One turned white, the other red…but which is which?

IN preparation for beginning to teach Pride and Prejudice this Friday, I’ve been rereading the novel (for probably the hundredth time), but one of the joys of teaching Austen is re-discovering the magic of the stories with the students–of despising and loving Darcy by turns; of being captivated by Frank along with Emma every single time even though we know he’s something of a rattle. But I digress. What struck me today while reading was the scene depicting that first encounter between Darcy and Wickham–particularly Austen’s description of their facial expressions; quite simply, “one turned white, the other red”, but it’s left to the reader to decide which color is attributed to which character. There’s been some recent work on the significance of the blush or “coloring” in Austen’s novels and other nineteenth-century fiction as well, but such discussions are, at least to my knowledge, relegated primarily to the consideration of female characters. In this case, if the whiteness signifies anger or fury–surely it would be Darcy who would justifiably betray such emotion; then again, he might have reddened with indignation. Contrarily, Wickham might have blanched with fear of Darcy or, perhaps,of potential public disgrace; the former would be more likely since such exposure would implicate Georgiana as well–and Darcy is nothing if not conscious of preserving family pride and his sister’s reputation. Then too, Wickham might redden with embarrassment or shame–also a highly probable reaction.
This seems hardly worth noting, except for the fact that on the simplest level, it reflects Austen’s frequent tendancy to give us little information respecting the physical characteristics of her characters. We’re rarely given detailed descriptions of what her characters “look like”, which on the one hand can be irritating to a reader and on the other encourages us to exercise our own powers of imagination.
It’s the main reason why I’m both amused and baffled by Colin Firth’s off-hand comment that he does not, in fact, look anything like Darcy–for all we know, he might. True, Darcy is described (though in broad strokes) as being strikingly handsome, and Colin’s appearance is traditionally described as nutral, though certainly not without attraction. If anything, we can probably conjecture that he’s a bit shorter than Darcy, though since all we know about Darcy’s height is that he’s taller than Bingley, there again, much is left to imagination.
But to return to the original question that sparked this rather unsystematic analysis: the only logical explanation I can think of at present–and admittedly I haven’t given it much thought–is that attributing those facial expressions to one or the other man would probably have revealed or hinted at details in their relationship to one another that Austen wants to withhold from us until later.


Think about it!

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