William Wickham was Britain’s first Master Spy and head of the British Secret Service. Wickham was also the focus of a massive government scandal and Parliamentary investigation when it was found that millions of pounds in taxpayer’s money had been funneled to Wickham and then disappeared without a trace.
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen has a character — George Wickham – whose behavior so mimics that of William Wickham that it is hard to believe it is a coincidence. William Wickham’s behavior includes seducing young girls, financial deals that are not far from blackmail and extortion, and running away from debts. He is portrayed as a serious danger to the impressionable young women the village of Longbourn.
There is no suggestion that Jane Austen ever involved in espionage, but Austen’s appropriation of the name Wickham for her villain in Pride and Prejudice is certainly highly suggestive. Jane Austen’s first readers would have immediately connected the surname Wickham with deception, secrets, spies, and disappearing money, giving Austen’s contemporaries an early clue as to George Wickham’s duplicity. It is abundantly clear that she wished her readers to equate George with his inspiration, Britain’s master spy. George Wickham, not only shares the master spy’s last name, his good looks, and charm but also his cunning and duplicity. While George Wickham has the appearance of being an officer and a gentleman, of being patriotic and honest, he is as double dealing and as untrustworthy as any secret agent working undercover. George Wickham’s first conversation with Elizabeth Bennet is actually more of an interrogation than a social exchange. Wickham asks Elizabeth a series of questions and provides her with a great deal of disinformation, first finding out what Elizabeth Bennet already knows and does not know about Mr. Darcy and then supplying her with a series of half-truths and lies to fill in the gaps in her knowledge.
The first British spies were employed by Henry VII, but their job was to spy on the King’s own family, not on other countries. The first British spy in a foreign country was Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s Ambassador to France. Walsingham was a rank amateur, but he nevertheless uncovered an invasion plot and tipped off the Queen so that she was able to prepare for the Spanish Armada. By the American Revolution, both the Regular Army and companies of Loyalists were routinely tasked with counterintelligence missions, and networks of informants were developed in occupied New York City and the surrounding area among an extensive Loyalist population eager to report suspicious persons or activities. By the early 19th Century, we have officers on Lord Wellington’s staff who focused on cracking Napoleon’s codes during the Peninsular War. This is, however, MILITARY espionage. William Wickham was different kind of spy.
Working as an English diplomat in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1793, William Wickham organized a large and complex spy ring of French agents and double agents. According to Wickham, the best spies were double agents, Frenchmen operating as spies for the French government who also sold their secrets to the British. It was a lucrative, if dangerous, trade for the spy, and Wickham had to pay well in order to tempt a Frenchman into turning traitor. At the insistence of the French, the Swiss government deported Wickham in 1798; he returned to England and continued working as head of the secret service. Well over a million pounds was funneled to Wickham through a number of government agencies, and internal audits of the Foreign Office showed that Wickham used a complicated network of foreign banks to launder money. Wickham took care to diversify his bank accounts, and by passing the funds for secret agents through a variety of names, he was able to conceal both the origin and the final recipient of the funds.
In 1800, the Audits Office charged William Wickham with misuse of public funds, but Whig leaders shielded him from prosecution. The Audits Office found that Wickham had been provided with more than half a million pounds a year, but he also drew funds from the Alien Office, the Home Office, the Treasury, and the Irish Office, and he siphoned off money from the military as “army extraordinaries” none of this could be explained. In 1806, the Audits Office demanded that Wickham explain his bookkeeping. Wickham admitted to having spent one million pounds over the course of the five years he was in Geneva, but records show that figure to be far lower than the funds dispersed. Since he destroyed the vast majority of his paperwork before leaving office, however, no one was able to even speculate about how much money Wickham received and how much he spent or on what it was spent. In 1810, William Wickham retired, at forty-three, with a government pension of £1,200 a year. With that pension he purchased two estates in the country—though how he could afford to purchase two estates is unclear. Wickham was both a master spy and master embezzler.
As we know from WikiLeaks, publishing government secrets and discrediting master spies can be a dangerous game. Those who do this in the West face prosecution and, of course, in other parts of the world, your fate may be more tragic. So, how did Jane Austen get away with such a blatant disrobing of Britain’s Master Spy? She published using the pseudonym “by a lady.”