It is a truth universally acknowledged that Mr. Collins from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a poser and a fraud. We talked about it in our podcast, but now I want to unpack it some more. So if you haven’t 1) read Pride and Prejudice and b) listened to our awesome podcast, at least do 1) and then come back.
Now let’s talk about how Mr. Collins is a poser and a fraud.
And why his marriage to Charlotte is doomed.
And then why all you married folks should be more like them.
First, Mr. Collins is a poser and fraud.
Duh. He is the 17th century British version of Barney Fife, except not as lovable. He has none of the dignity of his sex.
Who knows what his family life growing up was like, but somehow, with a little schooling under his belt, he thinks he’s Somebody. In fact, he thinks he’s God’s gift to the world. He has no self-knowledge, no understanding of his own limitations, no ability to see himself with respect to others. He’s a fulfillment of the proverb about the slave who becomes a prince. He’s ascended beyond his natural station in life, and it’s unseemly, unbecoming, destructive both to him and to the office he holds as a minister of the Gospel and to anyone under his care.
Take Lady Catherine. She loves Collins because she can control him. If he were any kind of man, he would put her in her place. Somebody obviously needs to. Her husband is dead, so he can’t do it. She simply doesn’t have any authority in her life. If not her pastor, who?
Then there’s poor Charlotte. How can a man like Collins ever lead a wife? How can he ever have anything like emotional intimacy? All he can do is bluster and strike poses as posers do. Grovel before Lady Catherine. Domineer Charlotte. Alternately pander or issue edicts from the pulpit. But never have anything like an actual relationship, with give and take. Little men like Collins can’t handle that, because it requires them to live with greys. It threatens their perfect vision of themselves, which is the thing they hold most dear.
And all of that is why I think Collins is one of the most relatable characters in the book. (Cue sad trombone).
Mr. Collins is just the average American male. We’ve all got a little Collins in us.
He’s a man without a chest, and those come in every variety—College graduates, the Homeschooled, the T for Tolerant, the Nascar-lovin’ ‘Mericans, those who think they understand Depravity because they read Dostoevsky once, the Darcys who are just trying to find an Elizabeth to save (preferably one needy and pathetic enough to be sufficiently grateful), and, yes, those who think they have chests because they’ve read C. S. Lewis on men without chests and can drop the reference into their blog articles for more enlightened readers to appreciate.
This is the American male. Too often our engines are running on pure bravado and bluster.
Exhibit A: Donald Trump.
Austen’s clown is our new normal. And he may well be our new president. Could there be a more damning indictment of the status of manhood in America?
So why on earth do I find I want to defend Collins? And defend Charlotte for marrying him? Or at least allow that they can make the best of it?
Maybe because as an ex-college pastor, he’s pretty much every guy I’ve ever ministered too. And maybe because I see myself in him.
Anyhow, here’s the thing. The marriage of Collins and Charlotte will never be good. He can provide for Charlotte materially, and he will (he’s a man who does his duty) but he will never provide for her emotionally. He’s not capable of it. They will always be stunted as a couple because he will always be stunted as a man. Jane Austen allows for her characters (like Elizabeth or Darcy) to grow, but she also allows for the fact that some people are fools. And Mr. Collins is a fool. He and Charlotte will never be the perfect married couple, the perfect picture of Christ and His Church. Because he’s a poser and a fraud.
At least Collins (and Deputy Fife, for that matter) has a sense of duty. At least he’s trying. Collins will perform what he perceives to be his duties in a most dutiful way. He will work. He will provide. That’s better than a lot of dudes I know who maybe have more self-awareness than Collins, but use that self-awareness as an excuse to avoid ever trying, because they’re scared to fail. AKA, Collins actually went out and got a job and found a wife and will live with her and provide for her until death parts them. And that, my friends, is far superior to the idiot who sits in his mom’s basement feeling very sorry for himself for not having a billion dollars to aid his Darcy-like charms while also managing to feel morally superior to Collins. Comprendo?
And what about Charlotte?
We see Charlotte through Elizabeth’s eyes and we feel bad for her (because Elizabeth does) and think she made a bad choice (because Elizabeth does). And certainly she could’ve trusted God for a better man. But if that was her sin, Mr. Collins is one heck of a comeuppance. So maybe we should feel bad for her.
And yet I don’t know that we should feel bitter for her, like some readers want to. Bitter against Collins and bitter against the difficult position that Charlotte found herself in, and even bitter (along with Elizabeth) against Charlotte for her weakness of character.
Because Charlotte doesn’t seem to be bitter. When Elizabeth goes to visit Charlotte, the thing that baffles her is Charlotte’s contentment. In fact, she’s so baffled by it, she goes to bed early that first day to meditate on it, and to conclude that “it was all done very well.”
This is the first time Elizabeth realizes her judgment may not be unerring. It sets us up as readers for the humbling of Elizabeth, in which Charlotte’s wisdom both concerning Darcy and concerning Jane and Bingley are vindicated. And in which Elizabeth begins to finally understand the nature of respect and love: namely, that it is built through gratitude. All of which begins while she’s staying with the Collinses.
