One of the many things I’ve done this month to ward off the winter blues is re-read Pride & Prejudice for the umpteenth time. I first read it when I was about 12. At that age the book was all about the Elizabeth–Darcy love story and the comedy of the ridiculous, as exemplified by the wonderful Mr Collins. Five years later, when the book was a set text for English A-Level, it was the formal beauty of Jane Austen‘s writing which arrested me: those graceful chains of semi-colons, the delicate narrative thread. And so it’s gone on: each time i notice something new or find myself rethinking my earlier impressions.
Reading the book this Christmas, what struck me was the terrible sadness of two characters, Mr Collins and Mary. Take away the comedy of Mr Collins and what you see is a man who has fundamentally been broken, destroyed as a person before that person ever really had a chance to form, by a lonely childhood under an oppressive father. I find it interesting that his childhood has parallels with that of Darcy: the latter attributes his lack of social skills and inability to connect with strangers outside his circle to being an only son, for many years an only child. Both men appear to have lost their mothers very early on in life and to have grown up dominated by their fathers. Both seem older than their years – probably because these dominating fathers were also old men? But where Darcy is more fortunate is that however much his father disciplined him he also built up his sense of worth. Mr Collins by contrast was clearly brought up to feel that he was nothing. All his pomposity, all his desire for and yet fear of status, all his servility is linked to this inner emptiness.
Then there’s Mary, the middle and deeply unwanted child of the Bennets. Jane was the first child and beautiful too; Elizabeth was her father’s darling and pretty in a less orthodox way; but by the time Mary was born impatience for the much-needed son was setting in and on top of that Mary was plain and serious. Kitty and Lydia who followed her, if not great beauties, were pretty enough and more importantly frivolous enough to win their mother’s affections at least. Not that would make much difference to Mary. She, i always feel, is a daddy’s girl. She craves the kind of relationship with her father that Elizabeth has, but he completely rejects and despises her. Like Mr Collins her personality is crippled by the lack of love she receives. This is to me the great irony: that the pedant that Mr Bennet holds in such contempt is in great part his own creation.
Imagine what Mary might have been like if someone had showed an interest in her as a young child. If her father had actually listened to her she might have learnt how to talk to people – rather than at them. If she had not grown up feeling the failure of her plainness so keenly she might have had a chance to develop a personality that would have made her lack of looks less important – as, for example, did Elizabeth, who while not plain as such is clearly not a beauty in the way that Jane is. Likewise with Mr Collins – to be sure he might never have been as handsome or charismatic as Darcy, but what about Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam? In another world, with a different upbringing might not Mr Collins have been more like him?
There again, would i really want Mr Collins to be other than he is? Fiction is cruel!