2013 JASNA Essay Contest Second Place Winner Graduate Division
Punctual to His Time: An Examination of Mr. Collins and Time in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Rarely does one contemplate Jane Austen’s most beloved novel and immediately conjure the image of Mr. Collins. Generally, he is not considered one of Pride and Prejudice’s more popular characters, and not many would ascribe the word “timeless” to William Collins. However, Mr. Collins repeatedly demonstrates throughout the text that he is one of the people most directly correlated with time, both figuratively and literally. His association with this relative notion changes him from the typical background figure, to a prominent character of value.
While much of Mr. Collins’s conduct returns censure and mockery from other characters and readers alike, it often parallels the behavior demanded by his era. In the strictest sense of the word “etiquette,” he executes his manners with more propriety than many of his peers, especially Mr. Darcy. Dr. Lynda Hall writes in her article, “Valuing the Superfluous Spinster: Miss Bates and the Struggle to Remain Visible,” that for Emma Woodhouse, the seemingly inconsequential character Miss Bates, “is the heroine’s ultimate contrast” (281). Similarly, Mr. Collins is the exact opposite of Mr. Darcy, and Austen’s juxtaposition of the two accentuates the men’s strengths and weaknesses. In view of Mr. Collins’s faithfulness to early nineteenth century regulations, Darcy’s refusal to customarily participate in society becomes all the more apparent.
As a single, educated man, Mr. Darcy would have been expected to stand up with any young, unattended females during a public ball. After blatantly shirking this responsibility at the Meryton assembly, he is deemed impolite, and “his manners gave a disgust” which fostered a poor reputation of him in the community (9). Furthermore, his “aversion to dancing” is considered a testament to an “unwarranted pride” (Fritzer 37). Darcy may be the most popular and “sparkling” of Austen’s heroes, but he is “continually giving offence” to others around him, and his treatment of Elizabeth Bennet is highly reprehensible (P&P 13). He repeatedly insults Elizabeth both in public and in private, and “the shocking rudeness of Mr. Darcy” culminates during his initial proposal to her (11). This of course results in her infamous dismissal of his addresses as she castigates him for not behaving “in a more gentlemanlike manner” (127).
While most of Darcy’s actions tend not to disturb present-day readers, Austen’s Regency audience would have been appalled by the total absence of propriety he exhibits. His rejection of social mores accords him a modern personality, which is probably another reason current readers, and viewers of film adaptations, are particularly drawn to Mr. Darcy. The contemporary aspect Mr. Darcy models, adds greatly to the timeless nature of Pride and Prejudice because it helps the novel transcend its own era. Conversely, Mr. Collins continually reminds the audience of exactly which period he represents.
The initial introduction to Mr. Collins is via a letter, but his physical appearance occurs when he presents himself at the Bennet house, “punctual to his time” (Pride and Prejudice 45). This phrase not only emphasizes the prompt arrival of Mr. Collins, but also his singular interest in social decorum. His dedication to etiquette is further accentuated in the same paragraph which describes Mr. Collins’s air as “grave and stately, and his manners […] very formal” (45). Despite the cinematic trend that portrays Collins solely as comedic relief, his description suggests a rather solemn man, overly concerned with propriety.
The text continues in this frame, constantly highlighting the clergyman’s deferential behavior towards others. He “[apologizes] for being next in the entail,” (44) expresses remorse “for about a quarter of an hour” (45) for an inadvertent offense, and is often “assured with unwearying civility” that his apologies are “perfectly needless” (51). Although Mr. Collins’s frequent pleas for absolution appear sycophantic, he is attributed with an acceptable degree of politeness, and even awes Mrs. Philips with his “excess of good breeding” (50). He merits this praise because of his attention to social protocols such as refusing to speak to young ladies until “better acquainted,” (45) and maintaining scruples about leaving his hosts, “Mr. and Mrs. Bennet for a single evening during his visit” (52). Mr. Collins’s strict adherence to social decorum not only illuminates his propensity for timeliness, but also infers that he is an exemplary model of the Regency era man.
Mr. Collins tends to exude an excessive nature, which makes it difficult for him to moderate his formalities. Nevertheless, he abides by much of the social mores dictated in eighteenth century guides to etiquette. Penelope Joan Fritzer’s work Jane Austen and Eighteenth-Century Courtesy Books cites many of the most common courtesy manuscripts of the “long” eighteenth century including Principles of Politeness, The Universal Mentor, and The Rudiments of Polite Behavior (25, 34). Since Mr. Collins believes “there is nothing so advantageous […] as instruction,” it is reasonable to assume that his profligate devotion to manners is the effect of an avid study of such literature (P&P 47). Etiquette books of this period discussed everything from fashion, dancing, and recreational activities, to the proper method of constructing letters. As the writers attempted to cover even the most menial tasks, he would have been able to incorporate a substantial amount of these instructions into his daily life.
His application of such advice is evidenced by some of his habits and quirks, which seem to come directly from the pages of the etiquette pamphlets. For example, many of the books “suggest first that time spent reading is time well spent;” however, only if it is the proper type of reading, and the list does not include “romances” (Fritzer 33). Mr. Collins particularly takes this assertion to mind since his choice of evening activity consists of reading from Fordyce’s Sermons, and he protests “that he never [reads] novels” (P&P 47). Collins infuses other similar notions into his actions in attempt to elevate his society, and appear erudite and refined. According to Fritzer, Principles of Politeness claims that “A gentleman furnish’d with Reading, can never be at a loss to […] carry on a handsome Conversation; he is always well stock’d and carries his Provisions about him” (qtd. in Fritzer 25). Mr. Collins follows this task as completely as possible by ensuring he is always well equipped with “those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies,” especially Lady Catherine de Bourgh (P&P 46). A passage like the aforementioned, explains Mr. Collins’s incessant chatter and flattery towards those he wishes to impress. Although his behavior can be deemed obsequious, he undoubtedly considers it to be strictly according to Regency rules, and his mandated obligation. While Mr. Collins relies on adulation to ingratiate himself with the nobility, he tries, unsuccessfully, to use other common practices to appear genteel and sophisticated.
