Is this Mr Darcy’s Darkest Secret?

Is this Mr Darcy’s Darkest Secret?

My friend Emma, a fellow Janeite, hinted at something outrageous about Mr Darcy last time I saw her. It was a good three months ago, but her words so struck me that I needed some time to process what she said.

It all started with some casual chat about Darcy and Wickham’s dislike for each other.

In Pride and Prejudice, both of them are interested in Elizabeth Bennet, but they are more than rivals for her affections. As we find out halfway through the novel, Wickham tried to seduce Darcy’s little sister Georgiana. I wrote about how she was scarred by the experience in Miss Darcy’s Beaux (now on KU).

However, my friend Emma suggested there might be more to Darcy and Wickham’s animosity towards each other…

The Weight of the Past

Darcy and Wickham never liked each other, even as children. That much we know.

We are also made aware early on that Darcy’s father had a soft spot for his steward’s boy. The late Mr Darcy is so generous towards Wickham that he pays for him to receive a gentleman’s education.

Wickham calls his benefactor “one of the best men that ever breathed and the truest friend I ever had”, and has “tender recollections” when thinking about him. In fact, Wickham doesn’t hesitate to tell Elizabeth, a new acquaintance, that Darcy is simply jealous of the bond he shared with the old man:

“(Mr Darcy’s) father’s uncommon attachment to me irritated him, I believe, very early in life. He (Mr Darcy) had not a temper to bear the sort of competition in which we stood – the sort of preference which was often given to me. ”
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 16

Wickham also admits that he “never liked” Mr Darcy, hinting that the antipathy was mutual.

The late Mr Darcy was also Wickahm’s godfather, which signals a very intimate relationship between both families. My friend Emma’s speculation as to the extent of this intimacy is what I found so shocking…

A Dark Secret?

Emma’s scandalous theory is the following: what if Wickham was the illegitimate son of Mr Darcy Sr.?

It’s an outrageous premise, wouldn’t you agree?  But let’s analyse the facts.

We know little about Mrs Wickham, other than she is extravagant and bossy. Spendthrifts and women with no respect for their husbands are bad news in Austen’s novels. Could this be Austen’s subtle way to signal a woman of loose morals?

As to Darcy’s father, everyone says he was the perfect gentleman. However, even the most devoted of husbands can stray under extreme circumstances.

So what do we know about the marriage of Darcy’s parents?

Hints of Heartbreak

Lady Anne fulfils her duty to provide her husband with an heir when she gives birth to Darcy. However, she doesn’t have Georgiana until almost a decade later. At a time when large families were the norm, this gap is very telling.

Lady Anne might have suffered from postnatal depression after having Darcy or struggled to conceive in the years that followed. Another terrible possibility is that she was dealing with the heartbreak of miscarriage.

Could marital struggles have caused Mr Darcy Sr. to find solace elsewhere?

We do know that Wickham is around Darcy’s age (I always pictured him a couple of years younger for some reason, although Austen doesn’t specify).

Might Darcy know who the little boy he grew up really was? Might he be aware of his mother’s pain, and thus dislike Wickham for being a testament to his father’s weakness?

The Late Mr Darcy’s Affections

Before you discount Emma’s theory, there are some details in Pride and Prejudice that may make you think twice.

During his first chat with Elizabeth, Wickham talks about Darcy’s pride in a very intriguing way:

“We were born in the same parish, within the same park; the greatest part of our youth was passed together; inmates of the same house sharing the same amusements, objects of the same parental care. My father began life in the profession which your uncle, Mr Philips, appears to do so much credit to – but he gave up everything to be of use to the late Mr Darcy (…).”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 16

Two things stand out for me in this paragraph: the first one is the use of italics in My. Italics are relatively rare in Austen’s work. Why did Wickham feel that he had to highlight who his father was? The second one is the odd phrase “objects of the same parental care.” It’s a bold statement, don’t you think?

Touring Pemberley’s Interior (Pride & Prejudice, 1995, Sudbury Hall)

Here’s another example that may raise some eyebrows. When Elizabeth visits Pemberley, she notices Wickham’s miniature over the mantelpiece. Darcy has never had it removed it from its place of honour, despite his personal dislike of the man and Wickham’s heinous attempt to seduce Georgiana. I always thought it odd.

