Jane Austen is not really the name of an author these days. The extraordinary popularity of her works over the last couple of decades has involved film adaptations, her increasing influence on some contemporary novelists, and new which riff on or refer to a period of history and a style of fiction which has been gradually annexed as “Austenland”. Though I’ve been a bit rude about this tendency in the past, I don’t see anything wrong with it in itself. The afterlife of any artist involves adaptation and reppropriation, and they are evidence that the works still have the potential to spark thought and creativity in other people.
But it’s always fun to go back to the novels, if only to discover the bits which I had misremembered or which have been smoothed over in the general modern agreement as to what Austen thought or how life works in Austenland. So I’ll be putting up the odd post now and then as I explore the books again, noting bits I had missed and hoping you’ll discuss them with me. Pride and Prejudice is particularly rich in these moments for me, because unlike some of the other books – such as Northanger Abbey – I knew it on screen before I had read the book. In fact, like many people of my age, I more or less knew the 1990s BBC TV adaptation off by heart before I ever opened the covers of the novel.
Mr. Collins, played so memorably by David Bamber in that production, is one of those characters whose meaning was pretty much “fixed” by the strength of that interpretation. He was the bullet Lizzie dodged, or rather the conventional and deeply unpleasant marriage for which she refused to settle. This reading was emphasized by the prominence given to Charlotte Lucas’ speech “I’m not romantic, you know. I never was…” to a horrified Lizzie when the former accepts Mr. Collins’ proposal the day after the latter refused him. He’s the antithesis of Darcy: over-talkative (particularly on subjects he should be quiet about), always invading people’s personal space, and extremely unhandsome. His basic purpose seems to be contrasting with Darcy and delineating Lizzie’s character by revealing her taste for mockery and her integrity when it comes to love.
The novel, however, offers another reading quite early on. An aspect I had forgotten of Austen’s work is her willingness to say what she means and what she thinks about her characters before the reader has spent much time in their company or even (sometimes) met them. It’s not always the whole story, and they may change, but she has a refreshingly un-modern openness in sketching in characters, in defiance of later strictures to “show not tell”. In the case of the rector of Hunsford:
Mr Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of his life having been spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father; and though he belonged to one of the universities, he had merely kept the necessary terms, without forming at it any useful acquaintance. The subjection in which his father had brought him up, had given him originally great humility of manner, but it was now a good deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity…[his patronage by Lady Catherine de Bourgh and his opinion of himself] made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility. [Opening of Chapter 15]
This account tells us oddly little that we might expect from a more contemporary character sketch: there are no telling physical details which mark him out, no intimate secrets which drive his behaviour, no visual hooks to hang a mental image upon. Instead he is described in terms of his failure to engage in conventional modes of sociability and the resultant flaws which this lack of socialisation have left upon him. The miserly father and lack of connections at university don’t so much ink a vivid backstory as locate him thematically: he is “a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility”.
In other words, his function at this point in the novel is not really to emphasize Darcy’s brooding Byronic good looks or Elizabeth’s steadfastness in rejecting a man who has obviously not made a connection with her, but to add another example of pride gone wrong, of a self-image which has become distorted and therefore dangerous to both its possessor and those around them. Pride gone wrong, I’d emphasize, since pride is not necessarily, or not entirely, a vice in this novel. Or perhaps it hasn’t yet been established that pride is so bad.
The evening conversations which took place during Elizabeth’s stay at Netherfield while Jane was ill touched on this question at two points. When Bingley agrees that his style of writing letters is terrible (“My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them – by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents”) and Elizabeth jokes that this kind of admission has defended him from further scorn (“Your humility…must disarm reproof”), Darcy disagrees. In fact he may perform the first calling out of a humblebrag in English literature. “Nothing is more deceitful”, he declares, “Than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast”. As he explains “you are really proud of your defects in writing because you consider them as proceeding from a rapidity of thought and carelessness of execution, which if not estimable, you think at least highly interesting”.
Aside from being a pretty good humblebrag smackdown – and a fairly damning summing up of the kind of Romantic writing of which Marianne in Sense and Sensibility is rather too fond – this is a complaint about Bingley’s lack of confidence in his own abilities. I don’t think Darcy is objecting to Bingley being pleased about his talents or his worldly comforts, but to the fact that he sneaks in a boast to an apparent declaration of unworthiness. When Lizzie asks to hear about his faults, on a later night, he claims that he has attempted “to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understand to ridicule”.
A strong understanding, naturally – he takes it for granted that he should be avoiding faults because they might weaken his otherwise estimable character, and especially in the eyes of other people. Lizzie picks up on the assumption of his own worth – and the assumption that everyone int he conversation shares it – in her riposte: “Such as vanity and pride”, only for Darcy to reply “Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride – where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation.” The intelligence and integrity which he has claimed, and which she has suggested shows he is conceited and too proud, is apparently going to defend him from his pride getting the better of his finer qualities.
It’s a funny moment – Lizzie’s reply is beautifully pointed and well-judged – and signals a potential problem in Darcy’s understanding of himself, as well as how that self should relate to other people’s selves. But two things get in the way of us reading this simply as a demonstration of what an arrogant prick Darcy is before he is humbled and humanised by Lizzie’s attractions. Firstly, an enormous number of adaptations and interpretations of the book make exactly the same assumption as Darcy: he is better than everyone else around him. Darcy as romantic hero is so often played as, and discussed as, qualitatively different from other characters, so that his emotional and moral education at Lizzie’s hands consists of not much more than learning not to say these things in front of people, darling, because manners.
Secondly, lack of self-belief is not a virtue in much of Austen’s writing. Bingley’s humblebrag reveals something about his willingness to advertise his own lack of firmness, and consider it as a virtue, which Darcy finds troubling in his friend. And after all, Bingley’s diffidence comes very close to sodding up Jane’s life. A proper appreciation of one’s own qualities (including social position) is a definite virtue in a lot of the novels, and it is part of Austen’s brilliance in depicting the way lives are intertwined that this becomes a specifically social virtue. People with improperly adjusted pride – too little as well as too much – can be a risk to those around them. (Is it totally presumptuous of Darcy to regard the Lydia affair as basically an adjunct to his own personality, and equally presumptuous to solve it with money and legal pressures when she is no relation? Very probably. But most readers might not wish to sacrifice that outcome in return for a humbler Darcy.)
Thus Mr. Collins can be read as less an example of an unattractive suitor, who makes Darcy look hot and Lizzie look smart, and more as yet another character wrestling with pride. As a little grotesque example of how wrongful pride can warp someone personally and socially – and I’d underline once again that part of the problem is that he has too little pride – he casts light on the social and ethical debate which runs through the book. He has also given rise to one of the finest Austen memes I have ever seen…