Essay: Darcy, Wickham, Wentworth and Elliot: Respectable and Odious Gentlemen in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion

Although written at different points in Jane Austen’s life, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion have similar pairs of love interests who act as foils, with the lesser man’s faults eventually leading the heroine to choose the better man after a period of confusion and some personal trials. Through the narrator’s own voice, these men are introduced to the reader as highly respectable gentlemen; however, over the course of the novel the reader develops a better understanding of the men’s personalities through their actions. Darcy, Wickham, Wentworth and Mr Elliot are all described by the narrator as attractive men, but their appearances do not reflect their personalities. Instead, the novels stress the importance of intelligence over appearance, and that conversation skills are less important than knowledge and manners. The more intelligent men, Darcy and Wentworth, make up for what they lack in conversational skills by their intelligence and knowledge. Although Darcy and Wentworth at first appear to be less polite than Wickham and Elliot, in the end they turn out to be politer and behave in a more gentlemanly manner than the other two men. Thus, the narrator’s voice, which was instrumental in setting up the reader’s first impression of the men, becomes less important as the novels progress, eventually allowing the reader to form his own conclusion about the qualities of each man. By teaching the reader about explicit and implicit personality traits, Austen’s novels encourage critical thinking as well as showing readers how the ideal husband should behave.

In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy and Wickham are each introduced to the reader in a narrative passage that focuses on the men’s appearance and, especially in the case of Darcy, financial status. The narrator describes Darcy as a “fine, tall person” with “handsome features” and a “noble mien,” then stresses how much money he makes and how popular his appearance and income make him to the eligible ladies in the room. The narrator compares him to Bingley, who was previously thought to be the most eligible bachelor at the ball, and claims that Darcy is more attractive than Bingley, who is merely “pleasant” (12). In this first description, Darcy is more attractive than Bingley because he is more handsome, noble looking, and has more money, which presumably is shown by his clothing (12). Later in the novel, Wickham is introduced in a very similar way, and the narrators details his appearance first, then a few character traits. The narrator writes that Wickham’s “appearance was greatly in his favour” and that he has a “gentlemanlike appearance” with “a fine countenance” (71). Wickham appears to be just as handsome as Darcy, and both men are introduced to the reader physically because their personalities are revealed. Thus, the appearance of the men seems more important to the narrator than their personality. While the men’s gentlemanly appearance could suggest that they act like gentlemen as well, over the course of the novel it is revealed that the men’s appearances are misleading and do not reflect their personalities.

A key difference in the descriptions of Darcy and Wickham throughout the novel is that Darcy’s appearance seems to reflect others’ opinions of him, while Wickham remains attractive despite his unsavoury personality being revealed to the reader. Soon after Darcy is introduced, his unapproachable manner leads the narrator to describe him as “forbidding” instead of “noble,” and having a “disagreeable countenance” instead of a “fine” appearance (13). The switch, which happens in the space of one paragraph, shows how quickly a group’s opinion can change, and how susceptible an individual’s appearance is to interpretation. Later in the novel, Darcy’s true nature is shown by his actions, not descriptions of appearance, suggesting that actions are more reliable than appearance when it comes to judging character. Similarly, Wickham’s appearance is consistently described as handsome, but his actions prove otherwise. Yet, despite Wickham’s wicked nature, the narrator still describes him as “handsome” at the end of the novel when the married Lydia and Wickham visit the Bennet household (312). Thus, while Darcy’s appearance depends on his personality, Wickham manages to not have his appearance reflect his personality. Wickham’s untainted image suggests that appearances can be manipulated to hide a person’s inner defects, and that Darcy does not manipulate his image, but is more open and readable than Wickham.

