For a woman who came from a family of clergymen — her father, two brothers and four cousins wore a collar — Jane Austen certainly enjoys poking fun at them in her novels. And Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Collins is her most ridiculous clerical caricature. How on earth does sensible Charlotte wind up with such a buffoon?
A clergyman was a professional, just like a lawyer or doctor. He made his living in the pulpit, not at the bar or in the examining room, but he still needed to be a well educated man. Add to that a vicar needed have a high moral standard, be a good speaker and have compassion for the poor and needy.Instead we get conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly, self important Mr. Collins. He is a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, a social climber with a very good opinion of himself and his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
He comes to Meryton to visit the Bennets. As closest male relative he is set to inherit the Longbourn estate on Mr. Bennet’s death. That is something, to his credit, that he feels some guilt over. So he decides to marry one of the five Bennet sisters. Jane is all but engaged to Mr. Bingley so he sets his sites on Lizzie.
Poor Lizzie receives two of the worst proposals of marriage in literature. The first is from Mr. Collins. He wants to get married because:
- as a clergyman it would set a good example to the parish.
- it will add to his happiness.
- it is “the particular advice “ of Lady Catherine.
- he has a violent affection for Elizabeth
Of course he doesn’t expect a rejected. For one thing he’s SUCH a catch, and for another he’s chosen well. The girls are desperate and he has them in a corner.
He literally can not believe that she declines his offer. Neither can her mother. And for a while Longbourn is long born with strife.
Charlotte Lucas is plain, pragmatic, good-tempered, funny, sensible, intelligent and unromantic. She is 27 years old and Lizzie’s intimate friend. She’s such a good friend, in fact, that she comes to the rescue when Lizzie refuses Mr. Collins. She keeps him in good humor by listening to him and, one assumes, diverts him, making sure he’s out of ear shot of the shouting Mrs. Bennet and the giggling Lydia and Kitty.
Lizzie thanks her friend, but “Charlotte’s kindness extended farther than Elizabeth had any conception of; — its object was nothing less than to secure her from any return of Mr. Collins’s addresses, by engaging them towards herself.” With a little encouragement on her part Mr. Collins transfers his ‘violent affections’ form one lady to the next and…
”In as short a time as Mr. Collins’s long speeches would allow, every thing was settled between them to the satisfaction of both… he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men… and Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained.”
Lizzie is surprised that Mr. Collins could so quickly change his mind and settle on another life partner. But she is astonished that Charlotte could accept his proposal. Charlotte reminds her however that she is…
”not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”
In some ways Charlotte winds up in same situation as Mr. Bennet in the marriage department. Neither of them respect or love their partners. And both do what they can in daily life to avoid interacting with their spouses Mr. Bennet shuts the door to his library, while Charlotte sits in her parlor and encourages Mr. Collins to work with his bees or visit Lady Catherine.
At the end of the novel Mr. Bennet writes to Mr. Collins informing him that — despite warning to the contrary by both Collins and Lady Catherine — Lizzie and Darcy are soon to marry. Mr. Bennet advises Mr. Collins to “Console Lady Catherine as well as you can. But, if I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give.” If Mr. Collins heeds this wise advice he’d shift his alliance to Darcy who would never put up with the vicar’s toady behavior. That, combined with Charlotte’s even handed temper–which (hopefully) would rub off on Collins–MIGHT make him a more tolerable fool.
Here’s a clip of the wonderful Julia Cho and Maxwell Glick in a scene from The Lizzie Bennet Diaries…