Bishop’s PRIDE, part II

Prof. Robert Morrison
Queen’s University, Kingston
“Getting Around Pride & Prejudice: Gothicism, Fairy Tales & the Very World of All Us”.

In a thought-provoking premise, Dr. Morrison equated the “Gothic” literary tradition with a fear of spinsterhood and the deeper fear of its relation, poverty.

Citing sources such as Byron and Wollstonecraft, his ideas contained such laden words as humility, compassion, love, humiliation, terror, anguish, in short: firm Gothic Territory. Neoclassical in form and structure, with fairytale endings of “happily ever after,” Austen’s writings are often paired with Shelley’s in Dr. Morrison’s classes. Pretty women, estates, happy marriages. ” ‘What calm lives those people had,’ said Churchill of Austen’s characters.” But Austen’s major achievement, hidden perhaps, are the shortage of men, passing mentions of prize money and economic crises: “Politics seems to shape the novel at every turn”. Austen cannot continue to suppress or ignore the ‘individual’. Citing Howells, we could all agree that Elizabeth – a gentleman’s daughter – was more a ‘lady’ than even Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Elizabeth’s triumph over Lady Catherine can be taken as a triumph of humanity over rank.

The linchpin is realism, Dr Morrison concluded, but her novels touch on the fears (the Gothic).

Some points and arguments that Dr Morrison advanced which caught my particular attention:

Citing Martin Amis, he commented on Austen’s thoughts and rhythms invading his own thoughts and rhythms. I would heartily agree; it makes such a difference in my quality of writing (even speech), when I read the phrases of a powerful author as opposed to a pedestrian hack.

He brought up the reactions of such readers as Annabelle Milbank and Henry Crabbe Robinson. These are precious, as they are reactions to the novels, from people living during Austen’s lifetime, and wholly untainted by memories of films and teleplays. HCR even called Mr Collins ‘a masterpiece’! My thoughts exactly (which made a later comment [see below] hard to fathom).

Dr Morrison made a joke of Catherine Morland’s name; citing that everyone in the novels wants ‘more land’. He promoted the idea of a woman being “her father’s burden; her husband’s property”. But the comment of Charlotte Lucas committing “respectable prostitution” – well, that seemed out of place. Actually, it left me shaking my head – ‘No!’ When Dr Morrison said that his ‘skin crawled’ at the idea of the Collinses’ marriage, that sounded more ‘colored by film depictions of Mr Collins’ than genuine thoughts about the plight of both characters: one in want of a good wife; the other in want of a good home.

In equating the Gothic, there was this thought-provoking idea behind Darcy’s comment on Elizabeth’s looks: Darcy doesn’t want to dance (doesn’t even wish to be at the dance); and all people talk about is his money! Darcy’s “tolerable” evaluation of Elizabeth “haunts her – raises the specter of spinsterhood”. Her greatest asset (no dowry) is her looks. Excellent way of digging deeper into this much-quoted comment by Darcy.

Elizabeth is wrong about Charlotte, willing to be wrong about Wickham, and wrong about Darcy. Darcy’s letter helps her see herself more clearly. The implacable resentment Elizabeth attributes to Darcy, she feels herself.

One unanswered – until that evening – observation: when Dr Morrison spoke of Austen’s use of words and cited her deliberate use of “a month” in Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy. Dr. Morrison’s thoughts centered on Lizzy’s inability to forgive the slight Darcy had inflicted. But as the question period opened and this was addressed (with more than one person saying ‘I never really noticed’) it became apparent that Austen meant more by this specific period of time: not an hour, not a day – but “I had not known you a month”. The Play that evening answered this hitherto unanswered observation – and it is in the novel: When Mr Wickham is ‘confessing’ his life story to Elizabeth, he asks her how long Darcy has stayed with Bingley. The magic answer: “About a month.” Obviously Austen wanted readers to conclude, in the proposal scene, that  Lizzy’s enmity against Darcy survived the slight to her ‘tolerable’ looks, but surfaced to the fore from the point at which she ‘knows’ Darcy to have harmed the prospects of Mr Wickham!

An audience member then brought up this acute observation: Miss de Bourgh, in being sickly, is quite Gothic and can be seen as the symbol of “the dead end,” the dying system that once was predicated upon blood (again the idea of rank versus the humanity of Elizabeth). And on that thought, which touched on the truly Gothic – the vampire tales, we broke for beverages, cookies and oranges. There will be more to say on this subject when the Play is discussed; for the actress portraying Miss de Bourgh gave the role something never seen before.