In Persuasion, Wentworth and Mr Elliot are also both attractive men, although both are showing their age. When Anne first meets Wentworth in 1806, he is described as a “remarkably fine young man,” but Lady Russell believes his personality is too dangerous for Anne, and that despite his handsome appearance, he will lead her to ruin. When Anne meets him for the second time, time has “given him a more glowing, manly, open look,” and the narrator claims that age has not lessened “his personal advantages” (57). Despite being a weathered sailor, Wentworth is still an attractive man, and is even described as handsome by the young Louisa and Henrietta (51). Later in the novel, the narrator introduces Mr Elliot as having a “gentlemanlike appearance,” an “air of elegance and fashion,” and “a good shaped face” (131). However, Sir Walter claims that Mr Elliot’s face is “underhung” and that he is showing his age. The “underhung” face suggests that Mr Elliot has a protruding lower jaw and an overbite, characteristics which were deemed unattractive at the time. However, while Mr Elliot is not perfectly handsome, he is still described as “gentlemanlike” in appearance. Although both men are older than the average bachelor, the narrator clearly describes them as handsome men, just like Darcy and Wickham are described as handsome men.

The two pairs of men share a lot of similarities in the ways they are depicted by the narrator. Since Wickham and Mr Elliot are revealed to be quite ungentlemanly in their actions, it is interesting to note that they are both described as having a “gentlemanlike appearance” (P&P 13, P 131). Meanwhile, Darcy and Wentworth are both more traditionally masculine, as Darcy is tall and Wentworth is “manly.” Although both novels depict men that are handsome, both novels recognize one man as a more skilled speaker than the other. Wickham and Elliot are easier to talk to than Darcy and Wentworth because they have superior speaking skills, while Darcy is somewhat socially inept while Wentworth is still angry at Anne for rejecting him years ago. Thus, both heroines find it easier to talk to Wickham and Elliot, at least until Darcy proves to Elizabeth that he is not too proud to be kind and Wentworth forgives Anne for breaking their engagement. Although all men are similarly attractive, the heroines originally prefer Wickham and Elliot — the men they do not marry at the end of the novels — because they are easier to talk to.

The men’s conversation skills mislead the heroines, as Elizabeth and Anne prize interpersonal skills over intelligence at first, but over time learn from their mistakes. Both heroines end up with the more intelligent, less conversational man, especially in the case of Darcy. Darcy is “continually giving offense” because of his lack of conversational skills, but is intelligent and, according to the narrator, “In understanding, Darcy was the superior [to Bingley]” (18). While his interpersonal skills make him quiet, awkward, and difficult to converse with, his intelligence makes him a valuable friend to Bingley. On the other hand, Wickham is described as a good conversationalist but the narrator does not comment on his intelligence, suggesting that he is of normal intelligence and it is not worth describing to the reader (77). Instead, the narrator only describes the “readiness of conversation” that occurs between Elizabeth and Wickham when they first meet, and that he can make even the dullest conversations interesting (71). The narrator claims that it is all in the “skill of the speaker” to make conversation interesting, and suggests that Wickham is highly skilled in speaking because he can make their otherwise dull conversation very interesting (75). While Wickham’s speaking skills attract Elizabeth to him at first, as she discovers his true nature, she begins to view Darcy’s intelligence with higher esteem.

As the novel progresses, Darcy’s intelligence shows itself to be more useful and important than Wickham’s skills, which he uses for evil instead of good. Wickham manages to convince Lydia to run away with him because of his conversational skills, but Darcy’s intelligence ultimately saves the Bennets when he finds Lydia and Wickham (307). By convincing Wickham to marry her instead of leaving her, Darcy uses his intelligence to save the Bennet family and secure Elizabeth’s respect, whereas Wickham has lost all of Elizabeth’s respect and is revealed as a manipulative, selfish man. However, Wickham’s true nature is not revealed to Mr and Mrs Bennet, and they still fall for his false charms. Even at the end of the novel, Wickham is so polite to the Bennets that Mr Bennet claims that he is his favourite son-in-law (358). Wickham’s ability to hide his true personality through his interpersonal skills suggests that speaking skills are often deceitful and are dangerous in men, while Darcy’s intelligence is a safer trait for a man to have, as Darcy is more truthful and honest than Wickham, and thus a better match.

