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“An Active, Useful Sort of Person”: Mr. Bennet, Charlotte Lucas, and Want of Sense in a Marriage Partner

In discussions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas is often cast in the unenviable role of Elizabeth Bennet’s foil. Literature’s incarnation of wit and vivacity at their most appealing, anyone held up to Elizabeth is destined to fare ill by the comparison. Fated to marry Mr. Collins, the man most Austen readers would least desire to spend life shackled to, it is Charlotte, rather than Elizabeth, who merits Mr. Bennet’s poignant reproach, “My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life” (P&P 258). Austen’s writing is full of such mismatched couples. Mr. and Mrs. Palmer from Sense and Sensibility are unequally matched with regard to sense; and Mrs. Smith, Anne Elliot’s school friend in Persuasion, is the casualty of an ill-advised marriage. As the “only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune,” Austen’s novels explore marriages of all types, as well as the failure to marry, as thought experiments in women’s happiness (P&P 88). Often Austen depicts men, whether Mr. Bennet, Mr. Palmer, or Anne Elliot’s brother-in-law Charles Musgrove, as married to women stupider than themselves, and women like Mrs. Smith as married to men whose character is vicious. Charlotte Lucas, however, singularly possesses more good sense, intelligence, and social ability than her husband. In short, she follows Austen’s pattern for an unequally matched husband, rather than an unequally matched wife. While it is clear from Elizabeth’s condemnation of her friend’s actions and from Austen’s own biography that the author held, at best, ambivalent feelings about Charlotte’s marriage and character, the novel is unable to leave Mrs. Collins consigned to a disempowered fate. Unlike the famously unmarried Miss Bates of Emma, Charlotte Lucas, while she may have lost her friend’s esteem, remains “an active, useful sort of person” whose happiness may be less in doubt than Elizabeth’s would have been in the same position. Rather than sinking, as Mr. Knightley says of Miss Bates, “from the comforts she was born to,” Charlotte Lucas is destined to rise and to exert a power over her husband to make him more respectable that her true foil, Mr. Bennet, fails to exert over his wife and daughters (Emma 259).

Pride and Prejudice is a novel very concerned with marital happiness. The Bennet sisters will have to marry. They have no fortune and, crucially, no brothers. In this respect, they are more desperate than Charlotte Lucas herself who may choose to remain an old maid; her father’s fortune is not entailed, and she has brothers on whom she may depend financially in her old age. The Bennet sisters do not have this luxury. Since they must marry, the question then becomes: will their marriages be happy ones? In this light, Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Collins becomes a moral stance of integrity. Faced with certain penury should she not marry, Elizabeth would rather choose precarity and potential poverty than marry a man she cannot respect. Her father need not be worried about her; she turns down more offers of marriage than any other Austen heroine, refusing not one but two extremely eligible young men. Spurring her on to such nicety is the picture of her parents’ marriage, perpetually before her. Mr. Bennet has a great deal more sense than his wife and, from the first page of the novel, he holds her in ironic contempt. Mr. Bennet, described early on as “so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice,” is a mystery to his wife. We are told “that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make [her] understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” (P&P 5). Mr. Bennet chooses to play on her lack of sense for his own amusement. The novel’s first two chapters detail his charade of refusal to visit their new neighbor Mr. Bingley, even though this visit is the special request of his wife. “He had always intended to visit him, though to the last always assuring his wife that he should not go;” we learn, “and till the evening after the visit was paid, she had no knowledge of it” (P&P 5). Sporting with his wife’s ignorant mind and nervous disposition is Mr. Bennet’s chief comfort from his marriage. After receiving Mr. Darcy’s letter and realizing how the vulgar social behavior of her mother and younger sisters has hurt Jane’s marriage prospects, Elizabeth ruminates on the unhappiness of her parents’ marriage:

Had Elizabeth’s opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished forever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown . . . .To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. (P&P 162)

The difference in their understanding and in their ability to behave with delicacy in social situations make Mr. and Mrs. Bennet an unfortunate match.

