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.

The Different Consequences of Disreputable Behaviour Depending on Gender in Austen’s Literature

After reading Darcy’s letter, Elizabeth seeks her sister Jane’s counsel once again. "I want to be told whether I ought, or ought not to make our acquaintance in general understand Wickham’s character," Elizabeth tells Jane. The sisters agree not to do it. Such exposure of Wickham’s character would be "dreadful"; plus, Darcy hasn’t authorized Elizabeth to make his communication public.

Julia Sawalha (Lydia Bennet) and Adrian Lukis (Wickham) in "Pride and Prejudice." Photo Courtesy: BBC

But when Elizabeth and Jane’s younger sister, Lydia, falls prey to Wickham’s charms — they run away together — the act could have irrevocable consequences not only for Lydia but also for all of the Bennet sisters. Lydia is deemed too poor for the ambitious Wickham to actually intend to marry her. At the time, marriage would be the only way to salvage the honor of a girl who’s been unchaperoned and with a man for days. "The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this," Mr. Collins says about the matter in a letter addressed to Elizabeth’s father, Mr. Bennet. Collins is an affected clergyman of dubious character and Mr. Bennet’s distant cousin and heir. "This false step in one daughter will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others, for who [...] will connect themselves with such a family."

Deeply shaken by the whole affair, Jane and Elizabeth wonder what would have happened if they had exposed Wickham’s true character. Would Lydia have been safe from him then?

In the end, Wickham is revealed to be imprudent, extravagant and prone to leave his debts unpaid. Darcy forces Wickham to marry Lydia — she’s happy with the arrangement — and the good name of the Bennets is restored. Darcy’s name is also redeemed in Hertfordshire when Elizabeth accepts marrying him. His incredible wealth — and the fact that he acquires an understanding of how to be less disdainful — may have also played a role in uncancelling his persona.

When Status and Money Have a Say in Someone’s Reputation

The concept of reputation has changed with time. For many women, it no longer means going from the guardianship of a parent to that of a husband or brother without a hint of reproach in between. But even during Austen’s time, honor and reputation weren’t only a matter of gender, but also status.

Mia Goth (Harriet) and Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma) in the 2020 film "Emma." Photo Courtesy: Focus Features

Take Austen’s 1815 novel Emma about a spoiled, rich, young and beautiful heiress who lives in the small village of Highbury. The lack of society influences Emma to look for her next best friend among the boarders at a local school, and she befriends Harriet, an illegitimate daughter whose father’s identity is unknown. Emma decides to believe Harriet must be the daughter of a gentleman, but the relationship between the two of them is never on equal terms.

"It would have grieved me to lose your acquaintance, which must have been the consequence of marrying Mr. Martin," Emma tells Harriet after coercing her not to accept the marriage proposal from the farmer Mr. Martin. "It would have meant the loss of a friend to me. I could not have visited Mrs. Robert Martin, of Abbey-Mill Farm. Now I am secure of you forever."

Had Harriet decided to marry a farmer, the snobbish Emma would have been forced to cancel her friend. No more hobnobbing with the Highbury society for Harriet. No more being invited to dinner parties, dances or tea.

The fact that Emma is both rich and at the very top of Highbury society allows her to make that kind of decision, whereas Harriet has to make do with the fact that Emma allows her the privilege of her attachment.

There’s another character in Emma who takes advantage of his higher position in the social ladder: Frank Churchill. He’s the son of Mr. Weston by his first marriage and he was adopted by Mr. Weston’s brother-in-law, Mr. Churchill, and his wife. The Churchills are very wealthy, and Frank is their only heir. Throughout several instances of ridicule and deception, Frank acts abominably to everyone. He misleads Mr. Weston and his new wife, Emma’s former governess, regarding the subject of his affections. He flirts with Emma even though he is not interested in her. He ignores and vexes his actual fiancée, Jane Fairfax. And he mocks Jane’s aunt, the impoverished Miss Bates.

Jane and Frank keep their engagement secret because Frank’s aunt wouldn’t approve of it. Jane’s lack of money or position — even though she’s extremely educated, refined and talented — makes her an unsuitable candidate for becoming Mrs. Frank Churchill.

With Mrs. Churchill’s sudden death and Jane on the brink of becoming a governess, Frank makes public his true feelings. Mr. Churchill gives his consent to the match, acting in opposition to what his late wife would have required. Frank no longer risks being left out of the will for marrying Jane. And even though the disclosure of the secret engagement also makes public his dubious behavior toward everyone, he doesn’t face much backlash for it. Money, breeding and society help.

The rules have changed since Austen’s days. Whereas one of her characters may have faced intense criticism in a village or maybe even an English county, in today’s world social media may amplify the news about someone’s failed reputation in a matter of hours. On the other hand, the playing field is much more democratized in the present, and, in many cases, public figures are being judged for their actions regardless of their connections, backgrounds or wealth.

Yet so-called cancel culture remains a controversial and complicated subject, whether that’s when it’s associated with mob mentality or when the real impact on those cancelled is examined.

We can learn from Austen once again when approaching it. Her heroines show us how not to jump too fast to conclusions, to question the source of all gossip and to make our own judgments. But they also prove the value of being honorable.

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