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.)


Do you take this man? [Part I]

After a bit of a hiatus due to an overly busy Spring season with the bookstore, I have returned to my rightful place on the couch with a sick little boy laying on top of me. As an Austen fan it’s probably obvious that I’ve daydreamed about visiting Pemberley or spending a week in Hartfield, getting the lay of the land and catching up on all the latest gossip. But I’ve never been so romantic as to think I’d enjoy living a Regency lifestyle for very long – and this idea is never more clear to me than when I have a child with (thankfully very very mild) pneumonia. I got him in to the doctor before it could make him unbearably ill, and a quick & easy administration of antbiotics in the mornings will soon set him right. What a relief.

Many in Austen’s era weren’t as lucky. Epidemics like tuberculosis and tyhpus could kill hundreds of people, with children the most vulnerable, their tiny bodies not strong enough to fight off these horrifying infectious diseases. A trip to an old churchyard will show you the alarming regularity of child loss in the era before modern medicine.


It’s easy to see old churchyards as charming and quaint, almost decorative additions to village life. In England especially the ancient stone churches feel like monuments themselves – not merely to those eternally resting on their grounds, but to the centuries of small-town concerns these buildings would have witnessed.

But even one of the most iconic images of the classic English church – the Lychgate – is a symbol of death. This quaint wooden structure is the last departure point for an unconsecrated body. Under this roof, the family of the dead would gather for a last time and say their goodbyes. And under this roof they would be joined by their clergyman, whose role was to meet the family at the intersection of unholy and holy ground to perform the rites that would allow their loved one to be given a proper Christian funeral in consecrated ground.

Austen gives us varying views of the English clergy. Herself the daughter of a Reverend, she clearly had great respect for the role of the church in everyday village life, even if that role was often fulfilled by those not up to the task. A few of her ecclesiastical characters actually give us hope for their parishioners; Edward Ferrars’ calm resignation and Edmund Bertram’s thoughtfulness (when not distracted by a pretty woman) both make me think they’d make an honorable showing at the Lychgate, providing quiet and peace to a family embarking on the long and painful journey of mourning. However, there are other members of the clergy in the Austen Canon that make me cringe to think of the way they’d conduct themselves in such a moment.

Though many scholars have taken on Austen’s treatment of the clergy (notably Irene Collins in Jane Austen and the Clergy) I feel as if they deserve another look.

“I always preferred the church”

Although many of her contemporary readers would have been familiar with the standard sibling professional hierarchy, it sometimes comes as a surprise to modern audiences that younger brothers were often assigned careers based simply on the order of their birth. Because of primogeniture, the eldest son was destined to inherit the estate, no matter how terrible he would be at maintaining it. It was ostensibly his choice whether to support his younger siblings financially, although running an estate often didn’t include the financial wiggle room to support more than one family. Also, if you’ve ever spent any time around sibling boys, you can probably imagine that they aren’t exactly fond of sharing their toys.

In Sense and Sensibility Austen does a good job of showing us what happens when sibling relationships deteriorate. Colonel Brandon was the victim of not only his father’s disapproval, but his brother’s abuse. He and Eliza were in love, but she was forced by his father to marry his cruel older brother so that her fortune would stay with the estate. The Colonel was forced into the army to forget Eliza, but he never did. (This is just one example – there are quite a few disfunctional sibling relationships in S&S. It’s pretty much “Boyfights: 1811 edition.”)

Colonel Brandon’s story, however, highlights a dynamic in Regency sibling relationships affected by laws of entailment. Because the younger siblings didn’t inherit an estate they often needed to come up with some sort of income. This usually meant a commission in the Army or the Navy, or if those were “too smart,” the law. And for the son who didn’t fit into any of those roles, there was always the clergy.