Could it be that Darcy’s behaviour goes beyond honouring his father’s affections? Might it be that, despite everything, he knows they are family?

The Fate of the Younger Son

Another fact that supports Emma’s theory has to do with the late Mr Darcy’s wishes with regards to Wickham’s future. As Mr Darcy explains in his letter to Elizabeth:

“My father was not only fond of this young man’s society, whose manners were always engaging; he also had the highest opinion of him, and hoping the church would be his profession, intended to provide for him in it. (…)”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 35

Darcy’s father wants Wickham to go into the church, which was a reputable way for a gentleman to earn a living. At a time when the eldest son took all, it was also the fate reserved to younger sons.

Then Again, Maybe Not

The gaping hole in Emma’s theory is that Darcy never suggests that his father has any secrets to hide. Darcy refers to him as “my excellent father” in his letter to Elizabeth. Had Mr Darcy Sr. fathered Wickham, wouldn’t Darcy’s opinion of him be a bit less enthusiastic?

Perhaps the simplest explanation for Darcy’s antipathy for Wickham is that, unlike him, who had to bear the weight of his father’s expectations and behave responsibly from a young age, Wickham got to have all the fun…

What do you think? Is my friend Emma’s theory totally insane, or do you believe she might have a point?

22 Responses to Is this Mr Darcy’s Darkest Secret?

  1. It’s an interesting idea, but if Wickham knew and tried to elope with his own half sister . . . . eeew. I rather think that Wickham’s miniature still on display in the house was a plot device so Elizabeth could discover the truthfulness of Darcy’s statements about him. Yes, Wickham was beloved by the old Mr. Darcy and yes, Wickham did grow up to be a cad, just as Darcy said.

    • Yuk to Wickham’s plans regarding Georgiana if they were half-siblings, although as mentioned below, he could simply see them as a way to obtain a handsome ransom. And you raise an interesting point as the miniature being a plot device to show Darcy’s character. He was right all along…

  2. I’ve read so many very over the top plot twists in a P&P variation, and I’m always up for more. However, even though this plot twist has been used, it’s not my favorite. I believe what we were told: Though Wickham professed he would not disparage the son in honor of the father, he rather made that statement a lie….practically in the same breath. And Darcy did not remove the miniature, nor did he tattle on Wickham to his father of W’s debaucheries away from Pemberley in TRUE honor of his father’s attachment. Because of his honor, I believe if Darcy knew Wickham was his half-brother he never would’ve given up on him, and the aborted elopement never would’ve happened.

    • That’s an excellent point, Michelle. I don’t see Darcy choosing to get rid of a half-brother, no matter how irritating and vicious his tendencies. I don’t give the theory much creence either, but it is interesting to see the stories that tiny crevices in Austen’s text are capable of inspiring.

  3. Interesting thoughts about P&P. Several ideas came to my mind. 1. Wickham played up to Darcy Sr and made him laugh while Darcy was more serious minded and was jealous of the attention Wickham received. Wickham would have milked it for all its worth in an effort to stay on the man’s good side and maybe even remember Wickham in his will which he did. 2. Wickham could have been a by-blow of either Darcy Sr or Lady Anne, but I don’t think so. If he had been, I think he would have tried to use Georgiana being his half sister more to advantage than trying to elope with her because marrying her would not have been legal. 3. Wickham and Darcy could have just been childhood friends because of their close ages and then drifted apart when Wickham made bad choices. 4. Wickham could have made Darcy’s life hell at Eton and later on Cambridge and denied ever doing so to Darcy Sr. and been believed over Darcy’s protests. 5. Although Jane Austen chose Wickham as Darcy’s antagonist, she gives us some information about the antipathy between the two but perhaps not all. Did she feel that was sufficient for us to understand why Darcy hated Wickham or did she do that deliberately to make us have some questions about the relationship? We’ll never know as she didn’t take it any further. What those little tiny gaps in information do is give authors the ability to come up with new variations on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and what fun we have doing that. 🙂

