Colonel Fitzwilliam: An Officer And A… Gentleman?

I recently read a post on Austen Variatons that hit home. It was a (ficticious) interview with Colonel Fitzwilliam by Jack Calwell, author of The Cajun Cheesehead Chronicles. The article quotes Jane Austen to establish what the writer of Pride and Prejudice really says about the character, to subsequently acknowledge that the Colonel has captured the imagination of JAFF fans to become what he calls Colonel Stud-Muffin (Jack’s words, not mine, although I very much agree).

Jack believes that the rising appeal of Colonel is closely linked to the casting choices by contemporary TV and film adaptations. He mainly blames the handsome Anthony Calf (from the 1995 BBC adaptation) for this, and I couldn’t agree more: Mr Calf is a rather handsome gentleman indeed, and his Colonel Fitzwilliam is very dashing as a result (swoon). The way the character is depicted in the TV series, however, is very different from his description in the novel:

“Colonel Fitzwilliam, who led the way, was about thirty, not handsome, but in person and address most truly the gentleman.”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 30

The issue of TV adaptations and their impact on our perception of Austen characters is fascinating. However, when I started to write my Austeniana series, based on Jane Austen’s novels, I was determined not to be swayed by what I had seen on TV and film, but to go back to the original sources. In Miss Darcy’s Beaux, Colonel Fitzwilliam makes a few appearances, but instead of adhering to the general admiration of the character by a large population of fans, I deliberately chose to be faithful to the original Pride and Prejudice novel.

As a result of my decision, Miss Darcy’s Beaux is already proving quite contentious with some readers, more so than I anticipated. I think there’s beauty in the fact that a character written more than 200 years ago has the power to generate controversy. At the same time, I stand by my work, because I believe it’s faithful to the spirit of Jane Austen’s novels. To further justify my character depictions in the novel, and allow readers to understand my story choices, I thought it would be useful to recap what Jane Austen tells us about the Colonel.

Without further ado, here are the top three things that Jane Austen tells us about Colonel Fitzwilliam:

1) Colonel Fitzwilliam is shamelessly materialistic

The Colonel is accustomed to a very comfortable standard of living. When Lizzy asks him”Now, seriously, what have you ever known of self-denial and dependence?”, he is forced to admit that “I cannot say that I have experienced many hardships of that nature.”

The Colonel’s life has been so far very easy, and he wants it to remain so. Therefore, he is determined to marry a wealthy woman. He makes his case very plainly to Elizabeth:

“In matters of greater weight, I may suffer from the want of money. Younger sons cannot marry where they like. (…) Our habits of expense make us too dependent, and there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marry without some attention to money.”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 33

So there: he knows he has to find himself an heiress, and any romantic fancies will certainly not derail him from his goal. Which brings me to point number 2:

2) Colonel Fitzwilliam is an incorrigible flirt

Charlotte Colins (née Lucas) doesn’t say much, but when she does, she hits the nail on the head:

“In her (Charlotte’s) kind schemes for Elizabeth, she sometimes planned her marrying Colonel Fitzwilliam. He was beyond comparison the pleasantest man; he certainly admired her, and his situation in life was most eligible…”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 32

From Charlotte’s words, we can conclude that it is clear that Colonel Fitzwilliam fancies Elizabeth. In fact, he admires her right from the beginning:

“Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed really glad to see them; anything was a welcome relief to him at Rosings; and Mrs Collins’s pretty friend had moreover caught his fancy very much.”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 31

So much, in fact, that he is all over Elizabeth most of the time:

“When coffee was over, Colonel Fitzwilliam reminded Elizabeth of having promised to play to him; and she sat down directly to the instrument. He drew a chair near her.”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 31

The lady herself is aware of his admiration. In fact, at some point she even thinks that a proposal might be on the cards, on the back of a conversation with Darcy himself:

“…he (Darcy) seemed to expect that whenever she (Elizabeth) came into Kent again she would be staying there (Rosings) too. His words seemed to imply it. Could he have Colonel Fitzwilliam in his thoughts? She supposed, if he meant anything, he must mean an allusion to what might arise in that quarter.”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 33

(so, a wedding between her and the Colonel?)

Of course, the Colonel famously cuts to the chase and explains that he needs to marry a rich woman, as we’ve seen above, and in the following chapter she is determined to get over him:

“…but Colonel Fitzwilliam had made it clear that he had no intentions at all, and as agreeable as he was, she did not mean to be unhappy about him.”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 34

I’m afraid that the Colonel is yet another one of the many admirers of young ladies with no serious intentions that pepper Jane Austen’s novels. A Willoughby of sorts, as it were.

