The Complications of Wickham in Death Comes to Pemberley

The excellent Matthew Rhys as Darcy
reacting to Wickham's trial.
I recently watched P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley. All of my comments refer to the script since I have not read the novel.

The script is fairly standard Austen lite fare--I say that fondly since I have myself produced Austen lite fare! The romance in the household centers on Georgiana, but Elizabeth and Darcy suffer through a marriage crisis that doesn't differ substantially from their pre-engagement crisis. Whether or not a rehash of previous fears and misunderstandings is likely to occur 6 years into a marriage, I'll leave to the therapists.

I found the miniseries (3 episodes equaling a total of 3 hours) engaging although the mystery itself was kind of blah.

What I liked best was the treatment of Wickham.

He's the same guy as in the original. That guy: the one who meanders through life doing whatever he wants and then being shocked, shocked! when he runs out of money and gets threatened by creditors. He has all the moral comprehension of a weasel. Though maybe that's unfair to weasels.

Death Comes to Pemberley captures this aspect of Wickham perfectly. Although I greatly admire Longbourn, I think the Wickham of Jo Baker's imagination is too vile. Wickham isn't evil. He's just the "natural man" in a waistcoat.

At the beginning of Death, when Wickham is accused of murder, Darcy's knee-jerk, automatic reaction is, "But Wickham isn't violent." Darcy knows Wickham. He knows him better than any of the Bennetts. If one needs expert advice regarding Wickham's character, Darcy is--whether he likes it or not--the best person to provide that advice. 

In fact, Death illustrates a fundamental point that I feel is often missed, especially in lite fare: Wickham was and always will be Darcy's problem. Elizabeth blames herself for involving Darcy with Wickham. But Elizabeth didn't grow up with Wickham. Darcy did.

Darcy is often painted wholly heroically: the knight in shining armor who rides to the rescue and conquers the dragon (Wickham) out of disinterested magnanimity.

In truth, as an early nineteenth century landlord, Darcy has always been responsible for Wickham. He doesn't want to be. He tries desperately to break with Wickham completely. But the guy is never going to go away--and wouldn't have even if he'd married someone other than Lydia.

Matthew Goode as Wickham reacting to Darcy.
Another interesting aspect of Wickham that appears in Death is his comment to Darcy about why he keeps returning to Pemberley's grounds. Darcy accuses him of skulking about. Throughout their conversation, Wickham has behaved per usual--blithely shrugging off his circumstances, talking ironically about his wife--but at Darcy's accusation, he abruptly turns and snaps, "It's the only place I was ever happy."

I found this believable. Utterly lacking in introspection, Wickham has no idea how to recreate the life he had when he was young. All he knows is that once upon a time, he wasn't in trouble with (1) Darcy; (2) the army; (3) creditors; (4) his extended family, etc. etc. etc. The only person who doesn't give him grief is Lydia (who is portrayed quite well in Death), and she's a tad flighty (however, she is still more loyal and less critical than anyone else in his life, so he tolerates her, which I also found believable).

There will probably always be a part of Wickham that wishes he could get back to the life he had as a kid, when all he had to do was run around a huge estate with another kid.

Of course, Wickham probably hightailed it to London as soon as he hit late adolescence ("Pemberley is  SOO boring!"), but there's no reason those two realities--I couldn't wait to get away. I can't wait to get back.--can't exist at the same time in the same person.

People are complicated, even someone as apparently shallow as Wickham.


Eugene said...

Wickham is the guy who forever remembers high school as the "best days of my life."

Katherine Woodbury said...


Anonymous said...

Wickham went to the BIG City as soon as he could because he was sure this would provide him with excitement, which is typical of teenagers. The problem is that by age 21 a person should mature and feel some responsibility for what happens. This seems never to have occurred to Wickham!

He was probably a nice kid and was, as a child, a good companion to Darcy. Now, Darcy no longer needs an eight-year-old companion! I wonder if Wickham is hurt, and continually puzzled, by this rejection.

Joyce Woodbury