We never could agree in our choice of a profession. I always preferred the church, as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family. They recommended the army. That was a great deal too smart for me. The law was allowed to be genteel enough; many young men, who had chambers in the Temple, made a very good appearance in the first circles, and drove about town in very knowing gigs. But I had no inclination for the law, even in this less abstruse study of it, which my family approved. As for the navy, it had fashion on its side, but I was too old when the subject was first started to enter it, — and, at length, as there was no necessity for my having any profession at all, as I might be as dashing and expensive without a red coat on my back as with one, idleness was pronounced on the whole to be the most advantageous and honourable – Edward Ferrars

Of course, Edward Ferrars’ situation was a bit different. He was an older child left waiting for the death of his mother to inherit his fortune. His younger brother’s heartless manipulations allowed Robert to triumph over Edward financially, but one cannot help pitying the man taken in by Lucy Steele.

Mansfield Park‘s Edmund Bertram is truly the younger brother left to the whims of his older brother’s financial indulgences. And like Edward Ferrars, Edmund is luckily rather happy with the idea of being a clergyman. These Austen heroes both find happiness in a life of quiet solitude and reflection – a choice reflected in both of their marriages to quiet, reflective women.

But not all of Austen’s clergymen make such sensible matrimonial decisions.

Mr. Elton, of course, finds his Augusta at a popular watering-place. They were presumably brought together by their mutual desire to impress others at all costs. I often defend my dear Emma, and in this case it’s easy to see that her being fooled by Mr Elton was due as much to her naivety as to her vanity. Elton, however, proves himself to be exactly what Mr Knightley warned Emma he was.

She remembered what Mr. Knightley had once said to her about Mr. Elton, the caution he had given, the conviction he had professed that Mr. Elton would never marry indiscreetly; and blushed to think how much truer a knowledge of his character had been there shewn than any she had reached herself. It was dreadfully mortifying; but Mr. Elton was proving himself, in many respects, the very reverse of what she had meant and believed him; proud, assuming, conceited; very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others.

Emma expected Mr Elton to share her values. She valued a friend who would listen to her and be a submissive and pleasant companion – a role she had played for her own father her entire life. But Mr Elton’s choice of wife shows us that he’s driven almost solely by financial and social ambition. It’s easy to imagine that a man “very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others”  would choose appearance over substance not only in courtship, but likely in his his choice of profession as well. After all, what gives a more pleasant appearance than a clerical collar? A man as interested in social position as Elton would likely have seen the church as his ticket into the drawing rooms of elegant young ladies. His appearance at the Lychgate, however, would most likely expose his parishioners to the moral failings of their Shepherd.

Mr Elton supervising Emma's painting of Harriet
Mr Elton supervising Emma’s painting of Harriet

I have to break here because it’s taken me quite a while to get this far and I’m just about to dive into my two favorite clerical characters: Mr Collins and Henry Tilney. I started this blog entry in May (the little one got over his pneumonia very quickly, thank you) but between work and motherhood I’ve been struggling to keep up with it. I’ll get the second half up as soon as possible – until then, what are your thoughts on Austen’s clergymen? Do you think any of them would make good husbands?

Shakespeare had a little Lamb

I haven’t really read Shakespeare since I was in high school. I read very quickly in a bit of a weird way – I tend to just breeze through sentences by sort of “getting a feeling” of what they say – which can be a problem if something unexpected pops up. I don’t know if there’s a name for my style of reading, but as I’ve gotten older I tend to get a bit bored when I have to put in even a tiny bit more than the barest minimum of effort in order to extract plot, dialogue, character, etc. So while I had a lot of fun reading the Bard in my teenagerhood, I find my adult self glazing over and finding off-page distractions due to the extra effort that goes into following the rhyming meter and the “enter“s and “exeunt“s.

See, I used to read for enjoyment. I’d have a few hours to myself, and I’d use them to get every last bit of substance out of whatever was in front of me. But now with two loud, boisterous, insane, interrupting young children, and a job, and lots of things to do, I end up reading in that half hour window between my face hitting the pillow and my eyes closing. What I’m saying here is that lately prose is my thing. It’s a lot easier to fall asleep to a nice, flowing narrative than something requiring that tiny bit of extra work. This is why my big fat heavy copy of the Complete Shakespeare, a gift from my mom for my 18th birthday, has been gathering a bit of dust.

