Will you dance with me?
Confronted with the hideous prospect that the amiable and dashing (and, it must be said, uniformed) Mr Wickman might, in fact, be a bounder and a cad, whereas the dour and standoffish Mr Darcy might actually be the noblest man in England, Elizabeth Bennet’s oldest sibling does precisely what the rest of us would do.
She tries to believe in both of them.
As far as fictional characters of sheer goodness and fellow feeling in English literature go, Jane Bennet has few equals. It is a noble thing to want to believe two diametrically opposed people. And yet sometimes — as Elizabeth observes — only one of them can be right.
The New Testament records the wincingly painful story of a falling out between Paul and Barnabas. Paul was an enormously accomplished disciple of Christ whose missional lifestyle brought him the kind of upsets that would have kept a Tough Mudder contestant in bed. While capable of deep tenderness, Paul is probably more enduringly known as a hardhead, albeit a deeply educated, indefatigable, immensely travelled one.
Barnabas was a reconciler.
How on earth — then or since — would you pick who was right?
Did I say right? Yes. Because — tell yourself what you will — we take sides.
Who would you believe? Paul, the incomparable sufferer for Christ, planter of a dozen churches and (ultimately) martyr. Or Barnabas, the calming voice. The one who drew people together. The healer of the aches of our separated hearts.
In hindsight, two quite similar people, with slightly different temperaments. To believe either of them seems unforgivably disloyal to the other.
On the surface, the case is little better with Wickham and Darcy. If Wickham is in the right, our faith in the nobility is blasted. But if Darcy is right, our family is ruined.
All of us make mistakes…even Darcy. The point is that Wickham didn’t mind making them. Worse, he tried to steal Darcy’s reputation. Tellingly, he didn’t do this by lying to Darcy, but to Darcy’s friends (or — not to strain a point — he allowed them to form erroneous impressions which he didn’t correct).
You can be pretty sure someone is bullshitting you when the person they’re sledging isn’t in the room. Moses wrote about this. Stephen Covey sold books about it. Jay Z raps about it (“Don’t tell me what they said about me…tell me why they felt comfortable saying it to you”). The Westminster system of justice is based on it. And so on.
But let’s take the “only one of them can be right and I’m not sure who it is” scenario because it happens all the time. Often accompanied — as in Wickham’s case — by a ferocious underground attempt to discredit the other party.
I once quit a volunteer organisation because someone got a little too close to me. This person was a dear friend, but in the execution of their duties they made me feel smothered and emotionally manipulated (we call that bullying, okay?). It took me a year to screw up my courage and leave, and another year before I stopped feeling dead inside. My heart was utterly broken. Good friends wrote me well-meaning, highly articulate letters remonstrating with me for my heartlessness. The guy acted wounded (certainly, he was wounded). I was deeply torn, but held my peace.
A decade later my wife stunned me with the news that the friend in question had just been convicted and sent to jail for something that — shall we say — made a whole lot of sense to me. And in a belated rush of hindsight, I finally understood why the friendship had been so toxic.
And no-one called and said, “you were right.”
I’m not surprised. See, most of us recoil from having to choose which friend to believe in (even if one of them does time!). We should recoil. It should hurt us to choose which of our intimate companions we will believe less.
Paul and Barnabas were ultimately reconciled. I like to think Paul ate a teensy slice of humble pie, but I cannot believe Barnabas would have served it to him.
Wickham — or, to be precise, his lack of character — is a different matter completely. And yet we are no more eager to eject him from our hearts than was Elizabeth Bennet. After all, he simpers and fops. And Darcy is a wet fish. Wickham is fun, and Darcy won’t dance. And so on and so forth.
I suspect we repeat these little inanities to ourselves because we lack the courage to face what we already know. And too right! What sane person wants to denounce Wickham if he’s a dear friend, a mentor, a pastor, a parent or a sibling?
Pride and Prejudice remains compelling not just because it so brilliantly explores our twin cravings for security and intimacy (the two great working class trade-offs) but because it shows how far we will delude ourselves in the attempt not to see evil in those we most want to be loved by.
The truth is, people will figure Wickham out, or they won’t. But he will always be Wickham.
People may or may not figure you out, either. But what’s more important? Growing in the love of your family and friends, or gnashing your teeth at the backroom schemes of someone you can’t change?
Let Wickham be Wickham.
You be you.
And let other people be them. Some of them will make you a pariah, and that’s sad.
Others will invite you to dance.