6 thoughts on “Bishop’s PRIDE, part II

  1. I’d love to read Prof. Morrison’s paper. The things you wrote sound very interesting.

    I’ve been wondering on the connection between Austen and Gothic novels, because indeed there are similarities. I’m not sure people realise how very English they are. The idea of vampires et al was taken from the Central-Eastern European countries, but it was developed in a fully English manner. I.e. Slavic vampires aren’t really sexual predators. It seems to be rather a development of the Lovelace-like character, that again is typical for the English literature. Women in English fiction were depicted as powerless and only the reasons changed. There is also the notion of danger coming from the outside: a mean guardian, a licentious man, the law, and vampires seem to make for perfect outsiders, although in Slavic tradition they’re rather unfortunate family members.
    The emergence of the ‘individual’ is indeed another notion of her era.

    “Respectable prostitution” is what Charlotte’s match would be called by Austen’s contemporaries. Actually Defoe used a much worse epithet. Our willingness to see Charlotte in a better light is very modern, and comes from feminism. Simply we’re inclined to sympathise with a woman who cannot achieve her goals in any other way.

    That’s true that Darcy’s slight of Elizabeth was haunting her, no matter how much she wanted to laugh it off.

    I agree that Lizzy’s enmity against Darcy survived the slight to her ‘tolerable’ looks, but I don’t agree that it surfaced to the fore from the point at which she ‘knows’ Darcy to have harmed the prospects of Mr Wickham. When she talks to Wickham the month is already over, and she says it was not a month, so is was during her stay at Netherfield. The moment is easily traceable, and I’ll write a post about it, but the meeting with Wickham is important because she’s already set against Darcy. She just needs something more to fuel her decided dislike and Wickham gives her that. To stay with the Gothic pattern it’s Lizzy who preys on Wickham here.


  2. Dear Sylwia,

    Have you seen articles etc on the subject of marriage of conveniences in Austen’s time?? It is a fascinating subject that I would love to read about, if you have suggestions.

    I don’t see Charlotte’s “plight” as feminist dilemma; I take it at face value. When you are alone, in want of some form of love and attention, how can the term prostitution, even with the appellation respectable attached, be used to signify the very human need for companionship?? There are women today who want a home, or want children – they do what needs to be done. In Austen’s generation, widowers with children looked for wives; men with property looked for wives in order to have heirs. Do men forming such alliances have so strongly-laden a word as prostitute attached to cover this marriage of convenience? Austen, of course, gives us Willoughy and (almost) Wickham; but they never seem to generate the controversy of her pairing Charlotte with Mr Collins. That is exactly why I would like to read on this subject items from her own generation. Too many people have “oh my skin crawls” with the idea of Charlotte and Collins, and my belief is this stems less from the novel and more from movies.

    What does Defoe say, though (as stated above) I am much more interested in Austen’s generation of writers, diarists, biographers etc.


  3. I agree that the “skin crawling” Mr. Collins comes more from the movies than the book. Although Lizzy’s skin did crawl in the book it’s not because he was as awful as in the 1995 series for example. However, by “feminist view” I also mean the adaptations. I.e. the 1980 TV series made Charlotte into a secondary heroine, which is against the grain of the novel.

    Of course one might argue that a woman wanting companionship, children et al could settle on less than a passionate marriage, but it’s not the picture Austen paints. She makes it clear that Charlotte doesn’t want Collins’s company at all, on the contrary, Charlotte doesn’t even like him and she avoids him as much as she can. Charlotte also holds matrimony in contempt, and so it doesn’t seem that she wants children, since matrimony was for procreation. Mr. Collins is happy that he’s going to have a kid, but we don’t see a similar reaction from her. She marries for money and nothing else.

    The view that likens such a marriage to prostitution comes from the Church of England. It’s love that makes matrimony. Otherwise it’s just a legal contract without God’s approval, no different than a contract between a gentleman and a courtesan, even though it looks better in the eyes of the society, because after all no one could prove that Charlotte didn’t care for Collins. She doesn’t admit it to anyone but herself, and we know it only because we’re privy to her thoughts.

    Defoe called it “matrimonial whoredom” and his writings had a great influence on Austen’s contemporaries. The moral views on marriage were steadily changing in the 18th century. In the 1720s he was singular in his views, but by Austen’s times only the upper classes still promoted arranged marriages. The middle ones didn’t force their children to marry without love. It was thought to be immoral.

    Mary Wollstonecraft called it “legal prostitution” and she addressed her scorn both to men and women, just as Defoe did. So Charlotte and Willoughby are as guilty, just as Wickham would be if he married Miss King, or Darcy if he married Anne de Bourgh.

