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?
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?