One of the essential plot points of Jane Austen’s revered novel Pride and Prejudice is that the opportunistic Mr. Wickham tried to elope with the 15 year old Georgiana Darcy in order to secure her dowry.
It is strongly implied that this would have been a disaster, for as soon as Wickham had wedded and bedded Georgiana there would have been little Mr.Darcy could have done to save his sister. If he refused to hand over the dowry, she would be left in penury and at the hands of the wicked Wickham. If he handed over the dough, her impoverishment would be prevented (maybe!) but she and any of her children would still be legally the property a immoral and callous man who didn’t love her.
It would suck all around.
Notwithstanding the emotional trauma, there may have been other things that Mr. Darcy could have done to rescue his sister. In a real-life case of a Regency elopement between a cad and a 15 year old heiress by the name of Ellen Turner, the only child of a very rich cloth manufacturer from Pott Shrigley, Cheshire named William Turner. Unlike Georgiana Darcy, Ellen Turner was bullied and bamboozled into marriage rather than wooed, but other than that the whole scandal, which was known as the Shrigley abduction, looked like plot from Gothic novel Austen might have read rather than reality.
On March 7, 1827 a wretched bounder named Edward Gibbon Wakefield sent a servant to Liverpool to tell Miss Turner that her father was on death’s door and he was to escort her there immediately. The ladies who ran the boarding school were skeptical, but they didn’t want to be the kind of monsters that would keep a child from her dying parent, so they allowed her to leave with the respectable–looking manservant in the carriage.
Instead of taking Ellen Turner her father, the servant took her to meet Wakefield at the Hotel Albion in Manchester. There, the crafty Wakefield spun her a tale that was both terrifying and yet plausible enough to be believable. Wakefield told the shocked Miss Turner that her father’s fortune was lost through bad investments. Forced to flee his creditors, William Turner had sent his trusted friend Wakefield to bring Ellen to her parents at Carlisle so they could all abscond to Europe with the little remaining money her father possessed.
Devastated and loyal, Miss Turner of course wanted to be untied with her parents. She and Wakefield made it as far of Kendal, before having to stop for the night. The next day Wakefield had more bade news for Miss Turner – creditors had discovered her father’s plans and William Turner was now a fugitive from the law! While Miss Turner was reeling from this horrid information, Wakefield offered her a slender thread of hope, claiming, “that two banks had agreed that some of her father’s estate would be transferred to her or, to be exact, her husband. He said that his banker uncle had proposed that Wakefield marry Ellen, and that if she would agree to marry him, her father would be saved. Ellen allowed them to take her to Carlisle. There they met Edward’s brother William Wakefield, who claimed to have spoken to Turner and gotten his agreement to the marriage.”
A sheltered fifteen year old girl had very little chance of withstanding the con artists. She had no way of ascertaining any other information, and was distraught at the idea of her father’s possible imprisonment. A dutiful daughter, Miss Turner wanted to help her parents in any way she could. She therefore agreed go with Wakefields to the Scots town of Gretna Green to be wed as soon as possible. Once across the Scotland’s boarder, Wakefield and Miss Turner were hastily married by a blacksmith named David Laing.
Miss Turner wanted to go to her parents and give them the happy news that her marriage to Wakefield had saved her father from creditors. Wakefield promised to take her to her father, but was of course lying through his smarmy teeth. He did, however, send the Turners a letter letting them know he had eloped with their daughter. What the Turners felt when they discovered their precious child was bound to an unprincipled 30 year old trickster can only be imagined.
Wakefield had good reason to assume that the Turners, regardless of how unhappy they were about it, would settle money on their daughter and learn to live with it rather than go through the scandal of a possible divorce or to fight Wakefield in court. After all, once the girl was “ruined” what other choice would they have? She would never be able to marry well after that so she might as well be stuck with Wakefield. This tactic had already worked for Wakefield once:
At the age of 20, he had eloped to Scotland with a 17-year-old heiress, Eliza Pattle. Her mother accepted the marriage and settled £70,000 on the young couple. Eliza died four years later in 1820 after giving birth to her third child. Wakefield had political ambitions and wanted more money. He tried to break his father-in-law’s will and was suspected of perjury and forgery. He appeared to have based his plan to marry Ellen Turner on the expectation that her parents would respond as Mrs Pattle had.
As luck would have it, Wakefield was in for a nasty surprise. William Turner was wealthy, the High Sheriff of Cheshire, and loved his little girl. He wasn’t about to let her fall into the clutches of a rotter like Wakefield. Turner sped toward London to seek help from the Foreign Secretary in finding his daughter. Ruined or not, she wasn’t going to be left with a scoundrel.
Meanwhile, Ellen and her new husband had made it as far as Leeds when Wakefield received “news” that he had to get to Paris without delay. To soothe Ellen’s fears, Wakefield and his brother assured the reluctant girl that William would go get her parents and bring them to London, so they could all go to Paris as one big happy family. You’ll not be surprised to find out that once they were in London the devious Wakefield, with Ellen by his side as a witness, inquired after his brother and William Turner at Blake’s Hotel only to be told by a valet, who had been bribed or mislead himself, that the Turners and William Wakefield had already left for France and would wait for them there. With no other choice, Ellen went to Calais with her husband.
Shortly thereafter, William Turner arrived in London and got official help making enquiries as to Ellen’s whereabouts. It didn’t take long to discover that Ellen and Wakefield had gone to France. Turner remained in London to prepare for a legal battle to end all legal battles while his brother went to Calais with the an English police officer and a solicitor to save Ellen and bring her home.
Ellen’s uncle quickly found the hotel where Wakefield and his newly-wedded wife were staying. Needless to say, once Ellen found out Wakefield had lied she was beyond eager to return to her parents. Wakefield, however, insisted that as her legal husband his “property” could not be taken from him – even if she wanted to leave. Although he was legally correct, French authorities intervened on Ellen’s behalf and let her go home with her uncle.
Apparently the marriage had not been consummated, which made it a different kettle of fish in court. He was a liar, but Wakefield was not a rapist. He hadn’t overpowered his wife or ignored Ellen’s reluctance to sleep with him.
Once Ellen was taken away from him, Wakefield realized his attempt to force money from her father was doomed. In an attempt to save his own hide, he wrote a sworn statement that Ellen was still a virgin before he scarpered off to Paris. Notwithstanding his attempts to escape, the long arm of the law caught Wakefield. He and his brother were both sentenced to three years in prison. His marriage to Ellen Turner was annulled by an Act of Parliament, and Ellen voluntarily married Thomas Legh a year or so later.
All this begs the question – what would Mr. Darcy have done if Wickham had wed Georgiana? There is no way Wickham wouldn’t have consummated the marriage. Having been convinced she loved him, Georgiana wouldn’t have even thought to have refused him his marital rights. That means that Darcy could not have taken Georgiana home even if his sister begged him to come get her. Would Darcy have gone through the expense and scandal of securing his sister a divorce? It would have taken parliamentary intervention, and even then a husband’s adultery or cruelty was NOT considered grounds for a divorce. Even if Georgiana had an affair just to get free of Wickham, her husband would have to be the one to pursue the divorce, and he would have been unlikely to relinquish his Golden Goose regardless of whom else she slept with.
Short of murdering Wickham, there was nothing Mr. Darcy could do to save his sister. Georgiana would have been stuck with a smooth-talking wastrel and all the unhappiness that union would bear her.