A friend of mine recently declared how happy she is about Matthew Goode portraying George Wickham in the PBS version of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley. He is one of the best-cast characters in this bleak, dark, depressing representation of Jane Austen’s story world. He is also a handsome successor to the other Mr. Wickhams.
Edward Ashley played Mr. W. in the 1940 Greer Garson, dreadful hoopskirt version of the story.
And then we had blond Mr. Wickham, Peter Settelen, in 1980.
Counterbalancing Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy in 1995 was Adrian Lukis.
And in the 2005 movie, another blond Mr. Wickham was Rupert Friend (who was later quite awesome as Prince Albert in The Young Victoria).
Let’s add to this list of handsome cinematic rogues a contemporary of Jane Austen, the real Mr. William Wickham.
William Wickham was a British civil servant and spymaster during the late eighteenth century. As a young man, he had studied law in Geneva, Switzerland and married a Swiss woman. In 1793 he was appointed a magistrate and began his secret work for the government. In 1794 he was sent to Switzerland, officially to serve in the British Embassy there, and unofficially to establish a spy network throughout Europe. The French persuaded the Swiss to expel him, but he returned to Europe, and after a series of the kind of vicissitudes one would expect in his line of work, resigned in 1801 and returned to England.
In 1802 he was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, resigning in 1804 following the execution of Irish Nationalist Robert Emmet for high treason.
As I mentioned, William Wickham was a contemporary of Jane Austen, and as a magistrate, a public figure. It’s possible that an intelligent, well-read woman would have heard of him. Would she have named her villain after him? I’m guessing no. Wickham is a relatively common surname, and poor Jane must have had the same problems all of us novelists have picking names.
But was the real Mr. Wickham, who was the head of a spy network, a rogue like Jane’s Mr. Wickham? Again, I don’t think so. Besides his dedication and perseverance in battling the horrors of revolutionary France, there’s this report, from “Robert Emmet: between history and memory” in History Ireland, of his reaction to Robert Emmet’s death:
He resigned in 1804 because he could no longer implement laws that were ‘unjust, oppressive and unchristian’ or bear the intolerable memory that he had been ‘compelled by the duty of my office to pursue to the death such men as Emmet and Russell’. Of Emmet, he said: ‘Had I been an Irishman, I should most unquestionably have joined him’.
Handsome, dedicated, a man of conscience, this real Mr. Wickham is far more compelling than any movie character. What do you think?
Matthew Goode: BBC; Edward Ashley: www.aveleyman.com; Peter Settelen: reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com; Adrian Lukis: BBC; Rupert Friend: thefancarpet.com; William Wickham: agent007blog.com and HistoryIreland.com