Saturday, January 22, 2011

Pride & Prejudice, Volume I, chapter 22

In which we learn something about Austen's own opinion of marriages of convenience

Charlotte Lucas ends up with a hard-won proposal

I will remind you that Charlotte is a no-longer-young woman of 27. She is a woman of good sense and rather somewhat plain appearance, and she has decided that Mr Collins might just be her meal ticket. She is willing to overlook his stupidity in favor of securing herself a home of which she will be the mistress.

She is calm and kind to Mr Collins, who (having been turned down by Lizzy on Wednesday) proposes to Charlotte on Friday - the day before his scheduled departure. After all, he doesn't want to see Lady Catherine without reporting that he has taken her advice and gotten himself a spouse.

Charlotte sees Mr Collins making his way to her house and sets out on purpose "to meet him accidentally in the lane." LOL!

In as short a time as Mr Collins's long speeches would allow, every thing was settled between them to the satisfaction of both; and as they entered the house, he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men; and though such a solicitation must be waved for the present, the lady felt no inclination to trifle with his happiness. The stupidity with which he was favoured by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance; and Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained.

. . . [Charlotte's] reflections were in general satisfactory. Mr Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still, he would be her husband. -- Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.
We get a better sense of Charlotte from the books than any movie can give us, as both the narrator and Charlotte reflect on Charlotte's reasons for matrimony. Since we know that Charlotte is clever, we have to assume that she knows what she's doing - she is treating marriage as a strict business transaction. The only serious downside to this, from Charlotte's perspective, is that Lizzy is bound to give her grief about it - and sure enough, Elizabeth - unable to put herself in Charlotte's shoes - does just that.

On first hearing the news, Elizabeth declares the engagement to be impossible. Of course that hurts Charlotte's feelings, and she doesn't really want to injure her friend. She just finds Mr Collins to be such an ass that she can't believe any sensible person would have anything to do with him. Charlotte's lecture, kindly given, is a lecture still:

"Why should you be surprised, my dear Eliza? -- Do you think it incredible that Mr Collins should be able to procure any woman's good opinion, because he was not so happy as to succeed with you?"

But Elizabeth had now recollected herself, and making a strong effort for it, was able to assure her with tolerable firmness that the prospect of their relationship was highly gratifying to her, and that she wished her all imaginable happiness.

"I see what you are feeling," replied Charlotte, -- "you must be surprised, very much surprised, -- so lately as Mr Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it all over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr Collins's character, connections, 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 is left to reflect on two points: First, she mourns that she now thinks less of Charlotte than she did before, and secondly, she is distressed for Charlotte based on her sincere belief that Charlotte cannot be happy with Mr Collins.

Charlotte's choice was one that Austen faced, but which she refused to make for herself.

When Austen was nearly 27, a wealthy young neighbor named Harris Bigg-Wither (brother of two of Austen's female friends) proposed to Austen. She accepted him that evening, but by the time morning rolled around, she rescinded her acceptance and fled the premises. Had she married him, she would have had a fine establishment all her own - a large home (called Manydown) with servants to command, etc. Instead, Austen opted for spinsterhood - it wasn't long after that she "put on her cap" - a physical representation that she had removed herself from the marriage market. Although it is not entirely certain, it appears that Austen received at least two additional proposals, both of which she declined - and not because she was still in love with James McAvoy Tom Lefroy, with whom she engaged in a flirtation at age 19.

Austen did not herself support the idea of a loveless marriage.

In correspondence with her niece, Fanny Austen Knight, Austen advised her not to marry without affection. In a letter dated November 18, 1814, Austen wrote, considering both sides of her niece's apparent situation:

Think of all this, Fanny. Mr. A. has advantages which do not often meet in one person. His only fault, indeed, seems modesty. If he were less modest he would be more agreeable, speak louder, and look impudenter; and is not it a fine character of which modesty is the only defect? I have no doubt he will get more lively and more like yourselves as he is more with you; he will catch your ways if he belongs to you. And, as to there being any objection from his goodness, from the danger of his becoming even evangelical, I cannot admit that. I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be evangelicals, and am at least persuaded that they who are so from reason and feeling must be happiest and safest. Do not be frightened from the connection by your brothers having most wit -- wisdom is better than wit, and in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side; and don't be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others.

And now, my dear Fanny, having written so much on one side of the question, I shall turn round and entreat you not to commit yourself farther, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection; and if his deficiences of manner, &c. &c., strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once. Things are now in such a state that you must resolve upon one or the other -- either to allow him to go on as he has done, or whenever you are together behave with a coldness which may convince him that he has been deceiving himself. I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time -- a great deal when he feels that he must give you up; but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of disappointments kill anybody.
It is possible that a letter is missing, or that Fanny seized on Austen's first bit of advice here and decided to continue her relationship with Mr. A. She must have written to Austen and thanked her for advice - also indicating that she was being guided by her aunt, since on November 30, 1814, Austen wrote back and said that Fanny had frightened her out of her wits by making decisions about marriage based on someone else's opinion. She says more, of course, but here's a further excerpt from that letter. The sheer amount of emphasized words shows how angsty Austen was when writing this, which addresses the realities of Fanny's situation - she likes the guy now, but would be facing quite a long engagement - perhaps of several years - and Austen cautions her against making a life-long commitment without love:

I cannot wish you, with your present very cool feelings, to devote yourself in honour to him. It is very true that you never may attach another man his equal altogether; but if that other man has the power of attaching you more, he will be in your eyes the most perfect.

I shall be glad if you can revive past feelings, and from your unbiassed self resolve to go on as you have done, but this I do not expect; and without it I cannot wish you to be fettered. I should not be afraid of your marrying him; with all his worth you would soon love him enough for the happiness of both; but I should dread the continuance of this sort of tacit engagement, with such an uncertainty as there is of when it may be completed. Years may pass before he is independent; you like him well enough to marry, but not well enough to wait; the unpleasantness of appearing fickle is certainly great; but if you think you want punishment for past illusions, there it is, and nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love -- bound to one, and preferring another; that is a punishment which you do not deserve.
Tomorrow: Chapter Twenty-Three
Back to Chapter Twenty-One

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