    The view about Charlotte is two-sided in my opinion. On the one hand she fulfils her part of the contract by taking care of the household and Collins’s career prospects. She’s not a woman who’ll drink, gamble or flirt with others. But she’s not his wife in the eyes of God, she abused God’s law, so it’s not a matrimony, and sex outside of it was immoral. It was worse than a single fornication, because she’d be doing it for a long time. Hence the controversy, because while Willoughby and Wickham can be described simply as villains, Charlotte’s overall conduct, with the exception of her marriage and how she woos Collins into it, is proper.

    She’s something like a decent thief. She makes good use of the stolen money (good for herself at least) and she doesn’t steal again, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’d stolen it in the first place.

    After all Collins isn’t just a humble choice. He’s the third best party in the novel. His income from the parsonage can amount to about 1,000 a year, and he’s going to inherit Longbourn worth about 50,000. His wealth will be similar to that of Brandon or more, and it seems that Charlotte hopes for another living for him from Lady Catherine, and later from Darcy via Elizabeth’s influence.

    Our views today differ. We have civil marriage for example. If people don’t believe in God they don’t have to care whether God would join them or not. Additionally many Christian churches don’t hold the same views on marriage, seeing it as a civil union rather than a Holy Matrimony – a lesser sacrament. In such a case they don’t see such a marriage like Charlotte’s as sinful. But Austen was a parson’s daughter. She had to hear enough sermons to know what was considered moral or not. And of course none of her positive heroes and heroines ever marries without love. We are to understand that both Marianne and Edmund fell in love with their future spouses before they decided to marry, and Elizabeth must give solemn assurances to both Jane and her father that she feels what she ought to.


  4. I believe that Charlotte (like Collins) is there for a contrast with Lizzy (and Darcy). The flip side of the coin: Charlotte-Elizabeth, Collins-Darcy. By studying this quartet, we see all the arguements for and against marriages of convenience and marriages of mutual love and respect. After all, Charlotte is the ‘voice of reason’ many times throughout the novel, the least of which is in her assessment of Jane’s controlled reaction to Bingley: Elizabeth knows her sister well enough to realize she is in love with him — but no one else reads her as well as her sister!

    I’m glad I’m not the only one to think the 1995 depiction of Collins a bit over the top! But: once a viewer has that image in their head, can it ever be supplanted by AUSTEN’s image of the same character??? Readers of the period “liked” Mr Collins, and named him specifically when discussing the novel.

    Thanks for the further suggestions your post contains, Sylwia.


  5. I think that every marriage in P&P is there for contrast to E&D. Charlotte and Collins are the opposite of Lydia and Wickham. One is all sense and the other all sensibility, only that in their farthest extremes, so one becomes cold calculation and the other wild passion. (Charlotte’s advice about Jane is also on the side of calculation, and she wasn’t necessarily right, because Bingley did think Jane loved him. It was Darcy who was of another opinion, but then Jane wasn’t in love with him, and Darcy wasn’t impartial.)

    E&D are in the middle between those two. Austen looks for the perfect balance in marriage.

    Collins is a great character, and naturally similar to Darcy on the surface – pride and humbleness in a very different rendition.

    I think there’s something about men liking ridiculous characters. My boyfriend loved Collins in the 1995 series, and perhaps Andrews liked presenting him this way for the same reason. But it ruins the novel of course.

    My favourite Collins was in the Mormon adaptation. He seemed to be the closest to the original even though it was modern.


  6. EXCELLENT idea, Sylwia! I’ve been so narrowly constructing “married pairs” – E&D and WD&CL – that I never thought of the broader ramifications of including the Wickhams too! The Bingleys are so easy to overlook… so lovey-dovey!

    Bingley’s problem (and I assume the BOOK’s Darcy makes this comment and not just one of the movie Darcys!) is his easily-bendable nature. A more decisive mind would not have collapsed under Darcy and Miss Bingley’s opinions.

    You echo my thoughts EXACTLY in your paragraph concerning their being ‘naturally similar’ on the surface. Too many people just “eek” at Collins and “ooh” at Darcy and never see their similarities (or won’t accept them).

    I guess my trouble with the Davies adaptation is that too much is caricature, whereas Austen’s characters are so REAL! They may have thought that to go ‘over the top’ was to present the humor of the novel for the screen; but I simply find it hard to take viewing after viewing.

    But for people who know – and adore – that series, those characterizations BECOME the sole characters to them. And that is the sad part. They will probably never be able to read the novel ‘afresh’. (Though I’d like to think reading the novel could push aside the video pictures living in their minds!)

    You make me want to hunt up the ‘Mormon adaptation’! (I have a very slim ‘library’ and almost never rent anything other than new movies; but I think my Netflix subscription resumes after a bit of a rest at the end of the month! Will have to look up this version!)


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