Indeed, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s marriage bears a striking resemblance to that between Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins. Both marriages feature partners unevenly yoked in abilities and understanding. The Bennets’ marriage is described as an evil that extends beyond their personal misery to encompass the happiness of their children:

Elizabeth . . . had never felt so strongly as now, the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife. (P&P 162-163)

Mr. Bennet’s contempt for his wife’s character and understanding results in his complete abdication of his duties as husband. In the whole course of the novel, he never once exerts any effort to check his wife’s unfortunate behavior or to enlarge her mind. His attempts to “preserve the respectability of his daughters” are too late to do them any good, and even the Collinses attribute Lydia’s eventual elopement to “a faulty degree of indulgence” and a neglect of her moral formation (P&P 202).

Mr. Bennet married his wife without a clear understanding of who she was. “Captivated by youth and beauty” he fails to know “the defects of the person with whom [he is] to pass [his] life” (P&P 17). Charlotte, for all her advice to the contrary, is certain of the defects of her chosen partner prior to her marriage. “Mr. Collins” she reflects “was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband” (P&P 88). She marries Mr. Collins with a clear picture of who he is, and goes into her marriage knowing full well the “defects of her partner in life,” deciding that they did not outweigh his positive traits. The reader, and Elizabeth Bennet, may think her mercenary and indelicate because she chose financial security over respect for her partner but her spouse cannot reproach her for her cunning. Mr. Collins also considers marriage not as companionate but as a means to career and social advancement. He did not much care who his wife was, so long as she fit Lady Catherine’s description: “a gentlewoman for my sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way” (P&P 76). In this way, Charlotte and Mr. Collins have been straightforward with each other. They do not view marriage as a fulfilling, erotic companionship, but rather as a business and dynastic partnership. This offends our modern sensibilities, and it offended Austen’s, but it does not follow that Miss Lucas would have been happier than Mrs. Collins. Unlike Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, captivation and trickery have no place in the arrangement between Mr. and Mrs. Collins.

At twenty seven, Charlotte is considered almost past marriageable age within her social class. Mr. Collins is likely the only eligible man that she could hope to marry, and his situation as a clergyman who will inherit an estate in her parents’ neighborhood makes him a particularly good catch. The concerns of the parish will be hers as well as his, and his advancement within his profession will be materially assisted by a sensible, socially able wife who can counteract his defects. When Jane tells Elizabeth, “You do not make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper” and reminds her of “Mr. Collins’s respectability” and “Charlotte’s prudent, steady character,” while enjoining her to “be ready to believe, for every body’s sake, that [Charlotte] may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin,” Elizabeth is disgusted (P&P 95). She declares, “were I persuaded that Charlotte had any regard for him, I should only think worse of her understanding, than I now do of her heart” (P&P 96). But Elizabeth tells Mr. Darcy later in the novel, when he remarks that “Mr. Collins appears very fortunate in his choice of a wife,” that Charlotte “has an excellent understanding” (P&P 124). Charlotte’s “excellent understanding” should make her choice more trustworthy.

The discerning Austen reader must consider the fate of Miss Bates in Emma before they judge Miss Lucas too harshly. Miss Bates, the unmarried daughter of an impoverished clergyman’s widow, lives with her mother in the village of Highbury where the novel takes place. Much of the novel’s comedy is devoted to her ridiculous and boring volubility. She has “no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her, into outward respect.” She is neither beautiful nor clever. “Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible” (Emma 16). When Emma declares to her friend Harriet her intention of never marrying, Harriet exclaims, “But then, to be an old maid at last, like Miss Bates!” Emma’s response shows how awful both women feel such a fate would be:

That is as formidable an image as you could present, Harriet; and if I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! So silly—so satisfied—so smiling—so prosing—so distinguishing and unfastidious—and so apt to tell every thing relative to every body about me, I would marry to-morrow. (Emma 62)

Charlotte cannot be blamed for desiring to escape such general social contempt for unmarried older women. She is a clever woman who knows herself well enough to decide that she would not be content with “the care of a failing mother and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible.” Charlotte has too excellent an understanding to throw away her chances at a comfortable, if unromantic, future with Mr. Collins.