Oh I’ve tried adaptations, but I don’t handle audiobooks well, (zzzzz) and many of the Shakespeare films & plays I’ve seen are poncy & overwrought. Having said that, I generally enjoy live performances, and I’d really love to go to the Globe next time I get to London. (Maybe I could catch an “Original Pronunciation” performance! And I love that these guys  agree with my “poncy & overwrought” bit.) But lately I’ve been finding myself diving into some of the more obscure bits in Austen – many of which involve references to Shakesperian works – so I got that itch to read him again. Only it didn’t itch badly enough for me to pull that big heavy book of my shelf. So I decided to think like a Regencian(?) and take the easy way out. Enter:

Tales From Shakespeare

(1807) by Charles and Mary Lamb

Charles and Mary Lamb were interesting characters. Charles was born in the same year as Jane Austen (1775) and later became close friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose main claim to fame is, I believe, being mentioned in Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency1. Their family was not overly poor during their childhood, but as the children grew older the Lambs fell on hard economic times. But through Charles Lamb’s attendance at a boarding school for low-income children (which he unfortunately attended during the reign of a brutally violent headmaster) he was able to earn an education that would eventually allow him a mostly middle-class lifestyle.

His sister Mary was a voracious reader and, being 11 years Charles’ senior, treasured her father’s stories of meeting Samuel Johnson and a childhood memory of spotting Oliver Goldsmith in the street. As a woman she was unable to escape to a school or work outside the home, so she worked as a seamstress while simultaneously caring for three incapacitated family members. Unfortunately, though she was highly intelligent and rational, Mary suffered from a mental illness which rendered her occasionally violently unstable. She had a breakdown in 1796 during which she stabbed her mother to death. She was ruled as suffering from “lunacy,” and was institutionalized on and off during the rest of her life.

Mary’s life stabilized quite a bit after her brother became financially secure enough to take her in. They lived together as bachelor siblings, each offering the support that neither had found in anyone else. Their social circle expanded to include the Wordsworths, William Godwin, and William Hazlitt. (If you’re not familiar with these names, that’s okay – it just means you’re not as gigantic of a nerd as I am.) Mary, having been encouraged by a friend to write fictions aimed at young people, began a project with her brother to adapt Shakespeare’s works for young readers. And thus, Tales from Shakespeare was born.

As I mentioned above, I have a great fondness for prose. This made Tales from Shakespeare a quick and enjoyable read for me, and I highly suggest it to anyone wanting a fast and simple refresher on the more popular plays. But, dear reader, you may notice things about the Lambs’ adaptation which may tickle a funny bone or two.

In true chivalrous style, Charles adapted the tragedies and left Mary the comedies. The true comedy, however, begins in the preface: (pardon me for the huge quote, but this whole bit is hilarious.)

…For young ladies, too, it has been the intention chiefly to write; because boys being generally permitted the use of their fathers’ libraries at a much earlier age than girls are, they frequently have the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart, before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book; and, therefore, instead of recommending these Tales to the perusal, of young gentlemen who can read them so much better in the originals, their kind assistance is rather requested in explaining to their sisters such parts as are hardest for them to understand: and when they have helped them to get over the difficulties, then perhaps they will read to them (carefully selecting what is proper for a young sister’s ear) some passage which has pleased them in one of these stories, in the very words of the scene from which it is taken; and it is hoped they will find that the beautiful extracts, the select passages, they may choose to give their sisters in this way will be much better relished and understood from their having some notion of the general story…

(emph. mine)

The “manly” plays included for the elucidation of weak young feminine minds are as follows:


“My dear brother, can you please explain this manly book to me?”

