Wednesday, March 27, 2013

In 'Pride and Prejudice', to what extent does the courtship of Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas provide a contrast to that of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet?

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The main focus of all Jane Austen’s novels is courtship. By her time, the courtship novel was a well-established convention. In novels of this type by more mediocre writers, the subject matter was largely trivial, and they were derided by male commentators. Austen’s novels, despite being well-written and containing more depth and substance than those of her contemporaries (Maria Edgeworth, for example), have been criticised for being very narrow in their focus; historical and social changes are often ignored. As one critic said, she “did not care a pin for the poor, could not have written about foreign parts if she tried”. However, Austen managed to use her talents within the sub-genre successfully, by incorporating both high comedy and a more serious underlying message- another critic, Lord David Cecil went as far to say, “On her bit of ivory she has engraved a criticism of life as serious and considered as Hardy’s”.

Pride and Prejudice is a clear example of Jane Austen’s interest in courtship � there are four courtships leading up to marriage in the novel, and much of the etiquette of courtship that existed at the time is referred to. Typically for Austen, she uses the omniscient narrator and her principal characters to convey her own feelings and attitudes to the society of the time. The courtships (and subsequent marriages) in the novel are none of them similar, and the way in which they are described and dealt with differs as a consequence.

For me, the most interesting courtships in the novel are those of Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas, and Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. These two relationships contrast a great deal with each other, but neither could be called conventional. Close examination of the text reveals that there are a sufficiently large number of contrasts between them to suggest that Austen probably intended them to be almost exact opposites.

An important point is the length of the two courtships. Charlotte and Mr Collins’ courtship lasts literally a day or two, although the narrator hints that there may have been some premeditation on Charlotte’s part, referring to “Miss Lucas’s scheme”. Darcy and Elizabeth’s courtship can be divided into two parts; the first, the period leading up to Darcy’s first proposal, and the second, the time between his first and second proposal. Their entire courtship spans the length of the novel, but it is the main focus of the plot. I feel the brevity of the Collinses’ courtship highlights the fact that “his attachment to her must be imaginary”, and Elizabeth considers “The strangeness of Mr Collins’s making two offers of marriage within three days”, showing that to outsiders the haste with which they have got engaged will seem rather abnormal. Elizabeth and Mr Darcy’s courtship is much longer but this is because they both have to change and improve themselves before they are able to be together, which ultimately makes them stronger and more committed to each other.

Charlotte Lucas is Mr Collins’ third choice as far as prospective wives go. He first decides on Jane Bennet, and, when informed that she is “likely to be very soon engaged” changes his mind from her to Elizabeth “while Mrs Bennet was stirring the fire”. Then shortly after Elizabeth “declares she will not have Mr Collins” he proposes to Charlotte Lucas. I think this further emphasises to the reader that Mr Collins is only “fancying himself in love” and that he is quite a fickle man. Charlotte deliberately seeks a proposal of marriage from Mr Collins, and the narrator points fun at this, saying, “Miss Lucas perceived him from an upper window as he walked towards the house, and instantly set out to meet him accidentally in the lane.” It is likely that the reader will find this amusing because of the way in which it has been phrased by the author. The juxtaposition of “instantly set out”, which shows clear purpose, with “accidentally”, causes the latter to become highly ironic.

As far as the reader is aware, Elizabeth is the sole object of Mr Darcy’s affection. He ignores Caroline Bingley’s attempts to flatter him, and, more than once, tries to make it clear he is not interested in her advances. The reader cannot doubt his love for Elizabeth, and it is of little surprise when he renews his vows. Prior to Mr Darcy’s first proposal, Elizabeth is completely oblivious to his admiration for her and, in her rejection of his proposal, tells him, “I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly”. When Elizabeth is at Netherfield, she has a number of discussions with Mr Darcy, where she attempts to irritate and make him look foolish. For example, when he says, “my good opinion once lost is lost forever”, she converts this into “a propensity to hate everybody” Austen skilfully sculpts these scenes so that Elizabeth inadvertently makes herself more attractive to Darcy, so much so that “He began to feel the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention.” Even when Elizabeth desires his “good opinion” she does not use Charlotte’s method of “fixing” a man by showing “more affection than she feels”, in fact she hides her feelings because she is certain that she is “a girl whom he could neither regard or esteem” because of Lydia’s “infamous elopement.”.

Elizabeth’s behaviour is in keeping with the etiquette of courtship of the time � a young woman should have been passive and appeared to hardly notice a man’s attentions. A prime example of conforming to this code is Fanny price in Mansfield Park. Her uncle, Sir Thomas � who stands for authority and decorum � is impressed by how “proper and modest, so calm and uninviting” she is towards men. Prior to Mr Darcy’s proposal Elizabeth does not know of his partiality, and after her sister’s elopement, she convinces herself that he cannot have any feelings for her. This creates far more tension and suspense, than if Elizabeth were full aware of how he feels.