    • I love your analysis, Gianna! So many gaps, and so many possibilities… 1. I totally agree with you; 2. I think JW (see below) is right, and Wickham might have planned to elope with Georgina just to obtain a handsome payment in exchange for returning her home safe and sound; 3. A possibility, but for some reason, I always imagined they didn’t like each other from a young age because of 1; 4. Another likely scenario; 5. Yes! Austen absolutely (and very deliberately, in my opinion) left things open to interpretation. I bet that, methodic as she was (can you imagine writing what she did without a word processor?!), she created detailed character backgrounds when working on her books. What a pity they haven’t survived – and then again, what an opportunity! 🙂

  4. I have heard of this theory before and have read stories where that was the case. I have often thought that perhaps Wickham was the oldest but because he wasn’t born within the Darcy marriage, could not inherit and was resentful of that fact. Georgiana being a half-sister would be a plot hole and a problem. Unless, Wickham knew Darcy would catch them before, during, or after their trip to Scotland. What would that mean to Wickham? Nothing! It could be in name only because he knew that Darcy would have it overturned… after paying through the nose, of course. It would be the ultimate revenge and a profitable one.

    I have also read a story where Lady Anne was imposed upon before she married Darcy. Since he loved her, they had a quick marriage and left the country so she could have the child and they let the Wickham’s raised him. A Darcy should inherit Pemberley, not the bastard of a rake who imposed upon Lady Anne. There is another story floating about where neither children [Darcy nor Georgiana] belong to Darcy Sr. I haven’t read it yet but it’s out there. As to whether Wickham is his… that part I don’t know.

    I love messing within the ‘What-If’ story realm. As long as D&E wind up together, I am OK with tweaking the story-line.

    OK… here is a thought… doesn’t Mrs. Wickham sounds a lot like Mrs. Bennet. Did I hear a gasp? Suppose… when Darcy Sr was a young man… he courted/coveted this creature and the then Darcy Sr was not having any part of it. He knew what she was and did not want that for his son. Especially if he had been negotiating with the then Lord Matlock over a betrothal/marriage between his son and Matlock’s daughter Lady Anne Fitzwilliam. Well, since Darcy and Miss Creature had anticipated… well, you get the picture. Darcy married Lady Anne and Miss Creature married Mr. Wickham. Darcy would have established a relationship with the infant/toddler Wickham prior to his legitimate-born heir coming on the scene. As time went on, I imagine he eventually saw the creature for who and what she was. Hopefully, he didn’t regret her. She on the other hand would be one bitter wench as she saw what could have been hers. Perhaps she made a few demands of her pwn and Darcy supplemented her expensive tastes. Again… I see a lot of comparisons to Mrs. Bennet… never satisfied and always wanting more than she had.

    Well, this has been fun. We should do this again. I love to brainstorm. Be safe and healthy during this difficult time.

    • That’s interesting – I always pictured WIckham as a couple of years younger than Darcy, but perhaps that’s because he gets to travel, seduce young ladies and gamble – and wear a dashing uniform, of course! I think your point re: Wickham’s plans is excellent. Wickham might have planned to elope and get Darcy to pay a ransom for Georgiana, even if she was his half-sister. I am sure the poor girl had no idea, though. I really feel for her, poor child.

      ‘What-ifs’ are a lot of fun, and your plot sounds very intriguing! The Mrs Wickham-Mrs Bennet parallels made me laugh -you have hit the nail on the head! I picture Mrs Wickham in her youth as quite a beauty, using her charms to marry a man with a good situation (Mr Wickham must have been on an excellent career path to end up as the Pemberley steward). It’s a storyline that rather recalls the Bennets’ relationship. I can also see Mrs Wickham doting on her son in the way Mrs Bennet constantly praises Jane (or Lydia). By the sound of it, however, Mr Wickham Sr was no Mr Bennet…

      You take care as well in the strange times we’re experiencing.

  5. If Wickham believed he was the son of Mr Darcy, why would he attempt an elopement with his own half sister?

    • You’re right. Wickham is despicable, but eloping with his half sister might be too much even for him, unless his plan all along was to dump her afterwards? It’s a big plot hole in the Darcy and Wickahm siblings theory, that’s for sure.

  6. It is possible, but you also have to take into consideration the role of a godfather in the early 1800s and the infant mortality rate of the era.

