Charlotte + Mr. Collins 4-Eva: In Praise of Jane Austen's Lukewarm Romance
Sure, the two Pride and Prejudice characters don't have the all-consuming, uncompromising passion of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy—but how many couples do?
Pride and Prejudice is 200 years old this week, and that means Austen fans have an excuse to reread and celebrate one of the great literary romances in history: that between Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins.
That's a joke, of course, not just because Charlotte is not the hero of the book, but because her romance is...well, not much of a romance. The Reverend Mr. Collins is, as Elizabeth says, a "conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man." He has no love for Charlotte, nor, indeed, for anybody—he simply wants a wife since a wife is what clergymen are supposed to have. He proposes to our heroine Elizabeth Bennet first, and when she turns him down, he takes a couple of days off and then lights on Charlotte, who is there and available. Charlotte accepts with open eyes. As Austen says:
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 matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only 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.
Elizabeth is horrified, and her esteem for Charlotte, and their close friendship, are both seriously damaged. Elizabeth cannot believe that Charlotte will be happy with her foolish, embarrassing husband. And yet, when she visits the couple, Charlotte doesn't seem to be managing so badly. She encourages her husband's gardening as the best way to get him out of the house, ignores him with fair success the rest of the time, and, in general she does, "not seem to ask for compassion."
In a lovely recent piece for the Guardian , Lucy Mangan praises Charlotte's pragmatism, but fears for the "desolate inner landscape" to which years of marriage to Mr. Collins may doom her.
I understand the concern, but I don't think that that is necessarily going to be Charlotte's fate. There are, after all, no shortage of unhappy marriages in Austen's fiction—that between Mr. Bennet and the extremely silly Mrs. Bennet, for example, or, in Sense and Sensibility, the match between Willoughby and the deeply unamiable Miss Grey. Such mismatches tend to result, for Austen, not in desolation, but in moderate, and by no means insupportable, dissatisfaction. Mr. Bennet resolves, since his wife is incapable of intelligence, to get enjoyment from laughing at her folly. Willoughby, while he may not like his wife, at least gets to live comfortably on her fortune. People will make do one way or another, Austen suggests—and that certainly applies to the clear-eyed Charlotte.
Austen, in short, is not Tolstoy, or D.H. Lawrence, nor even, for that matter, E.M. Forster. She has to be one of the least romantic writers ever to write romance. When Elizabeth tells Darcy that she fell in love with him upon seeing his estate, the joke is in no small part that she's not exactly lying. In Austen's world, love is part of life, not a rupture in it, and material concerns factor in, as they do in everything. The overpowering, primal love that overturns convention and uproots petticoats—Austen mentions such enthusiasm only to make fun of it while urging her characters not to read too much poetry. Real romance for Austen is not swoons and passion and perfect soul mates, but amiability and comfort and flannel waistcoats and the best accommodations you can manage.
Elizabeth, then, is so popular in large part because she is, as an Austen heroine (and despite the quip about the estate) so uncharacteristic. Elinor may get matched with the diffident, shy Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, and Anne may get the aging Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, but Elizabeth doesn't have to settle for such not-ready-for-Hollywood leading men. She gets not just everything she wants, but everything a romantic heroine should have—a man with wealth, position, youth, beauty, and mastery. Indeed, Elizabeth and Darcy are not just the only Austen couple that you can imagine having an exciting sex life, they're pretty much the only Austen couple that you can imagine having sex at all. Darcy is the romance jackpot—as indeed, in her own way, is the beautiful, witty, brilliant Elizabeth.
Charlotte, on the other hand, seems much more in line with Austen's more typically small-as-life world. As such, there's something decidedly comforting about her and her story. Not because, as Mangan suggests, her pragmatism is heroic and tragic, but because it's neither of those things. Charlotte did the best she could, and if the result is not exactly blinding ecstasy forever after—well, most of us, for the most part, don't get blinding ecstasy forever after anyway. I wouldn't want to change places with Charlotte, and I'm sure most folks who read the book wouldn't want to either. But still, I appreciate Austen's grace in allowing that you don't necessarily have to be Elizabeth or Darcy to be happy.