3) Colonel Fitzwilliam is imprudent and indiscreet

We’ve already seen that the Colonel’s behaviour towards Elizabeth is less than proper. In fact, even before he makes Lizzy aware that he is not prepared to marry a poor woman like her, the Colonel reminds her of Wickham, which we know can’t be a good omen:

“It was plain to them all that Colonel Fitzwilliam came because he had pleasure in their society, a persuasion which of course recommended him still more; and Elizabeth was reminded by her own satisfaction in being with him, as well as by his evident admiration of her, of her former favourite George Wickham…”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 32

The Colonel comes across as a shameless gossip. He reveals to someone who is essentially a passing acquaintance the very delicate matter of Darcy’s intervention to prevent Bingley from further falling in love with an unsuitable lady (who turns out to be Jane Bennet). Worryingly, however, much of the information he discloses is based on what he thinks happened. Yes, he is right, but he is doing precisely what gossips do:

“But I ought to beg his pardon, for I have no right to suppose that Bingley was the person meant. It was all conjecture. (…) And remember that I have not much reason for supposing it to be Bingley (…) I only suspected it to be Bingley from believing him the kind of young man to get into a scrape of that sort…”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 33

At the same time that he betrays Darcy’s cousin’s confidence, Colonel Fitzwilliam is quite happy to join Elizabeth in teasing him. In fact, one might argue that comments that are harmless teasing in the lips of a young lady can become mockery if said by a grown man:

“Shall we ask your cousin the reason of this?” said Elizabeth, still addressing Colonel Fitzwilliam. “Shall we ask him why a man of sense and education, and who has lived in the world, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?”

“I can answer your question,” said Fitzwilliam, “without applying to him. It is because he will not give himself the trouble.

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 31

But the Colonel’s worst sin, in my view, is that he chooses to ignore Darcy’s growing affection for Elizabeth, and continues to flirt with her under his eyes. If they are as intimate as Jane Austen leads us to believe, surely the Colonel would be the first to see that his cousin is falling in love, even before Charlotte Collins begins to suspect that’s the case.

In conclusion:

The Colonel’s view of a romantic hero by some Jane Austen fans is more the result of subsequent adaptations and variations than what takes place in Pride and Prejudice. I believe Jane Austen came up with the Colonel exclusively to show Darcy’s lack of social finesse, and of course to advance the plot: the Colonel’s main role in the original novel was to make Elizabeth really angry with Darcy, which contributes to Darcy’s writing of the letter, which becomes the turning point of the novel.

At risk of sounding even more controversial, my personal opinion is that Jane Austen didn’t even intend the Colonel to be a particularly likeable character; the similarities with other Austen rogues are too striking.

I rest my case. What are your thoughts?

 

Miss Darcy’s Beaux is available on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Nook and Kobo.

Read more about Miss Darcy’s Beaux.

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7 thoughts on “Colonel Fitzwilliam: An Officer And A… Gentleman?

  1. You have definitely made some very valid points. I wasn’t distraught over the Colonel’s actions in your first book as he is portrayed as a more troubled individual with gambling debts. I do agree that the adaptations have played a huge role in how we view certain characters. We all have visions of our favourite characters and who they should be paired with or what we would like to have happen with them. You can’t please everyone all the time! I have a soft spot for Kitty and love when she is developed and given her time to shine. Looking forward to your next book…who is the lucky character?

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    1. Thanks for your comment Carole! I quite like Kitty as well, she’s fun! I can’t reveal much about Austeniana #2 (it’s still a fragile WIP) other than it will involve characters from Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. I’ll keep you posted!

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  2. I have to agree — when I read a JAFF with the good Colonel, I always picture him as Anthony Calf from 20 years ago. Certainly not as Cornelius Booth (had to look up the actor) from 2005 P&P, an adaptation I don’t like anyway.

    Even when I like the Colonel, I see him as a Chatty Cathy. Much too inclined to gossip.

    I’ve also read stories where he is a very bad character. Those stories are easier to read if the author has chosen a name other than Richard. It hurts to think of Richard as a bad guy!

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    1. Cheers for stopping by, Rose. Whoever casted Anthony Calf didn’t adhere to what Jane Austen imagined, but certainly gave a brilliant actor the chance to shine. His performance in the 1995 BBC adaptation is rather wonderful. And your comment about the name Richard made me smile! I promise to use a different name if I’m ever tempted to turn Colonel Fitzwilliam into a nasty piece of work (which I probably won’t – I find him too charming).

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  3. Thanks for the mention, Eliza! As you can see from my post, I think of the good colonel as “a loud-mouthed-plot-device” in Pride and Prejudice. He is in the story solely to move the plot towards the Hunsford Scene. After Rosings, he disappears from the story. Therefore he is a blank slate, available for other authors to fill with whatever characteristics they choose. Your observations and analysis of Austen’s words are interesting and insightful

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    1. I loved your article and thought that the interview was spot on, as well as thoroughly faithful to what is stated in Jane Austen’s novel. You’re right, the Colonel is a blank slate in a way, and I have read some wonderful depictions of the character (mine, perhaps, strays a bit from the norm…). Thanks so much for stopping by, and above all for enriching the Janeite world with your wonderful stories and delighting your readers, myself included!

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