Although Wentworth’s conversation skills are not explicitly described by the narrator, like Wickham, Mr. Elliot is also a skilled speaker and engages Anne in many interesting conversations. Wentworth is described as a “brilliant” man who looks and says “everything with such exquisite grace,” his intelligence and success as a naval officer proves that his intelligence is his primary trait, not his speaking skills (51). However, Mr Elliot relies almost entirely upon his interpersonal skills, and is described as having the “correct opinions” and “knowledge of the world” (137). Although there is less of a disparity in speaking skills between these two men, Wentworth’s intelligence is discussed by the narrator more than his conversation skills, while Mr Elliot’s conversation skills are prized more than his intelligence, as his intelligence is only due to him having the “correct opinions” and worldly knowledge. While Wentworth has many years of experience travelling the world, Mr Elliot’s knowledge of the world comes from him being a rich aristocrat, not an intelligent officer who has made a name for himself. Thus, Wentworth is more intelligent than Mr Elliot, even though they seem to have similar conversational skills, at least until the end of the novel.

At the end of the novel, Anne realizes that Mr Elliot’s conversational skills are more manipulative and conniving than sincere and gentlemanly. After learning about his past, she views his personality as “too generally agreeable” and questions why he can get along with everyone in the house — even Mrs Clay, who he claims to dislike (151). She questions how a single man can appeal to so many different tempers, and believes he “stood too well with everybody,” suggesting that he changes his behaviour based on who he is talking too (151). Like Wickham, Mr Elliot is a trickster, looking to make alliances only for his own gain, and he lies to Anne in order to get what he wants from her and the Elliot family. Thus, like in Pride and Prejudice, the more talkative, conversational man is the less trustworthy man, and the quieter, more intelligent man is the better choice for marriage. Wentworth has proven his worth to Anne by becoming a successful naval officer, which took many years of dedication and focus, while Mr Elliot loses Anne’s respect in a short period of time due to his inability to outsmart the people around him. Both Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice demonstrate how intelligence is not only superior to interpersonal skills, but it is also a safer trait to have in a partner, as conversational skills can be used to manipulate while intelligence leads the men to choose the morally right actions.

The true defining factor between the two pairs — Darcy and Wickham or Wentworth and Mr Elliot — is their mannerisms. While Wickham is a threat to class boundaries and propriety, “Austen offers Fitzwilliam Darcy as a foil” and proves that he is the better man (J. Wilson 4). After Elizabeth refuses his proposal, Darcy tries to become politer, and is exceptionally kind and polite to the Gardiners when they visit his estate, but he is still just as proud as a man of his station is expected to be. Instead of explaining his traits, the narrator lets his personality be described by his housekeeper, who insists that he is generous, kind, and liberal (246). Similarly, the narrator does not explicitly describe Wickham as a selfish, manipulative man, but shows through his actions that he is aware of his wrongdoing and afraid of Elizabeth revealing his true nature (310–11). After Elizabeth reveals that she found has been to Pemberly and heard the truth about him from the housekeeper there, Wickham “hardly knew how to look” and although he kisses Elizabeth’s hand with “affectionate gallantry,” he does not bring up his misfortunes to her again (311). The narrator claims that Elizabeth had revealed enough of her knowledge to “keep him quiet” and that he does not breach the subject with her again (312). By the end of the novel, the actions of both men speak louder than their appearances or words, and Darcy’s polite actions prove that he is morally superior to Wickham.

In Persuasion, Wentworth and Mr Elliot are contrasted not by their appearances, but by their actions. In Archbishop Richard Whately’s review of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1821, he writes that “the moral lessons also of this lady’s novels, … are not offensively put forward, but spring incidentally from the circumstances of the story” (n.pag). Instead of explicating writing a conduct novel or advice book, Austen demonstrates through her characters how to judge men’s personalities. When Mrs Smith reveals to Anne Mr Elliot’s wrongdoings, she begins by telling her about his personality explicitly, saying:

Mr Elliot is a man without heart or conscience; a designing, wary, cold-blooded being, who thinks only of himself … He has no feeling for others … He is totally beyond the reach of any sentiment of justice or compassion. Oh! he is black at heart, hollow and black!” (187)

After this exclamation, Anne is alarmed, but does not believe that Mrs Smith can be telling the truth. Most of her knowledge about Mr Elliot’s current designs are from a collection of other women and Anne believes this information is too remote to be credible (192). However, in addition to Mrs Smith’s description of his character, she later relates how Mr Elliot ruined the Smiths and left Mrs Smith destitute, refusing to help her find the property in the West Indies that her late husband owned (197). This action, supported by letters, convinces Anne that Mr Elliot is as terrible as Mrs Smith claims he is. Anne’s prudence in believing only facts, not Mrs Smith’s opinion, demonstrates that she knows to trust peoples’ actions over their supposed personality traits, as she has already been led astray by supposed personality traits before. In her first engagement to Wentworth, she ultimately broke the engagement because Mrs Russel believed his personality was too dangerous for Anne (27). However, upon meeting him for a second time, Anne realizes that Mrs Russell judged his personality too harshly and his actions prove that he was worthy of marriage. Thus, the actions of Wentworth and Mr Elliot are more important in Persuasion than their descriptions.

