Every reader of Pride and Prejudice – not to mention several million people who haven’t read it and aren’t planning to – knows that Mr Darcy was posh. Just how posh is less obvious to most people now than it was when P&P was published in January, 1813.
Fitzwilliam Darcy was the son of Mr Darcy of Pemberley, in Derbyshire, and his wife, Lady Anne (Ch. 16) – so before her marriage, Lady Anne Fitzwilliam, the daughter of an earl. Or possibly, in fiction, a marquess or a duke. But Earl Fitzwilliam was not fictional. William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, fourth Earl Fitzwilliam (1748 – 1833) was, and had been for the whole of Jane Austen’s lifetime, one of the richest people and, having inherited the estates and vast patronage of his uncle the Marquess of Rockingham in 1782, one of the most prominent political figures in England, a close friend of Charles James Fox and of the Prince of Wales. His influence was for the most part exercised from behind the would-be throne, and his periods in office were brief even when his friends were in power, but nobody doubted, or concealed, his importance. Certainly nobody doubted it during the long political crisis that began with King George III’s latest and as it turned out final descent into madness, after the death of his daughter Amelia, in November 1810, and lasted until the aftermath of the assassination of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, in May 1812. Throughout that period, and especially during the preparation and passage of a limited Regency Bill in February 1811, and of a permanent one twelve months later, it was expected that the Prince of Wales would dismiss his father’s ministry and install a new one of his friends. It never happened, but if it had done Fitzwilliam would certainly have been one of its leading figures – quite possibly, some thought, Prime Minister.
We do not know when Pride and Prejudice was revised (or how much it was changed, though I share the general view that the rewriting was very substantial) from First Impressions, but the many dates given in it fit the calendar of 1811 and 1812, and it was ready for publication by November 1812. Fitzwilliam, that is to say, was headline news during the whole period in which the book as we now have it was written, and in which its action takes place. His name is not the only pointer towards him. With his main residence at Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham in south Yorkshire, he was a near neighbour of the Darcys at Pemberley, in the Derbyshire Peak District. He was the greatest landowner and always an active and leading figure in the region, and he had the reputation, like both Mr Darcys, of being a fair and generous landlord. And we probably underrate Jane Austen’s subtlety and brilliance of detail, as even her warmest admirers are apt to do, if we think it a coincidence that though the nearest town to Pemberley, Lambton, where Elizabeth and the Gardiners stayed, is not a real place in Derbyshire, it is one in County Durham – and the seat of another great landowner and leading figure in the Whig aristocracy, John Lambton (Radical Jack), later first earl of Durham, who long after Jane Austen’s death christened his eldest son Darcy, after the ancestor from whom his lands descended. Lambton entered parliament in the general election of October-November 1812.
Fitzwilliam’s mother was named Anne, but he had no daughters, so Jane Austen could safely imply that Darcy was his grandson without the risk that Lady Anne – or, worse, her sister Lady Catherine de Bourgh – could be identified with a real person. Deniability is completed several chapters later (Chs. 30, 35), and Darcy’s family tree somewhat removed from Fitzwilliam’s, when we learn that Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam is the younger son of an earl who was the brother of Lady Anne and Lady Catherine. Their father, Darcy’s grandfather, therefore, was dead, whereas the real Earl Fitzwilliam was, in 1812, very much alive. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable that in the early part of the novel Jane Austen could have so unmistakeably signalled her hero’s relationship to so conspicuous a public figure by accident, even if she chose later to muddy the water that she had at first made crystal clear.
I noticed this connection only recently on, at a conservative estimate, my twenty-somethingth reading of P&P. Not my period. But it surprises me that I have never found it mentioned in my unsystematic but fairly extensive ramblings through commentary and criticism on Austen and P&P, a body of work hardly notable for its disdain of trivia. And I do not think this altogether trivial. It has no bearing on the action, but it adds weight, for example, to Darcy’s comment to Bingley that Jane’s and Elizabeth’s ‘low connections’ ‘must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world.’ (Ch. 8). It dramatises further not only the social but the moral and political gulf between Darcy’s background and Elizabeth’s, or Jane Austen’s. The circles his relations moved in were even less likely to command her approval than those in which Henry Crawford of Mansfield Park, on which Austen was working at the same time, had grown up. Conversely, the sober and relatively modest manner of Darcy’s own lifestyle, despite the temptations notoriously available to him, is another signal that there was more to commend him to Elizabeth than she perceived at first.
Since, as far as I know, this is an original observation I hereby assert copyright. I need hardly add that I will be very glad to receive comment, especially from the many who are much better qualified to assess it than I am.
An old friend who knows P&P at least as well as I do, and the period a great deal better, comments that my theory is perhaps a little too clever, and wonders whether it over-estimates either Jane Austen’s knowledge of, or interest in, the politics of the day, or the level she expects in her readers. I think not. In the first place, newspapers and journals are always at hand to be picked up or perused by gentlemen who for one reason or another wish to avoid conversation, even in so modest and remote an all-female establishment as that of the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen would hardly expect us to think them of any less interest to women, if less ostentatiously, and we should not suppose that her contemporaries were any less interested in the cavortings and family connections of the celebrities of the day than their twenty-first century counterparts; after all, Mrs Bennet, no great reader, ‘did not remember the name (of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s daughter) among the young ladies presented at court’. (Ch. 14) In the second, Austen’s novels are, of course, littered with aristocratic names and resonances – Wentworth, Woodhouse, Ferrars, Dashwood and so on. But in no other case is there any other hint of reference to the real noble family whose name is being used. On the contrary, the only instance I can think of where any specific information at all is vouchsafed is that of the Churchills, in Emma – a landed family from Yorkshire, a county in which the real Churchills (the family name of the Dukes of Marlborough) had, as far as I know, no significant connection or influence. Darcy is unique: he is given not only a famous name, but a number of circumstantial and accurate connections to go with it. I am less inclined than ever to think that accidental.