I find it rather entertaining to see the bawdy Bard’s best bits through the hyper-moralizing lens of the early 19th century. Though it was not nearly the wet-blanket-prim-and-perfect-party of the later Victorian age, bookshelves of the Regency era (especially in homes with ladies in them) were rife and teeming with morality.

While the Regency era was rather more “englightened” than Elizabethan times, both had their issues with female autonomy. I’ve pulled out some fun quotes from the Lambs’ “modern” interpretations of Shakespeare’s expressions of femininity, and of their general comments concerning customs of his day: (again, emphasis mine)


“…she was, with weariness and hunger, almost dying; for it is not merely putting on a man’s apparel that will enable a young lady, tenderly brought up, to bear the fatigue of wandering about lonely forests like a man…”

“…Imogen delighted them with her neat housewifery, assisting them in preparing their supper; for, though it is not the custom now for young women of high birth to understand cookery, it was then.”

As You Like It:

In those times wrestling, which is only practised now by country clowns, was a favorite sport even in the courts of princes, and before fair ladies and princesses.

Twelfth Night:

“It was a strange fancy in a young lady to put on male attire and pass for a boy; but the forlorn and unprotected state of Viola, who was young and of uncommon beauty, alone, and in a foreign land, must plead her excuse.”

(And here’s a big spoiler in the next paragraph, thanks Mary!)
“When she was dressed in her manly garb she looked so exactly like her brother that some strange errors happened by means of their being mistaken for each other, for, as will afterward appear, Sebastian was also saved.” (Dude! Not cool!)

“Orsino, forsaking the sports of the field and all manly exercises in which he used to delight, passed his hours in ignoble sloth, listening to the effeminate sounds of soft music, gentle airs, and passionate love-songs.”


I wonder if the Lambs ever giggled over archaic phrasing or outdated morality when updating these plays for their contemporary audience. Having read the whole selection, I do feel that there was a concerted effort made to censor not only scenes of violence, but also scenes of sexual excitement or gender ambiguity. I can see why parents of the age would have felt more comfortable exposing their delicate daughters to such a stylized and narrow reading of a set of fiction that was such a vital part of the “Englishman’s constitution.”

“…Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.” –Henry Crawford

I also wonder if Jane Austen ever got her hands on a copy of Tales of Shakespeare. I wonder what her thoughts would have been on the quality of the adaptation. Would she have been pleased with the increased accessibility of works which even Edmund Bertram, the nerdiest of nerds, admits are rather complicated?

Or would Austen have bristled at the moralizing tone which Mary Lamb seems to have taken fully to heart in her adaptations of the comedies? Surely there are morals to be learned in Shakespeare’s plays, but I’m not entirely sure “always listen to your husband or father, and never dress like a man” are the main ones.

Anyway, I had a great deal of fun reading the Lambs’ “update” to that Daddy of Drama, that Padre of Poetry, that Cardinal of Comedy, Mr. S. It left me wanting to get back into the plays again, which is a good feeling. Between the children and the purely Austenian day job it’s been a while since I’ve felt inspired to read something for pleasure instead of as a nightcap. Even if their occasional goofy preachies got me giggling, I really appreciated how easy the Lambs’ work made it for me to remember old favorites and assimilate the plots of as-yet unread masterpieces.

Now, I just need a little help getting this giant book down off my shelf. Hmmm, should I start with the tragedies and then move on to histories & comedies? Maybe I should start with the sonnets and then read the plays chronologically? Or… maybe I’ll just play angry birds tonight and leave that big Bard book for tomorrow.

1. Quite possibly one of the best books ever written by one of the best novel writers who ever wrote. If you think I’m kidding, I once wrote an article about how Douglas Adams and Jane Austen are pretty much both the best writers ever ever. Hey, I’m a fangirl, what can I say? [And I’m only linking to the Wiki article because the entire text isn’t online. If you haven’t read this book yet, do it now.]