Both Wickham and Mr Elliot are revealed to be selfish manipulators by their actions, not their appearances or mannerisms. Although they appear to be gentlemanly, the heroines soon discover that Darcy and Wentworth are morally superior in action, whereas Wickham and Mr Elliot are untrustworthy and ungentlemanly individuals. Margaret Madrigal Wilson writes that “although superficially Frederick Wentworth is akin to the other man, in essentials, he is as heroic as Darcy,” but “William Elliot shows himself a selfish creature who acts by the Smiths in a cruel way” (M. Wilson 183, 185). Anne notes that Mr Elliot has done “irremediable mischief” and her opinion of his character immediately drops, claiming that his language was “odious” and that she can hardly bear the “sound of his artificial good sentiments (201). On the other hand, Elizabeth regrets misjudging Darcy, and as the Egerton 1813 review says, “she is obliged to condemn herself for her precipitancy in believing the calumnies to which she had given ear” (Egerton 323). Meanwhile, Lydia’s request for a place where they will earn “three or four hundred a year” bothers Elizabeth, as she knows that Darcy is already providing for Wickham. Although she does send money to Lydia, it is only because she wants her sister to be secure, and only Lydia is invited to Pemberley, never Wickham. By the end of both novels, the characters of Darcy and Wentworth have been solidified by their actions, and Wickham and Mr Elliot are revealed to be the ungentlemanly foils of the morally righteous men.

The novels Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion suggest that a man’s actions are more important than others’ opinions of him. When Anne refuses to believe Mrs Smith’s description of Mr Elliot until she is shown proof, Anne is demonstrating how women should judge men based on facts, not opinions, and especially not the opinion of others. The narrator’s voice, which clearly sets up the characters at the beginnings of the novel, becomes less important as the novels progress and characters’ actions make their true natures become more apparent to the reader. Although the narrator establishes all four men as equal in appearances and relatively equal in manners, as the novels progress Wickham and Mr Elliot are revealed to be selfish men, while Darcy and Wentworth demonstrate their moral superiority and their nature as true gentlemen. As a novel of the nineteenth century, Austen establishes the unreliability of appearances and shows successful heroines favouring actions over words, eventually choosing the right man based on his actions instead of his words or appearance. Thus, Austen is warning against judging men too quickly, as both heroines mistake the personality of their love interests. The similar romantic structure of both novels demonstrates how, at the time, judging a man’s character accurately before marriage was of the utmost importance for women, as women were entirely at the mercy of their husbands. The fact that one novel was written early in Austen’s life and the other at the end of it proves that this was an important issue for Austen, and she was still exploring how to accurately judge characters and how marriageable men should act in comparison to unmarriageable men.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Edited by Vivien Jones. London, Penguin, 2003.

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Edited by Gillian Beer, London, Penguin Books, 2003.

Egerton. “Critical Review.” British Fiction 1800–1829: A Database of Production, Circulation & Reception, http://www.british-fiction.cf.ac.uk/reviews/ prid13–7.html

Wilson, Margaret Madrigal. “The Hero and the Other Man in Jane Austen’s Novels.” Journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America— Persuasions, vol. 18, 1996, pp. 182–185. Jasna.org.

Wilson, Jennifer Preston. “‘One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it’: The Development of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.Journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America— Persuasions On-Line, vol. 25, no. 1, Winter 2004, pp. 1–6. Jasna.org.

Whately, Richard. “Archbishop Whately on Jane Austen.” The Quarterly Review, January 1821. Reprinted in Famous Reviews, Selected and Edited with Introductory Notes, edited by R. Brimley Johnson. 1914. Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11251/pg11251.html

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