In the 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, one of the most memorable scenes occurs when Mr. Collins dances with Elizabeth during the Netherfield Ball. The production beautifully portrays Mr. Collins “often moving wrong without being aware of it,” and the trials accompanying a “disagreeable partner” in the ballroom (61). Many viewers probably questioned Mr. Collins’s insistence to partake in the event if he was unable to adequately perform the dance steps, and the answer again lies in eighteenth century social guidelines. Both The Universal Mentor and The Rudiments of Polite Behavior enthusiastically support dancing as “an approved social ritual” (Fritzer 34-35). Not surprisingly, Mr. Collins’s own sympathies mirror those of the documents, and he is “far from objecting to dancing” (P&P 59). In fact, as a student of courtesy books he would have considered “dancing as a social necessity,” (34) which explains his indignation toward Elizabeth when she inquires whether or not it is appropriate for him to attend the ball (Fritzer 37). Although he is technically following the policies stipulated for gentleman, Mr. Collins ineptitude paints him as a comical figure, worthy of disdain and disparagement.
Collins’s overall lack of modernity often increases the aversion felt by twenty-first century Austen disciples. It is understandable that these readers are unable to connect with a man so entrenched in his own time, but he was also a figure of ridicule during the Regency because Jane Austen uses him as a parody of the eighteenth century conduct books. In most cases, “Austen generally agrees with the courtesy book writers,” as far as basic principles are concerned; however, “she often diverges from their strictness” (Fritzer 13). Despite Mr. Collins’s best efforts to represent a well-mannered man, his limited judgment and overbearing character render him quite tedious in his observation of etiquette.
Unfortunately, Mr. Collins was not provided with the same upbringing as gentlemen like Bingley and Darcy, and being “little assisted by education,” or “an illiterate and miserly father,” (P&P 48) was left with “no innate sense of good manners” (Fritzer 70). Even though he “bows and scrapes, and […] follows most courtesy book rules […] he does it with no sense of what is appropriate” (Fritzer 70). Mr. Collins is unable to correctly implement everything he has studied, and is therefore forced to mimic his peripheral understanding of the texts he memorizes. This superficiality usually leads to his being interpreted as a figure of derision, labeled as a “buffoon,” or portrayed as a fool (Fritzer 33). Due to the assumption that peculiar and ridiculous are synonymous, there is often a “lack of perceived value” in regards to minor characters such as Mr. Collins and Miss Bates (Hall 290). While it is tempting for readers to be “[lured…] into inattention,” or “skip over” long sections involving these persons, they frequently impart valuable knowledge, and can notably alter the course of the protagonists’ emotional or physical fate (Hall 290).
The narrator of Pride and Prejudice rationalizes, “With such rivals for the notice of the fair,” like Mr. Darcy, “Mr. Collins seemed to sink into insignificance” (52). However, it would be a mistake to dismiss William Collins as irrelevant, principally because on several occasions he accurately predicts several crucial events of the novel. Since he is relegated in many situations to the role of observer, he uses this to his advantage, and develops a keen sense of discernment. When Mr. Collins proposes to Eliza Bennet he allows, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour” (73). Though this is not the outcome of his personal experience, he perceptively foreshadows the path of the two main characters, Darcy and Elizabeth. This provides the intuitive reader with the hope and anticipation of reconciliation between the couple, and the result if Darcy proposes for a second time.
Mr. Collins is not only a foil for Mr. Darcy, but also like Miss Bates, “a catalyst to [his] transformation” from single, to married man (Hall 281). Without the fortuitous timing of Mr. Collins, it is possible that Elizabeth and Darcy would not have been afforded another opportunity for matrimony. It is Mr. Collins who hints to Lady Catherine de Bourgh about the affections between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, thereby setting into motion a series of proceedings, which eventually leads to their nuptials. All the other characters – Lady Catherine, Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, and even Jane, Elizabeth’s closest confidante – remain completely ignorant in respect to the evolving emotions of the two lovers. Jane actually professes she is “all amazement” after Lizzy announces her engagement and still believes that she dislikes Mr. Darcy (P&P 243). Yet somehow, Mr. Collins is able to divine their true sentiments and recreates himself as a figure central to the plot.
Mr. Collins is very aware of time. He comprehends the most acceptable behavior for his time period, he identifies how many times certain situations should occur, and he has excellent timing, recognizing when he should be silent and when he should speak. Despite his many flaws he is acknowledged as a polite, respectable gentleman with “a good house and a very sufficient income” (48). He is, thus, the epitome of Austen’s Regency male: “a single man in possession of a good fortune,” and until he meets Charlotte, “in want of a wife” (5). Although Mr. Collins can often appear eccentric or absurd to readers, it is largely due to the vast divide between the modern world and the Regency Era he personifies, and regardless of others’ opinions of him, he undoubtedly remains a man “punctual to his time” (45).
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Kent: Solis Press. 2013. Print.
Fritzer, Penelope Joan. Jane Austen and Eighteenth-Century Courtesy Books. Westport and London: Greenwood Press. 1997.Print.
Hall, Lynda A. “Valuing the Superfluous Spinster: Miss Bates and the Struggle to Remain Visible.” The Eighteenth Century Novel. Vol. 9, Eds Albert J. Rivero and George Justice, Brooklyn, New York: AMS Press, 2013. 281-299