Mr. Collins' Wisdom
Jane Austen and the Interplay of Character
By Ivor Morris.
The Athlone Press, 1999. iv + 175 pages. Paperback, $30
Reviewed by Michael Corey.
One of the paradoxical delights in Jane Austen's oeuvre is Mr. Collins, who has been called a "delicious bore." He is firmly in the class of two dimensional characters, and most readers of Pride and Prejudice must feel that they have a sense of his animus and could predict the limits of his actions. It came then as a mild surprise that Ivor Morris' book Jane Austen and the Interplay of Character (originally published in 1987 as Mr. Collins Considered: Approaches to Jane Austen) attempts to defend Mr. Collins. The themes of the volume are that Collins' expressions, however ludicrous the form and manner, reflect the governing "wisdom" of the England of 1800; and that his reflections present to the reader an especially clear view of the behavioral standards of the time.
Morris largely succeeds in this stated aim. I came away with an enlarged, slightly more sympathetic sense of Mr. Collins. There are a number of engaging analyses and insights, especially regarding male characters. The decision to divide the book into chapters with one-word titles, naming the individual fields of forensic investigation into Collins' transactional pathology, such as "Wealth," "Colloquy," and "Romance," was a happy one for this purpose. The author also enjoys a peppering of faint echoes of writers such as Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot, as well as cryptic quotations of Austen passages not under discussion. Morris seems to regard this as a game, which he plays not unsuccessfully, and which does not at all entangle the thread of argument. The texture of Morris' sentences is unusually pleasing, especially for a work of criticism, and often brings a smile, even while one is shaking one's head.
Unfortunately I found this combination of gestures occurring fairly often, primarily because of the manner in which certain points were made, and of the failure to make others. An enormous quantity of evidence is frequently adduced to prove what hardly needs proof. Are a page and a half needed to establish Mrs. Elton's boastfulness, or even to clarify its nature? I would also question the very extensive use of comparison, largely as a means of partially justifying Collins behavior by analogy with incidents involving more respectable personae. Within the first 15 pages, Collins is compared (not contrasted) with Anne Elliot, Edward Ferrars, Colonel Brandon, Edmund, Mr. Knightley, and even Elizabeth Bennet as well as with Willoughby, Mr. Rushworth, and General Tilney. Later he is actually compared with Mr. Bennet. (One begins to anticipate parallels between Fanny Price and Admiral Croft.) Surely it is too much to assert that Crawford's expectation of success with Fanny is akin to Collins' hope of Elizabeth, yet a very similar comparison is drawn elsewhere between Collins and Darcy. The distinction, which Morris misses, is that Darcy and Crawford both know their love objects at the decisive moments; Collins does not.
This leads to my second objection: there are a number of what appear to be misreadings. A clear example is the treatment of the solitary encounter between Elizabeth and Colonel Fitzwilliam. "And pray, what is the usual price of an Earl's younger son?" asks Elizabeth. "Unless the elder brother is very sickly, I suppose you would not ask above fifty thousand pounds?" "Not a degree less than savage," writes Morris of this, and "...a 'set down' after [Mr. Bennet's] own style, but deadlier." We are told that the Colonel replied in kind--is he a savage too? The parish is overrun. In fact, the next exchange refutes the contention. Elizabeth herself artificially takes up the conversation to avoid the implications of silence, following the Colonel's hint to the effect that he would probably marry her if he could. Any such concern on the part of Elizabeth would not have survived a "savage" exchange. I have always imagined the Colonel's response to be, "Unless the girl is very ugly, perhaps thirty-five." This is not savagery, but pleasantry. A broader set of dubious assertions involves the interpretation of Collins' motivation. Morris allows him altruism, realism, and even "style" to account for actions which I must attribute purely to his monomaniacal lust for the approbation of his patroness. In fact it is well to remember that Collins is too perfect a boor to be a man; he is a caricature.
When I found myself disappointed by such misreadings, I was pleased
once again a few pages later by a clever observation or euphonious phrase.
Morris' book will be particularly useful for new readers of Austen, because
of the level of detail and the provision of a general conceptual structure
for the characters. I also found the closing, which returns to the moral
foundation of all the novels, to be thoughtful and uplifting-a worthy end
of a journey that was not entirely without jolts.
Michael Corey is a biochemist working on cancer diagnosis and treatment.
He has been a lover of Jane Austen 's writings for 17 years.
JASNA News v.16, no. 1, Spring 2000, p. 14
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