    A godparent’s role in the first half of the 19th century included expectation of the development of a close familial relationship, responsibility for the spiritual and religious guidance of the child, and it was not uncommon for a trusted servant to name his employer as a godfather nor for a godchild to live in that employer/godparent’s home , particularly if the employer/godfather was landed gentry. If the child’s parents died, (and Wickham’s parents are deceased by the time the story starts) a conscientious godparent would also be involved in assisting a godchild to prepare for a trade or profession. Such responsibilities and expectations upon the shoulders of a responsible godfather, could easily result in what Wickham experienced from Darcy’s father.

    Also, infant and early childhood mortality rates were considerable during that period. It was not uncommon for a woman to give birth to 8 or more children and only have 2 or 3 reach adulthood. Thus, a ten year span between Darcy and Georgiana does not necessarily mean that no children were born to their mother in the years between their births. It is certainly very possible that Darcy’s mother birthed other children during those years, but that they died in infancy or early childhood, leaving Darcy and Georgiana as the only two to make it to age 16. The rate of infant mortality was so common and nearly universal experience in that era that, unlike today when a sibling has died that unexpected death is commonly referred to in discussions of one’s own family, it was not referred to in conversations with acquaintances then.

    So…it’s possible that Wickham was an illegitimate child of Darcy’s father.. And it’s also common when there are unanswered questions about the backgrounds of fictitious characters (and sometime real people too) that people’s imaginations turn to the possibility of infidelity and hidden secrets.

    On the other hand, the above knowledge of the practice of godparenting and the infant/early childhood mortality rate of that era makes it equally possible that Darcy’s father was not Wickham’s biological father, but was, instead, a man who was trying to be conscientious and responsible in his role as a godfather, in spite of his not seeing through Wickham’s facade.

    And it’s also likely that Darcy was just irked that he could see Wickham’s faults and, in usual adolescent form, really jealous and also mad that his father seemed so blind to those egregious faults as he extended godfatherly assistance to the boy. That sort of adolescent response is universal in every era.

    • You have raised a very interesting point, Mary. In fact, I would argue that the role of a godparent is considered very important in some cultures still today. Moreover, Mr Wickham Sr served Darcy’s father well, and the young Wickham was really very charming, so it is no surprise that Mr Darcy Sr. should choose to pay for his education.

      With regards to the high infant and childhood mortality rate, it is a very sad fact of the era. You will no doubt be familiar with the Regency practise of sending babies to live with a wet nurse until they reached toddlerhood. I always thought that the mothers accepted it in part because they knew the chances of the infant surviving weren’t great, and it was a way not to get too attached to the new baby.

      Your comment about teenagers made me smile. I have a few years to go yet before mine hit adolescence, but I quite dread the high drama. Some things will never change!

  7. I think it’s a fun theory, but why not turn it on it’s head and ask if Wickham was Darcy’s half brother through Darcy’s mother? 🙂

  8. I think it is a reasonable conclusion to make, one of several possibilities but not uncommon in the Regency era.

  9. I found these thoughts interesting and the passages you brought out make a lot of sense. I prefer stories where Darcy:a father is faithful and a food example for his son but I realise that may not have been so. I have read more than one story where Darcy knew of his father’s transgressions or found out about them later. Thank you for sharing these musings.

    • In a way it would make sense for Darcy Sr to have led a more debauched life than his son. From what I have read, the early Georgians were more lax in some affairs, whereas in the Regency it was more the sort of thing to be seen at Court (and we know how little Jane thought of the Regent). Still, I cling to my rose-tinted idea of Darcy’s father as an older version of his son…

  10. I think She is right. I think Darcy had a lot of responsibility and Wickham ran around causing and getting in trouble. I hope Darcys father was faithful to his wife.

  11. I’ve read at least one story with this premise! Personally though I prefer to think that Darcy’s father was totally devoted and faithful to his wife!
    If it was true it would make his attempts to seduce Georgiana even more reprehensible as she would be his half sister! Ugh!

    • I agree, I cannot imagine Darcy Sr. as being anything less than the perfect country gentleman – and yes, the Georgiana affair would be particularly dreadful if he knew they were related!

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