Do you take this man? [Part II]

In Part I, I briefly discussed some of Austen’s clergy and their marriages. One of the things that got me thinking about these marriages was an article referenced by Sarah Emsley in her blog about Mr Collins. (sometimes I think she and I are the only people talking about Mr Collins!) I already knew I wanted to write something about his marriage to Charlotte, but when I read Ruth Perry’s Sleeping with Mr. Collins (JASNA Persuasions No. 22, 2000) my thoughts clarified a bit. I realized that I wasn’t interested in what Mr Collins’s matrimonial choices say about his relationship with Charlotte, but what they say about his relationship with the church and his parishioners.

Mr Collins’s story is another tool in Austen’s “moralist” toolbox. His marriage to Charlotte is a representation of his symbolic marriage to the church; both should be lifelong commitments, and both carry at least the expectation of faithfulness, honesty, and morality.

But why would a young man with his own money to spend choose to encumber himself with a commitment such as marriage? For sure, much is said of the obligation of young women in the Regency era to marry or suffer dire consequences – but men faced pressure to marry as well. For one thing, if a man was part of the landed class and failed to produce a legal heir, his property would no longer belong to his patrilineal line – in Mr Bennet’s case it was entailed upon his distant cousin Mr Collins. There also wasn’t much of a reason to stay single. Many of England’s eligible young men were off fighting Napoleon or colonizing the Indies, leaving a surplus of pleasant young ladies behind. In the most crude sense, it was a buyer’s market.

Mr Collins’s entry into this market comes in Chapter 13. He is presented to us from the beginning as someone who, though disadvantaged in his youth, has achieved his current position through a combination of brown-nosing and being in the right place at the right time1.

Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, … The subjection in which his father had brought him up had given him originally great humility of manner; but it was now a good deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity. 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 rights as a rector, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.

His vanity is detestable, but more than that, it shows that he is incapable of learning from those around him. He valiantly ignores Elizabeth’s refusal, prompting her to beg him to “pay [her] the compliment of believing what [she says.]”

Not only is he vain and self-centered, he is also totally unaware of his own ample shortcomings. We feel tremendous pity for Charlotte, and sympathize with Elizabeth’s feelings of betrayal over Charlotte’s agreeing to marry him. But are all of these negative feelings limited to his relationship with Charlotte? Or is Austen using his unsuitability as a mate as a representation of his unsuitability as a religious leader?

We see that his marriage is a matter purely of convenience for Mr Collins, and we’ve established that his profession is as well. [This was not uncommon in Austen’s day – I discussed the role of primogeniture in the dissemination of family livings to younger sons in Part I.] Does he preside over his parishioners with an air of self-congratulatory self-importance? One need not imagine that he presides over Charlotte in this way – we witness both his showy displays of affection and his total lack of emotional penetration during Elizabeth’s Hunsford visit. It’s not hard to imagine him, in the most intimate moments for either wife or parishioner, being carried away with his inflated self-worth. In some ways he is rather like Emma, congratulating himself for “helping” while unwittingly inflicting pain and discomfort.

“Unwittingly” is an important word here. There is undoubtedly something malicious about Mr Collins (though not nearly as malicious as the last several film adaptations would have you believe), but he is also so blind to his own behavior, so naive to social customs and social roles – it is very easy for the reader to see how his unhappy childhood and sheltered university years combined to create a man unaware of the true nature of the world.

But that little twinge of malice in his character shows us that every now and then he is fully aware of the hurt he is causing. His letter of condolence to Mr Bennet on the event of Lydia’s disgrace causes him “to reflect, with augmented satisfaction, on a certain event of last November; for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.” If we compare him once more to Emma, however, we see that when she is finally able to see how hurtful her behavior truly is after injuring dear Miss Bates, she is mortified and attempts to make amends. But Mr Collins has no such moment of clarity. He has wheedled himself into positions in his personal and professional lives that allow him to continue to condescend with impunity.

It’s simply a shame that such a man would be put in charge of the lives and afterlives of parishioners who had no choice but to involve him in their most vulnerable moments. If we return again to the scene at the Lychgate where we have already witnessed the kind an thoughtful words of Edmund and Edward, and the preening and simpering of Mr Elton, we now see Mr Collins lecturing a grieving widow and her passel of children. One can imagine his admonitions to the children to perform their duties without excessive displays of grief that are unsuitable for those in their station in life. And to the mother, not to expect more than her fair share of charity from his esteemed patroness.

