What Can Jane Austen Teach Us About Cancel Culture?

Colin Firth (Darcy) and Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth) in the 1995 miniseries "Pride and Prejudice." Photo Courtesy: BBC

There’s a passage toward the beginning of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in which the militia officer George Wickham confides in the book’s protagonist — the witty and intelligent yet slightly prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet. Wickham tells her that the gentleman Mr. Darcy cheated him out of a church position that came with generous pay. "This is quite shocking!—He deserves to be publicly disgraced," Elizabeth quips.

Elizabeth’s decided dislike of Darcy is only reinforced by this tale, but she doesn’t divulge the information, other than to her elder sister, Jane. She’s not a gossip. Wickham doesn’t have the same sense of discretion Elizabeth has, however. He tells his story to the whole of Hertfordshire’s society — even though he’d assured Elizabeth he wasn’t going to expose Darcy out of respect toward Darcy’s late father. "And every body was pleased to think how much they had always disliked Mr. Darcy before they had known any thing of the matter," Austen writes about the reaction the gentry at Hertfordshire have upon hearing Wickham’s account.

Darcy had been cancelled, at least in early 19th-century terms.

Having a ruined reputation. Becoming the focus of public shaming. Being dishonored. Being discredited. Facing backlash for something. The concept of cancel culture — the removal of support toward someone based on their objectionable behavior or opinions — isn’t new.

In Pride and Prejudice and through the genre of comedy of manners, Austen further depicts the norms of society and explores the concept of public disgrace. Later on in the novel, we find out it was Wickham who resolved against taking religious orders and preferred to receive monetary compensation from Mr. Darcy instead. Wickham lied about Darcy’s treatment of him. Through a letter Darcy addresses to Elizabeth, we learn Wickham tried to seduce Darcy’s young sister and was planning to elope with her. Wickham was mainly attracted by the fortune Darcy’s sister is meant to inherit. "Regard for my sister’s credit and feelings prevented any public exposure," Darcy says about his motives not to reveal the true nature of Wickham’s character and his lack of honor.