So, I’ve read a fair number of Pride and Prejudice retellings. Historical retellings. Contemporary retellings. Queer retellings. Retellings with dragons. Literary retellings. And while I have enjoyed many of these retellings, there’s one place where they frequently misstep: how they interpret the Wickham plotline.*
For those who need a refresher, if there’s a villain in P&P, it’s Wickham. He’s charming—and uses that charm to hurt others. He flirts with Lizzie, while filling her ears with rumors about how terribly Darcy treated him. Later, in what one could argue is the climatic moment of the story, he convinces Lydia (Lizzie’s youngest, silliest sister) to run away with him; he has no intention of marrying her, but is, um, convinced to do the right thing when Darcy intervenes.
So there are two sides to the Wickham plotline. The first is shame—specifically, Lydia’s shame. Her status as a kept woman will ruin the social standing of her entire family, and therefore ruin her sister’s chances at getting married. Wickham’s elopement with Lydia is the culmination of a novel about a family in crisis, as they face a future of economic instability and lost status.
The second, which Courtney Milan’s excellent recent article in the Michigan Law Review highlights, is that Wickham is a serial sexual predator, and that his inclusion highlights a major theme of the novel: to wit, that civility and character are not the same, and that judging someone based on their external charm may mean misjuding their actual character. Wickham and Darcy stand in contrast on the civility/character scale. Wickham’s charming lies, and Lizzie’s slow discovery of the depths of his selfishness are essential to her learning to value Darcy as a desirable partner. (Well, Pemberly helps.)
Some retellings do successfully include the full Wickham plotline as a counterpoint to Lizzie and Darcy’s love story. I’m thinking here of Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, where Wickham’s interests in Lizzie’s family are about money and power and the public exploitation of personal trauma, rather than simply sex.
Unfortunately, many P&P retellings really lean into the first aspect of the Wickham plotline, and focus on the shame Lydia brings on her family. Even more unfortunately, many of these retellings are caught up in the idea of Wickham as a sexual predator, which, combined with the shame that Lydia must bring on her family for reasons of plot, really falls flat in many contemporary settings.
Let me parse this out a bit, and give a few examples. So, most retellings don’t go with the “she ran off with him and is living in sin” angle, because there your younger sister living with her boyfriend is no longer complete and utter social ruination for most people. Instead, we have to up the ante.
- In The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, Wickham convinces Lydia to make a sex tape (which Darcy scrubs from the internet). The way this is handled is still pretty slut-shamey, because will a sex tape really ruin Lydia’s life, much less her sisters’ lives? Maybe I’m naïve, but that seems a bit over the top.
- In Ayesha at Last, Wickham is running a sexy-hijab porn site, and tries (unsuccessfully) to get Lydia to pose for some pictures. In this case, Wickham was certainly sketchy, but I wouldn’t call him predatory, so the fear and shame of the family feels overblown—and he certainly didn’t deserve his fate. (Darcy doxes all the men who have used the site, and then doxes Wickham to those men, which is so far beyond ok.)
- In both Pride and Most Ardently, the authors address the Wickham ick-factor by making Lydia very much underage (12–14). In Pride, Wickham stops at bringing Lydia to a party, but in Most Ardently, he does run off with 14-year-old Lydia. This is one of the more successful versions of this side of the Wickham story, not because the family is worried about the family status, but because they are worried about Lydia herself.
- And finally, Eligible, in one of the most troubling versions of Wickham I’ve seen, the whole Darcy/Wickham conflict is removed, to focus only on the Lydia-shame story. An the shame she brings on her family? She marries a transman. (To be clear: I am not troubled that Wickham is trans; I am troubled that the very fact of Lydia finding a happy loving relationship with a transman is framed as a potential source of family dishonor.)
None of these Wickham–Lydia moments, however (with the possible exception of Most Ardently) are really realistic as a moment of a family facing an existential crisis. The moment doesn’t seem to have high stakes, and therefore feels shoehorned into the story because “it’s Pride and Prejudice, and this plot point must occur,” not because the story was actually building up to this moment, both thematically and in terms of character development.
My takeaway? Maybe we shouldn’t focus so much of Wickham’s sexy side, but rather on his insidious charm. In reading a P&P retelling, I am generally more impressed and intrigued by what an author changes than by what they keep the same. There are so many ways you can bring a family to crisis; rehashings of Wickham as solely a sexual threat feel tired.
*As I talk about different retellings, I will refer to the characters by the names of their analogs in the original. First, for the sake of clarity, and second, because do you think I actually remember the names of the characters in the all books I read?