Look, I’m not trying to make Charlotte the heroine or the voice of reason. Charlotte is a pragmatist. As she explains to Elizabeth the day she tells her of her engagement:
I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, 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.
Elizabeth doesn’t buy it, but Jane, her sister does, and rebukes her:
You do not make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper. Consider Mr. Collins’s respectability, and Charlotte’s steady, prudent character. Remember that she is one of a large family; that as to fortune, it is a most eligible match; and be ready to believe, for everybody’s sake, that she may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin.
I think Jane is right. And I think the greater part of Pride and Prejudice is Elizabeth learning to make allowances for difference of situation and temper. Her lack of compassion and goodwill, as Austen would say, does her no credit. The simplicity both of Jane’s goodwill and of Charlotte’s pragmatism end up giving each of them a better grasp of character early in the book than Elizabeth’s more complex rationales. They may not be able to plumb the depths of character, but they manage to reach the right conclusions.
So, back to Charlotte. What we actually see, with Elizabeth, is that Charlotte is doing her best. She’s creating space for her and Collins both to be sane by ordering her home (down to the way the furniture is situated) in a certain way, and encouraging Collins to spend time in the garden and go for walks. She’s doing her best to cover her husband’s nakedness, to “wisely ignore” the foolish things he says. She’s cultivating contentment and gratitude. She’s speaking respectfully to him. She never says a negative thing about him to Elizabeth, not in private and not in front of anybody else—which, as it happens, cannot be said of many other women in the novel.
I’m sure some of you cynics are saying that actually Charlotte has chosen a man that she can control. Lady Catherine controls Collins from the top down, Charlotte controls him from the bottom up. Her father was a fool, she’s accustomed to living with fools, she knows how to get what she wants and carve out space for herself. In fact, she was on the hunt for just such a fool as Collins. She’s the female version of Mr. Bennet. He’s got his study, she’s got her sitting room. Because he’s a man, Mr. Bennet gets to mock his wife and look down on her from above. Charlotte’s only recourse as a 17th century woman is to control him from beneath. Clever girl.
That’s where I think it’s hard for us twenty-fist century readers not to project our own controlling, manipulative mindset onto Charlotte, or impart some lame feminist theory to her. That is something we as readers bring with us, and I think it says more about us than it does about her. Just like being shocked to find Charlotte content said more about Lizzie than it did about Charlotte.
But context is key. And outside of everything else we have before us—her contentment, her good attitude, her respectful speech, and her own testimony—the biggest clue here is Lizzie’s response. Depend on it, if Charlotte were being a crass, manipulating you-know-what, Lizzie would see through it and despise her for it. Lizzie sees through almost everybody. That’s one of the reasons we love her. So you don’t have to trust me, but trust Lizzie.
And Lizzie, as Austen puts it, wonders at Charlotte. She mourns for a loss of intimacy with her friend, and a large part of what they’ve lost is the ability to be in on the same joke together, the joke that is Collins.
I’m sure there are manipulative and controlling aspects to Charlotte. I’m not saying there aren’t. She is, after all, a sinner. And I’m also not saying that everyone who finds themselves married to a Collins should make the best of it and never seek help. For goodness’ sake, if you think you’ve found yourself in Charlotte’s position, seek the help of a pastor or an elder or a godly older couple in your church—one that has a good marriage and has been through some tough times. That’s what church is for.
But don’t be bitter on Charlotte’s behalf. Not against Collins, not against pre-feminist England, not against Jane Austen’s moral imagination, and not against your own husband or the God that gave him to you.
Water finds its level. Charlotte got what she asked for, and instead of complaining, instead of seeking a way out, instead of becoming Mr. Bennet, she worked. She had taken vows, and she was committed to honoring those vows. So she cultivated contentment, she was respectful and sweet, and she tried to be a help to her husband. And that is beautiful. Would that more couples approached marriage that simply.
So what’s the moral?
Fellas, don’t be Collins. I mean, feel free to copy his gusto and fearlessness in doing his duty. But add a metric ton of humility and self-awareness.
Ladies, if you’re married to Collins, you probably made a foolish choice. What Mr. Bennet never realized is that marrying a fool says something about your own foolishness, too. Welcome to the club. Now forget about it. You made your choice. You don’t get to worry about it anymore. You guys are in this together.
What you can worry about is how to respect your husband now. And if you’re a man, you can worry about how to love your wife. And both sexes can worry about how to have children and keep the marriage bed undefiled. How to have intimacy. Where to find help to grow in these things.
It may not be easy. Especially if you chose poorly. But there’s something sweet about Charlotte and yes, Collins, doing their best to make a go. Not all marriages can be the Darcys. But if you find yourself in Charlotte’s shoes, you can do worse than to do what’s almost always a good idea in life—take a page out of Jane Austen.