This prequel to Pride and Prejudice begins with George Wickham at age 12, handsome and charming but also acutely aware that his friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, is rich, whilst he is poor. His mother encourages him to exercise his charm on the young Georgiana Darcy and Anne de Bourgh in the hopes of establishing a stable of wealthy social connections.
At university, Darcy and Wickham grow apart. Wickham is always drinking and wenching, whilst Darcy, who apparently has everything, is looking for something he cannot find. Wickham runs through the money Darcy gives him and then takes up with the scandalous Belle, a woman after Wickham's own greedy, black heart.
11th July 1784
Fitzwilliam and I rode out early this morning. We raced down to the river and I won, beating him by a good two lengths, at which I laughed and called him a sluggard. He was annoyed and challenged me to a race back to the house. I accepted the challenge and, once our horses were rested, we set off. He started to pull away from me, jumping the hedge before me, and he reached the drive as I was still crossing the river, so that by the time I reached the stable yard I found him there, waiting for me.
‘That is the trouble with you, George, you use up all your energy to begin with instead of holding something back for later!’ he said. ‘You pushed your horse too hard on the way to the river. He was too tired to give me a race on the way back.’
‘Life is for living,’ I said with a shrug. ‘Live for the moment, win what you can, when you can. There is no use worrying about later.’
Gates, the groom, hobbled towards us and congratulated Fitzwilliam on his victory. I could tell he was pleased that Fitzwilliam had won. It was only right, in Gates’s opinion, that Fitzwilliam should be victorious, because Fitzwilliam was the son of Mr Darcy. It reinforced his belief in the scheme of things, that those at the top belonged at the top, and that those beneath them belonged at the bottom.
I dare say I should have believed it, too, if I had been born at the top, but as I have been born at the bottom I think it a stupid arrangement.
Why should I be beneath Fitzwilliam? I am just as handsome as he is; I am just as intelligent, even though he works harder at his books; and I am just as amusing; in fact I dare say I am a great deal more amusing, for Fitzwilliam is so proud he will not take the trouble to entertain other people.
Yet although he is no better than me, when he grows up he will inherit Pemberley, and I will inherit nothing.
We went into the stables and Fitzwilliam began to tend to his horse. If I were the son of Mr Darcy I would throw the reins to my groom and let him do all the work, but Fitzwilliam always insists on doing it himself, which means that I have to do it, too.
He stood back when he had done it and I could tell that it gave him satisfaction to see his horse well cared for.
Perhaps there is something to breeding after all, for I took no satisfaction in it. I was just relieved to have finished the chore.
Then it was time for us to go home, he to the great house and me to the steward’s house.
As we parted at the corner of the drive and I glimpsed Pemberley in all its glory, I thought, One day I am going to live in a house like that, and no humble beginnings are going to stop me.
As I drew near the house I passed a hackney carriage coming the other way and I whooped with delight. Mama was home! I ran in through the front door and hurried into the drawing-room. There was Mama, surrounded by boxes and paper, trying on a new bonnet and admiring herself in the mirror that hung over the mantelpiece, looking very beautiful.
She caught sight of me in the looking glass and spun round, running towards me with her arms wide open and her smile as bright as a flame. If I had been five years old she would have caught me up and spun me round, and I think that for a moment we both of us regretted that I am now twelve and far too old for such things. But she embraced me anyway, and laughed and said, ‘Oh, Georgie, I missed you! A week away is too long, but the shops in London! You have never seen anything like them. They are so bright and cheerful and full of fine things. And the people! My dear, you have never seen such smartly dressed people in your life. The fashions there are far more advanced than those in the country. There are full skirts and oh! all manner of new things. I just had to have a few new gowns and I cannot wait to wear them, though what your Papa will say, goodness only knows. Well, how do I look. What do you think of my new bonnet? Is it not adorable? Do I not look divine?’
‘You look absolutely ravishing,’ I said, and it was the truth.
She laughed and said, ‘My own darling boy! Now look . . . ’ and she ran across the room, throwing open a box and pulling out a coat, spilling paper everywhere. ‘I have not forgotten you. I have bought something for you. What do you think of this? Will you not look fine?’
She held it up and I was impatient at once to try it on. It was a red coat made in the hussar style with gold frogging all the way down the front.
‘Put it on,’ she said.
I threw off my old coat and obliged her, admiring myself in the looking glass, for indeed I did look very fine. She stood behind me, saying, ‘You take after my side of the family, Georgie, with your handsome face and your good taste and your love of fine things. You were born to be a gentleman, not the son of a steward.’