Jane Austen doesn’t tell us whether Mr. Collins reads novels any more than Shakespeare tells us, in the words of the famous 1933 essay by L.C. Knights, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” Knights was criticizing interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays that treated literary characters as if they were real people, rather than focusing on the plays as poetry. We can’t ever know if Mr. Collins reads novels, and I recognize there are limits to what we can infer about literary characters, but I raise the question because I’m interested in what Austen does tell us about his interest in fictions of various types, despite his professed preference for non-fiction.
Mr. Collins reads sermons to his parishioners and to the Bennet sisters, but he also composes “delicate compliments” for Lady Catherine de Bourgh, her daughter, and other ladies. As he tells Mr. Bennet, “you may imagine that I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies. I have more than once observed to Lady Catherine, that her charming daughter seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her.”
Thus, although he claims to read only serious non-fiction such as Fordyce’s Sermons, he is clearly a writer of little fictions designed to increase his own reputation by flattering his patroness. In search of further entertainment from his “absurd” cousin, Mr. Bennet asks if he thinks of these compliments in the moment, or prepares them in advance. Mr. Collins confesses not all of them are spontaneous, but that “though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.” Whether he writes them down or memorizes them, he’s composing fiction.
The idea that pompous, humourless Mr. Collins writes fiction complicates his character. On earlier readings of Pride and Prejudice, I didn’t look at him in this way. I thought he was funny and awful, both a joke (for Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth, and the reader) and a nightmare (for Charlotte Lucas). He writes these little fictions to flatter and to please. He is a nervous writer and performer, concerned to make his work look effortless, while striving to express himself with elegance. When he insists he doesn’t read novels, he’s protesting too much.
He doesn’t just say he prefers sermons to novels. He agrees to read to the ladies, but then when the book is “produced” and “every thing announced it to be from a circulating library,” he actually “started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.” This reaction is exaggerated, as is the “monotonous solemnity” with which he proceeds to read the first three pages of Fordyce’s Sermons, before Lydia interrupts him. Mr. Collins is playing the role of the solemn clergyman, wanting Mr. and Mrs. Bennet to see him as a serious man, a potential husband for one of their daughters.
On this reading, I was struck by the link between this well-known Fordyce’s Sermons passage and the even more famous scene in which he proposes to Elizabeth and is rejected. He sees himself as the hero of the story, the single young man in possession of a good position, with good prospects, and a generous disposition because he’s chosen to look for a wife in the Bennet family, instead of bestowing his future inheritance on someone outside the family. No wonder he makes such a long, self-important speech when he proposes to Elizabeth. He feels he understands how this story ought to unfold, and as the future beneficiary of the entailed estate, he is at the very centre of the story. As a “clergyman in easy circumstances” who will eventually inherit Longbourn, as a man in pursuit of his own happiness, and as a man fortunate enough to call Lady Catherine de Bourgh his patroness, Mr. Collins is in want of a wife.
He outlines this story to Elizabeth when he lists his reasons for marrying, and then, because he knows no courtship plot is complete without love, he makes an effort to assure her “in the most animated language of the violence of [his] affection.” Just as he played the role of the serious, intellectual clergyman, he now throws himself into the role of the romantic hero who rescues a beautiful young woman from poverty and elevates her to a secure social position, adding the promise of ultimately being able to give her back her family home. The way he describes his reasons for being “in want of a wife” makes me think he is composing the story of his life in a way that will parallel other courtship plots he has read.
But it’s when he responds to Elizabeth’s refusal that he betrays his familiarity with the conventions of romantic fiction. “‘I am not now to learn,’” he says, “with a formal wave of the hand, ‘that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time.’” How does he know what to expect from young ladies? Does this information come from Lady Catherine, or from the perusal of tales of romance? “I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said,” he insists to Elizabeth, maintaining that he continues to “hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”
He’s determined that the story will end the way he has imagined it, and he doesn’t make any allowance for other interpretations. Elizabeth’s refusal is, he says, “merely words of course.” He knows how the story is supposed to end when an eligible single man offers a poor woman money and position. Mr. Collins is a misguided reader and a misguided writer. Whether he reads novels from the circulating library or not, he has his own ideas about how a courtship story ought to unfold, and he makes an effort to play the role of the hero. When the plot doesn’t work out the way he has tried to write it, however, he doesn’t learn from the past.
There’s no “Till this moment, I never knew myself” scene for Mr. Collins. He simply fixes on a new heroine, one who will comply with the demands of his courtship plot, and marries Charlotte Lucas. He doesn’t know himself any better, and he continues to compose fictions about his marriage, his patroness, and his vocation as a clergyman. Poor Mr. Collins. I’ve laughed at him; I’ve found him repulsive. I never had much sympathy for him. Yet when I see him as a writer who can’t revise, and a reader who can’t learn, I do feel some sympathy. I hope I know myself better now. Even the most impossible characters, in fiction or in life, deserve a measure of understanding.
My page Pride and Prejudice at 200 collects all the posts in this series on rereading the novel, along with links to other essays and articles on P&P.