‘Pride and Prejudice’ : Jane Austen’s ubiquitous novel about Georgian repression, manners and familial expectation continues to provide us with a constant supply of repeats, adaptations, prequels and sequels. And endless speculation. Seldom off the study list for analysis by English literature students, globally, it remains one of the firmest of favourites of classical works. Whether you’ve read it, watched it, or just heard about it, you’ll almost certainly be acquainted with, if not the whole plot, certainly some of the prominent characters. Mr Darcy anyone? Mrs Bennett? And then there’s Darcy’s antithetical anti-hero George Wickham. Wicked villain or lovable rogue?
Adrian Lukis (who co-wrote the play with historian Catherine Curzon) clearly relishes his role, and is revisiting the part he played in the 1995 BBC drama, now as a sexagenarian (good word!) with equal relish. Was it really that long ago?
Ever since the novel was published, Wickham has variously been described using a variety of adjectives, giving him, in my opinion, a much more multi- faceted personality than that of the main protagonists, cold, snooty Fitzwilliam Darcy and the wise and witty Elizabeth Bennett. Although of course, Darcy more than redeemed himself in many ways. Yes, Austen created a deceitful, philandering, reprehensible profligate, but she gave him more than a sprinkling of good looks, charm and winning ways. A dissolute character from a young age, he created mischief and chaos everywhere he went, leaving a trail of broken hearts and disgrace. And yet he appears to have behaved himself reasonably well as a lieutenant in the Militia during the years of the French Revolution, and accorded some degree of respect. However the rank of lieutenant was only bestowed on men of a certain level of income, which Wickham doesn’t appear to have qualified for, so how could that be? Possibly another of ‘perk’ of being the godson and ward of wealthy landowner Mr Darcy senior? Who knows? Never explained.
In this delicious one hour monologue from Adrian Lukis, Wickham is fictitiously enjoying a solitary late night beverage – or four – on the evening of his 60th birthday, indulging in reminiscences of his past with not a little savour and a notable absence of regret, giving us his version of ‘what went on’. Naturally this is obviously always going to be an hour of total self- indulgence by a character who, although mellowed by the years, remains pretty unrepentant. Others are to blame for his behaviour, and his lifelong resentment and jealousy of Darcy is still blatantly transparent.
Wickham and Lydia are, amazingly, still married. Somehow that didn’t sit quite right with me. Wickham was depicted by Austen as feckless, and a human butterfly when it came to relationships with women, and yet here he is, some 25 years later, comfortably settled and seemingly content with Lydia, whom he was coerced into marrying with the aid of an expansive financial bribe by Darcy, to save her reputation from ruin following their illicit flight to a Brighton hotel, where our saviour Darcy found them shacked up together. How much must have Lydia, who comes across as something of a giggling airhead in both book and film, either cleverly tamed Wickham immediately after the wedding (unlikely) or overlooked the subsequent transgressions which surely must have continued, choosing instead to stand by her man (more probable). Also, it must be said that Lydia was not averse to a dashingly handsome man now in possession, thanks to Darcy, of an equally handsome income.
During this entertaining hour, when Wickham, never without an empty glass, unashamedly confirms his ego-on-a-stick persona, wryly acknowledging his bad behaviour, at the same time transferring all initial blame on the influence of Byron. Brought up at Pemberley by Darcy Senior, but never ever the equal of Darcy Junior, and then being bullied at school by his headmaster. Generously raised in the Darcy household with favour and opportunity galore bestowed upon him, he developed into a shallow and and aggrieved young man. Expelled from school, he openly boasts of his awful behaviour, accruing women and debt with equal regularity. Austen depicts him as a lying, deceitful cheat. Yes, George Wickham is also a dastardly coward in many respects, and yet he seems to have conducted himself pretty well in the army. Austen herself describes him a having ‘a happy readiness of conversation’…. ‘perfectly correct and unassuming’. He found favour amongst the ‘creditable, gentlemanlike set’, and was obviously a total charmer.
Adrian Lukis’s 60 year old George Wickham is suavely unapologetic. ‘Yes, I’m flawed. Aren’t you? Aren’t we all?’ He is deftly playing down the enormity of these flaws. He comes to us, twinkle in the eye, glass in hand, as the epitome of eternal charm, ruminating on his past misdemeanours, which he (fictitiously) still indulges in apparently from time to time. Always with a smiling excuse. He remains the superficial cad we know, and dare I say, love? After all, has much changed in 300 or so years? Although women in most cases, it must be said, are these days both formally educated and not so susceptible (it is to be hoped) to the wicked ways of those who try to inveigle them.
This was a beautifully rounded performance, thankfully not simply a string of ‘incidents’ related, and artfully never really explained. Perhaps because deep down beneath his shallowness, he knows they can never be justified?
Again, who knows what goes on behind those eternal good looks and magnetic personality? He is not seeking reparation, just regaling us with a late night insight into his youthful foibles (as he clearly sees them), and attempting to give them at least a tad of justification. (There is none!). When Wickham gives us a brief updating on his present lifestyle I admit I found the idea of George, Fitz, Lizzie and Lydia cosying up by the Pemberley fireside whilst the wives chew the fat on the sofa a little difficult to conjure up, or the image of a middle-aged Darcy/Wickham pally partnership. Arguably there were a few holes in the narrative; there was scarcely a mention of Wickham’s father and only a nod to his fling with Georgiana, Darcy’s sister, but otherwise it was all ‘most agreeable’, to use one of Jane Austen’s favourite phrases….
The play was followed by the delightful Adrian Lukis returning in jeans and sweater, having changed out of his 18th century weskit and mutton sleeved garb, for a 20 minute Q&A session. A nice touch and he evidently enjoys this bit immensely, replying to our questions with speedily delivered hypothetical answers. Do we come away with ‘Come back Wickham, all is forgiven’. Well, maybe. Maybe not…..
Possibly with a mischievous reference to the famous opening line of “Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged ……. ‘, there is a last mini attempt at self exoneration from 60 year old George:
‘One truth in life: Survive. And I have survived!’
Reviewer: Gill Ranson
1 hour. 10 minute interval followed by 20 minute Q&A