After all this discussion of the less-esteemed clergymen in Austen’s novels I should turn to one that we all love and cherish: Henry Tilney. He is the epitome of sweetness and a paragon of clever convsersation. In some Austen circles it’s considered sacrilegious to even hint that he may be, like the rest of us mere mortals, imperfect.

Henry is an adorably easy to love hero. He doesn’t have any of Mr Darcy’s hauteur or Edmund’s lack of resolution. He is just independent enough to make his own decisions about love, but just dependent enough on his tyrannical father to excuse his failings as a suitor.

I’ve often felt that he’s probably so easy to love because Northanger Abbey is, in Austen-terms, “unfinished.” Of course it’s a complete novel, but she never returned to it to clean it up the way she did with her later, more successful novels. Because it was written when she was still a young woman, and not as drastically redone as Elinor & Marianne or First Impressions, the characters are less complex. Yet even a relatively simple Austen character is infinitely more complex than those of other writers. So while I think Henry’s overpowering sweetness is charming, that charm is tempered by my suspicion that if he’d been revisited by the editing pen, he’d have grown some warts.

As wonderful as he is, however, Henry’s character (shockingly!) carries with it some quirks that make him less lovable than he appears at first glance. After all, much of the time he shares with Catherine in Bath is spent lecturing or ridiculing her – however gently it is done, it is ridicule nonetheless.

“…But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”
“The nicest — by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”

Henry, lovely Henry, is easy to defend because he is a happy, affectionate lover. He greatly enjoys Catherine’s innocence and naivety. Yet his love for her is tempered with a strange kind of disrespect. He occasionally seems to feel – as does the reader – as if Catherine needs a man who is smarter than her to navigate her through life. And while this may be so for Catherine Morland at 17, will she still feel as if she needs such education as Mrs Tilney, 23? As a 31 year old mother of several children? At what point will Henry stop “teaching” her and start learning from her?

“You are shockingly neglectful of your parish!”

While I don’t think news of their marriage at the end of the novel portends doom and gloom, I do wonder if theirs would be the happiest and best-deserved marriages of the 6 novels. To be sure, he braves quite a bit of unpleasantness from his father to secure Catherine, but once he has her, it is possible that he may learn to neglect her or, if her lovely uninformed mind at 17 fails to mature to his expectations, despise her and make her an object of ridicule for their children.

I can hear the Tilney fans shouting already – “Henry would never neglect Catherine!” But we see that he is eminently capable of neglect. (I greatly enjoyed the phrasing in this wikipedia page: “Henry Tilney, in fact, in Northanger Abbey, is absent from his parish half the time and takes holidays in Bath, so that in spite of his intellectual and moral qualities, he bears witness to the lack of commitment of certain clergymen towards their flock.”) He is supposedly an active clergyman – no mere curate – yet he spends a great deal of time in the novel not attending to his parish.

Perhaps Henry, like Catherine, still has much to learn about the world. His wit is one of his main attractions, but it’s also an indication of the type of clergyman he must be. He is clearly thrilled by educating others, and full of joy and happiness, but would he be able to educate his parishioners without condescending to them or laughing at them? He is barely able to do so with Catherine.

Of course, if given the choice between all of Austen’s clergymen I’d probably pick Henry to guide my family through a traumatic circumstance. I’d rather be talked down to by a man with love and joy in his heart than moped at by either of the Eds, preened to by Mister E, or arrogantly blustered about by the hot air escaping from Mr Collins. And if we are carrying on with the theme of comparing husbands to clergymen, I’ll still stick with Henry, if only for this swoon-worthy quote:

I should no more lay it down as a general rule that women write better letters than men, than that they sing better duets, or draw better landscapes. In every power, of which taste is the foundation, excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes.

Right on, Henry, right on.

1. A great outline of Regency clergy history, including reasons for choosing the church as a career, can be found on the JASNA Greater Chicago Region website.)


2 thoughts on “Do you take this man? [Part II]”

  1. What an interesting idea to compare Mr. Collins with Emma – I hadn’t thought of that. I like what you say about how he thinks he’s helping when in fact he’s making thing worse – and your argument about the point at which the parallels with Emma stop. He has no moment of clarity, no sense that he’s done anything wrong. His education has failed him.

    Good points about Henry Tilney’s imperfections, too. Elizabeth and Darcy learn from each other. Will Henry learn from Catherine, as well as teach her and laugh at her (even if his laughter is gentle)?

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