles the wrong person.
Or maybe he abandons Lydia for an heiress, only to be caught and tried for kidnapping and sent to prison. (I am a little partial to the prison idea.)
What do you think? Did Karma finally catch up to George Wickham at some point? Did he receive the punishment he so richly deserved?
What do you think would have been a good punishment for him?