Jane Austen's Just Wit
the clown of pride that is Mr. Collins
Over at Plough, one of my favorite magazines, Joy Clarkson has decided to do the impossible. Surveying Jane Austen’s catalogue of characters—the meek and the mean and the muddle-headed—she has plucked Mr. Collins from the line-up and decided to redeem him. Appearing in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins is the cousin of Elizabeth Bennet, an Anglican priest, and an idiot. Is “idiot” too harsh? It’s not very Austenian, at least, and it’s exactly what Clarkson wants to denounce:
For all his flaws, there is a simplicity to Mr. Collins that I admire and enjoy. He lives in a small and imperturbable world where all that matters is Fordyce’s sermons, the securement of a wife for the increase of his happiness, and the distinguished patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And while we’re all laughing at him, Mr. Collins lives in a state of domestic felicity, blessed with a stable life, a meaningful job, and excellent in-laws, satisfied with the choices he has made in life.
Mr. Collins possesses a secret that evades many of the characters in Pride and Prejudice, and so often evades me: contentment.
Ms. Clarkson has written a fine essay about a fine book in which everything makes sense except for both the premise and its conclusion. Mr. Collins is not content, or if he is, it’s in the same sense a glutton is content to finish those last few dozen donuts. Happy? Maybe. Pleased at a chance to display his appetite? Of course. But contentment doesn’t allow for the eating of twenty-four donuts in the first place, an act which is entirely hypothetical and not a feat of strength anyone you know, or are currently reading, has accomplished to the astonishment of both his peers and stomach. Like the donut-glutton in question, Mr. Collins’s true condition is evident from his symptoms: he can’t stop vomiting.
Instead of regurgitating a masterful, unwise, and collegiate amount of breakfast pastries—allegedly—Mr. Collins vomits words. He spills them on the Bennets’ shoes, on their furniture, on their good fortune at even hearing about his good fortune. He’s not laughable because “we know he doesn’t understand that he’s being made fun of”—that’s what Mr. Bennet finds amusing, not the reader. We might nod along as Mr. Bennet takes the mick, but Mr. Collins is laughable to us because he gives serious attention to everything superficial and cursory care to anything that really matters. His ignorance isn’t the main issue; it’s his peacocking that draws the jibes.
As intelligently as Ms. Clarkson’s defends her position, it remains one essentially isolated from the text. It’s the best possible version of the sin every academic and critic commits some time or another, possibly the sin by which they exist. The idea of Mr. Collins being “content” can only exist on the strength of Mr. Collins as a summary. He does have a nice life, and he does seem satisfied with it. But one can only say “he has cultivated thankfulness” on the strength of abstracting his situation, a good one, and his appreciation of it, a voluble one, from how they actually exist in the book.
To be blunt, Mr. Collins isn’t (only) thankful, he’s proud. If he’s cultivated anything, it’s vanity at his good luck, which is why he is especially ridiculous. He might acknowledge that Fortuna’s Wheel randomly spat him into his bath of rose petals, but he also acts as though he and the bath are now one. Being lucky enough to smell like a rose, he feels justified in describing at length the way he and the bath both excrete beautifully—can you believe even his feet have been touched by perfume?
The text, what’s more, is consistent about this issue. Here is Mr. Collins as first described:
A fortunate chance had recommended him to Lady Catherine de Bourgh when the living of Hunsford was vacant; and the respect which he felt for her high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his right as a rector, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.
Mr. Collins is a trickle-down of condescension, what he appreciates in his patroness he reflects on his friends:
Charlotte explained. . .that the whole party was asked to dine at Rosings the next day.. . . Mr. Collins’s triumph, in consequence of this invitation, was complete. The power of displaying the grandeur of his patroness to his wondering visitors, and of letting them see her civility towards himself and his wife, was exactly what he had wished for.
He’s genuinely awed at his good fortune, but pride and vanity demand that everyone be reminded of it. Speaking to Elizabeth:
“We have certainly done our best [to entertain you]; and most fortunately having it in our power to introduce you to very superior society, and, from our connection with Rosings, the frequent means of varying the humble home scene, I think we may flatter ourselves that your Hunsford visit cannot have been entirely irksome. Our situation with regard to Lady Catherine’s family is indeed the sort of extraordinary advantage and blessing which few can boast.”
His pride and vanity, likewise, are the source of his consistent lack of charity, to say nothing of his lack of judgement. In a letter to Mr. Bennet:
“And this consideration [of Lydia’s immoral behavior] leads me moreover to reflect, with augmented satisfaction, on a certain event of last November [when Elizabeth refused his proposal]; for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.
Imagine writing your high school girlfriend’s father upon hearing she’s living with her no-account boyfriend. “Damn, dodged a bullet, huh?” None of his behavior shows contentment or gratitude except as surfaces. If I had more time, I’d find even more passages of even greater aptness, because the only thing more galling than Mr. Collins in brief, is Mr. Collins at length.
To be fair, I think Ms. Clarkson has sensed something disproportionate in regards to Mr. Collins. Namely, he’s a more or less harmless guy, enough so that two-hundred years of dog-piling the priest probably is a little excessive. After all, he might flip through the Bennet daughters like used books when trying to procure a wife, and he might repeatedly reprimand Elizabeth in the name of his patroness purely from his own wounded vanity, but the harm is always social, never mortal.
All the same, he is laughable, rather than admirable, and if his position in life might be envied, that’s all the more reason to enjoy the farce. Mr. Wickham may be more deserving of contempt, and Mr. Darcy unfairly excused for being tactless, but Mr. Collins is the clown of Austen’s judgment. If he loved his life rightly, we’d hear him praise it less. And if we’d like a practical model of contentment from Pride and Prejudice, I have no idea why we’d skip past his wife—someone equally unromantic, equally fortunate, but vastly wiser and humbler.