Starting Pride and Prejudice

October 22, 2020

I’m 20 chapters into “Pride and Prejudice.” Last spring when we went into quarantine, I ordered a Jane Austen Complete Works, having revisited the 1995 mini-series a few weeks before.  I read several chapters, including Lizzie’s three marriage proposal scenes and her final confrontation with Lady de Bourgh.  I’m going to read everything now from the start.

The story, the various adaptations, even the book are all familiar to me so it’s impossible to feel that I coming into something completely new.  But great novels repay any close attention, even if it’s your umpteenth visit.  I’m reading this right after “Don Quixote,” which is the funniest book I’ve ever read – but Austen has me laughing too.  And her satire is biting, more so than Cervantes’.  Austen has a reputation as a writer of “soft” subjects, I guess because she writes about love instead of war – she never mentions Napoleon in all her novels – but there is nothing soft about the way she views her society.  Without ever resorting to the direct voice of harsh criticism, she hammers everyone around her, exposing flaws with ease.

I am still thinking about “Don Quixote,” which has given me some new thoughts about “P&P”, something I hardly expected.  Mr. Collins keeps reminding me of our knight.  Mr. Bennet, for one, looks forward to having a foolish fop as a guest in his house, much like the duke and duchess when they hosted Quijote.  Mr. Collins, like our knight, has an exaggerated manner of expression; people laugh at it the way Quijote’s speech drew laughter.

“To assure you in the most animated language” (illustration by Hugh Thomson)

I thought at first that these would be merely superficial similarities – and in fact there are inescapable differences between the two men, which I’ll get to.  But I’ve just finished reading that great chapter containing his marriage proposal to Lizzie.  And the similarities grow – to my consternation. After all, though much about Quijote bothered and even disturbed me, I ended up loving him, while no one can love Mr. Collins (not even Charlotte does!)  He is thoroughly contemptible; but many of the things he says to Lizzie while proposing marriage sound like he’s been reading too many of those tales of chivalry that Quijote loved and Cervantes lampooned.  Mr. Collins talks about ladies who reject suitors they secretly admire; the innkeeper’s daughter in Vol. I, ch. 32 of “Don Quixote” describes just such ladies in the tales of chivalry that were so popular in her day, complaining that she cannot understand why sensible ladies would behave that way toward perfectly fine gentlemen.  Of course, Mr. Collins is not perfectly fine or acceptable; but he believes himself to be; and he believes Lizzie to be one of these damsels from tales of chivalry, who heighten their knight’s love by keeping it in suspense.  Lizzie says she is not such a lady and wonders whether such women even exist, much like we kept finding, in “Don Quixote,” characters who were skeptical about whether romantic knights ever existed. 

Those knights often accused their beloved ladies of cruelty and indifference; and “cruelty” is exactly the thing Mr. Collins says he contemplates thinking of Lizzie, though he refuses – as a gallant knight would – to go there for the moment.

When Lizzie despairs that her plain, direct refusals “can appear to you in the form of encouragement,” it just screams at you:  this man has a windmill in front of him and he sees it in another form entirely.

Ok, that may be too blunt a comparison; but it’s the one that leaped to mind. 

Now, the differences between the two men.  Don Quijote was acknowledged by all around him to be crazy only when it came to tales of chivalry, but a wonderful man in every other respect:  learned, truly willing to serve others, capable of friendship and devotion, etc., while Mr. Collins clearly is a fool in every aspect of life.  He’s had some basic success in life but it’s come largely through inheritance and good luck. 

It’s just in the matter of love that there are many uncomfortable similarities between them. 

Yes, the outstanding difference between the two is that Mr. Collins’ “love” is purely affected and calculating; he drops Jane in an instant to focus on Lizzie, and proposes to Charlotte before the week is out.  Austen tells us that Lizzie’s rejection did not hurt Mr. Collins deeply, only wounding his pride.  This could not be more different from our knight.

Yet – there’s a big “yet.”  The kind of love that Quijote had in mind might be deeper in certain ways, but after all, it wasn’t love:  it was idealization.  And how different is that from Mr. Collins?  Certainly, DQ’s “love” comes off as less directly harmful, less repulsive – and maybe if our dear knight had actually attempted a real relationship with a real woman, he would have had real things to offer her.  Mr. Collins has little but grief to offer; and he doesn’t even want a woman as idealized inspiration; he just wants to be a respectable-married man.  But if such chivalric idealization can come off as less repulsive than the Mr. Collins example, that might be due to no more than the mere fact that knights such as Don Quijote don’t attempt to force their blind selves on their idealized ladies; they stay out in the fields, bemoaning their love, licking their pangs of “rejection”; but at least they don’t attempt blindly to force what they feel upon the real woman.  When a man tries to take such chivalric ideas and charge forward with them, blindly, well what you should expect is something that looks as repulsive as Mr. Collins’ proposal toward Lizzie Bennet.

I love how Lizzie describes herself, and pleads that Mr. Collins see her, “as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart.”  Yes, she’s rational, and it’s nice that she says it; but it’s also interesting that she marries rationality with the heart.  They are not opposite things, for Austen.

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