Austen makes it clear that Charlotte’s main motive for marriage is to secure her own comfort, and she feels “Happiness in marriage is a entirely matter of chance.” and tells Elizabeth “I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home”, which, particularly to the modern reader, may seem slightly weak. However, the narrator does try to evoke a feeling of understanding, commenting that “the boys were relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte’s dying an old maid”, indicating that it would be imprudent for her to reject Mr Collins because it is unlikely she will receive another offer of marriage. Admittedly, the tendency is to share some of Elizabeth’s feelings on the subject, though without going to the extreme of saying that Charlotte “would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage”, which is a rather large exaggeration.

Even though it is made abundantly clear that Elizabeth’s main reason for marrying Darcy is love, there has been much discussion as to whether his wealth is a factor she considers. She tells Jane she began to fall in love with him “from [her] first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberly”, and critics including Sir Walter Scott have taken this seriously. However, considering Elizabeth’s frequent use of irony (and the ironic tone of the book) and the fact that Jane gives “Another intreaty that she would be serious”, I feel it is more than likely that she is joking. It must be realised that Elizabeth is hardly ignorant of Darcy’s wealth (one of the first things that we learn about Darcy is “his having ten thousand a year”) and that her marriage would be of great financial advantage to both her and her family. Before forming judgements on either character, it would be best to remember that the society in Regency England differed greatly from that of today, young women of a Elizabeth’s and Charlotte’s background were almost obliged to be married � “it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune”, says the narrator. Even though Charlotte cannot be blamed for securing her future, Austen makes it clear that love is an important part of marriage, even though other considerations, for example, those regarding financial matters must be made. Austen illustrates this in Mansfield Park where Mrs Price (Fanny’s mother) has become very poor as a consequence of marrying simply for love.

Whilst their relationship is a matter of interest, Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas are not nearly so appealing to the reader as Elizabeth and Darcy who, being the protagonists of the novel, are inherently more interesting characters. The reader is made to dislike Mr Collins, who is a prime example of one of Austen’s caricatures. Various things fuel this dislike. The narrator does not describe him favourably, for example, introducing him as “a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility”. Charlotte Lucas is described as being “very plain” and it is clear that she does not possess as quick a wit as Elizabeth. Apart from that announcement of her engagement, she is hardly ever the centre of attention. She has views that differ from those of Elizabeth, particularly those regarding to marriage and romance.

Despite the fact that Austen does not go into great depth on the physical appearance of her characters, we get the impression that Elizabeth Bennet is an attractive young woman. Her most striking feature is her eyes, which are described as “dark” and “fine”, and more than once she is called “pretty”. Of all the characters in Pride and Prejudice, she is the most modern because she has independent opinions, freely expresses her feelings and, as is illustrated in her conversations with Mr Darcy at Netherfield, she see herself as an intellectual equal to men. We find her amusing because of her “quickness” and “lively wit” that allow her to satirise human behaviour and give amusing insights. She is frequently used by the narrator as the centre of consciousness and, as a result, we gain more insight into her character than any other. As a heroine, she is far from being a paragon of all virtues, but her faults serve to make her more believable. It is most enjoyable to see her develop and change, especially in her behaviour towards Darcy. Near the end of the novel, she is able to recognise her own shortcomings and tells Darcy “we have both, I hope, improved in civility”.

We dislike Mr Darcy for a large part of the novel because of his general demeanour, which is called “conceited”, “disagreeable”, “horrid” and “proud”, and because of his interference in Mr Bingley and Jane Bennet’s relationship. However, when he starts behaving in a “more gentleman-like manner”, he gradually redeems himself in Elizabeth’s eyes. Unlike Mr Collins, Darcy does not speak a great deal- as Elizabeth puts it, “unwilling to speak, unless [you] expect to say something that will amaze the whole room”- and Austen does not use free indirect style, as she does with Elizabeth, so we do not gain much insight into what he is feeling or thinking. This makes him a thoroughly intriguing character. He is handsome, described as having a “fine, tall person, handsome features”, and rich, “having ten thousand a year” and a “large estate in Derbyshire”, increasing his appeal. Elizabeth and Mr Darcy’s courtship means more to us than that of Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas because we like them more and care about them more, and we can relate to them more. Despite Mr Collins and Charlottes’ courtship proving a certain degree of interest and amusement, we ultimately do not care what happens to them.

By using Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas’ courtship to provide a contrast to that of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, Jane Austen is able to show that not all courtships and marriages were romantic situations, and that a number of factors came under consideration. Austen does make it clear, particularly through Mr and Mrs Bennet, that marriage without love and respect is not to be encouraged, but she simultaneously informs us of the pressures that many women faced, that were caused by their families and society. The deficiencies that exist in the Collinses’ situation do not exist in Darcy and Elizabeth’s situation, which emphasises that their marriage is more likely to be successful. In many respects, it is Darcy and Elizabeth’s courtship that is the more difficult of the two, but it is far more important because it is the basis of the whole novel.

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