“Much as I abominate writing, I would not give up Mr. Collins’s correspondence for any consideration,” says Mr. Bennet to Elizabeth just after Lady Catherine has visited Longbourn to insist that Elizabeth promise not to marry Mr. Darcy. From the first mention in Volume 1, Chapter 13 of the “olive branch” that Mr. Collins offers in the letter that announces his intention to visit the Bennets and make “every possible amends” for the entailment of the estate, to the parallel reference in Volume 3, Chapter 15 to his wife Charlotte’s “situation, and his expectation of a young olive-branch,” these letters play an important role in Pride and Prejudice, amusing the reader as well as Mr. Bennet, and revealing a great deal about the characters who interpret the letters as well as about Mr. Collins himself.
When Mr. Bennet reads the first letter aloud to his family, their responses illuminate their characters. Mrs. Bennet and Jane are ready to think the best of Mr. Collins’s wish to make amends, though Jane wonders how he expects to do so, while Mary makes a tentative attempt to judge the letter’s style, Kitty and Lydia show no interest in a clergyman because all they can think of is men in “scarlet coat[s],” and Elizabeth is the only one to note that “There is something very pompous in his stile,” and to question whether he is a “sensible man.” I’ve written more about their responses in the chapter on Pride and Prejudice in my book Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues.
In contrast to the scene in which the Bennets read this first letter, however, there is no response given at all when Jane, opening her father’s mail while he is in London looking for Lydia, reads the letter and Elizabeth reads it over her shoulder (in Volume 3, Chapter 6). This is the letter Mr. Collins writes to “condole” with Mr. Bennet on the loss of Lydia’s virtue and reputation, saying, “The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this.” He congratulates himself on having escaped marrying into the Bennet family, “for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.” What could Elizabeth and Jane say to such a letter? There is no need for them to say anything, because the letter’s absurdities are so extreme. Yet Mr. Collins does speak for “society” here, a society that believes a woman who has lost her virtue brings shame on all her family and would be better off dead. Mary Bennet preaches this belief as well: “Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable” (Volume 3, Chapter 5).
Elizabeth leans over to read with Jane, because she “knew what curiosities his letters always were,” but there is no entertainment to be found in this letter. Even Mr. Bennet would surely have trouble laughing at this one. Elizabeth knows already that Lydia’s behaviour reflects on her sisters and injures—perhaps even destroys—their prospects for making good marriages. In this letter, she has to endure not only Mr. Collins’s condemnation of her sister and family, but also criticism from her dear friend Charlotte Lucas, now Charlotte Collins. For it seems that Charlotte does speak confidentially to her pompous, impossible husband.
Earlier in the book, it’s possible to see her as enjoying her position as mistress of the house while maintaining a degree of separation from her husband. When Elizabeth visits the newly-married Charlotte at Hunsford (Volume 2, Chapter 5), Austen gives us her reaction to the parsonage: “When Mr. Collins could be forgotten, there was really a great air of comfort throughout, and by Charlotte’s evident enjoyment of it, Elizabeth supposed he must be often forgotten.” However, either Charlotte has confided to her husband that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have spoiled Lydia, or he has chosen to ascribe this opinion to her. Mr. Collins betrays Charlotte’s opinion:
there is reason to suppose, as my dear Charlotte informs me, that this licentiousness of behaviour in your daughter, has proceeded from a faulty degree of indulgence, though, at the same time, . . . I am inclined to think that her own disposition must be naturally bad, or she could not be guilty of such an enormity, at so early an age.
Charlotte Collins, how could you say such a thing about your friend Elizabeth’s family—even if it is true? Elizabeth herself believes her parents have indulged her sister’s “wild volatility, the assurance and disdain of all restraint which mark Lydia’s character,” and has warned her father about the consequences of allowing her to behave in this way: “If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, . . . she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment” (Volume 2, Chapter 18). Instead of protecting her friend from gossip, however, Charlotte appears to be comfortable enough in her marriage that she will discuss the Bennets’ parenting strategies with her husband. The idea of her having intimate conversations with Mr. Collins is a sobering one.
Of course she is intimate with him in other ways, too, which we know because she’s expecting that new “young olive-branch.” (You can read Ruth Perry’s excellent essay on the topic of “Sleeping with Mr. Collins” in Persuasions 22.) It’s possible Mr. Collins has put forward the idea that the Bennets have indulged Lydia and Charlotte has done no more than betray by her expression that she is inclined to agree. But it’s nevertheless clear that for all her efforts to keep some independence in her marriage, and whether she is speaking to him about the Bennets or simply listening, Charlotte is aligned with her husband and his views now, as society expects her to be.
Mr. Collins writes to Mr. Bennet, “you are grievously to be pitied, in which opinion I am not only joined by Mrs. Collins, but likewise by Lady Catherine and her daughter, to whom I have related the affair. They agree with me in apprehending that this false step in one daughter, will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others, for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family.”
As Elizabeth and Jane read his letter, they find themselves and their family the victims of that other truth “universally” acknowledged, that a single woman who has lost her sexual virtue would be better off dead. As I “read, and re-read” Pride and Prejudice and Mr. Collins’s letters “with the closest attention,” as the novel itself teaches me to do, I’m finding that any shreds of sympathy I had for Mr. Collins have vanished.
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.