The friendship between Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Bennet, two single women in a small country village, necessarily takes much of its subject matter from a shared concern about who they will marry. Elizabeth is, naturally, shaken to discover that her moral views and scruples on this point are not shared by her friend. Nevertheless, though fundamentally disagreeing on this important matter, their friendship appears to be one of true enjoyment in each other’s company. This is true before Charlotte’s acceptance of Mr. Collins, but it remains so afterwards, making Charlotte’s happiness in her marriage seem more probable. At the Netherfield Ball, she and Lizzie immediately find each other, and Elizabeth, “having told all her griefs to Charlotte Lucas, whom she had not seen for a week . . . transition[s] to the oddities of her cousin, and [points] him out to her particular notice” (P&P 65). Lizzie here believes that Charlotte shares her judgment of other people and that she will find Mr. Collins as foolish as Lizzie does. She is, of course, wrong to assume this. In her essay, “Sisterhood and Friendship in Pride and Prejudice: Need Happiness be ‘Entirely a Matter of Chance’?”, Deborah J. Knuth writes, “Elizabeth has assumed Charlotte’s remarks to be in keeping with their mutual tone in discussing men and marriage, but under the apparent friendship—or sisterhood—of detached observation, Charlotte has been cloaking the vulgar expedience that leads her to accept Collins” (4). However, even after her disappointment in Charlotte’s character, the two women continue to find each other enjoyable company. At the end of the novel, during Elizabeth and Darcy’s courtship, the Collinses visit Lucas lodge and “at such a moment, the arrival of her friend was a sincere pleasure to Elizabeth,” (P&P 262). Though she felt persuaded earlier that “no real confidence could ever subsist between them again,” Elizabeth cannot maintain this attitude for long (P&P 91). For her part, Charlotte truly desires Elizabeth’s best interest. She forwards her relationship with Darcy and does not seem in the least bit jealous of Elizabeth’s prospects. In fact, she views her friend’s connection to Darcy as beneficial to Mr. Collins’s career (P&P 126). Although this is a more vulgar construction on marriage and friendship than Elizabeth would approve, it shows Charlotte is not jealous and desires the kind of good that she is able to imagine for her friend.

Elizabeth pities her, but it is worth noting that Charlotte never portrays herself as unhappy. Though seen through Elizabeth’s judging gaze, we learn that she “did not seem to ask for compassion. Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms” (P&P 149). She seems to have more influence over Mr. Collins’ social presentation and manners than Elizabeth did, during his brief courtship of the latter. When Elizabeth visits her friend at Hunsford and is invited to dinner at Rosings, we learn that “Mrs. Collins had settled it with her husband that the office of introduction should be her’s,” and “it was performed in a proper manner, without any of those apologies and thanks which he would have thought necessary” (P&P 113). From this instance we can judge that Charlotte is often able to use her influence to make Mr. Collins appear less ridiculous, unlike Elizabeth, who could find no effective way to prevent Mr. Collins from introducing himself to Darcy at the Netherfield ball. Unlike Mr. Bennet, who is not willing to sacrifice his peace to prevent his wife and younger daughters from making “[themselves] and [their] family ridiculous,” Charlotte, though she must choose her battles, evidently means to exert her power to increase the social delicacy of her husband (P&P 159). Charlotte will continue to influence Mr. Collins in similar, and increasing, ways. At the novel’s end, she is about to become a mother and possesses a comfortable income which will increase if she is successful in her schemes for Mr. Collins’s preferment. She will inherit Longbourn and settle near her parents and family. Through her connection to the Bennet family by marriage and through Lady Catherine’s connection to Mr. Darcy, she remains in the same social circle as her best friend, who otherwise might have left her behind in her new position as mistress of Pemberley.

The novel’s moral center, mediated through Elizabeth Bennet’s understanding and construction of the characters of those around her, relegates Charlotte Lucas to the morally degraded circle of those who marry badly and who compromise their morality for social and economic prestige. Austen, however, cannot quite consign Charlotte to a truly punishing fate. Her readers should stop comparing Charlotte to Elizabeth and should instead compare her to Mr. Bennet, her true and more appropriate foil. This fresh comparison, while acknowledging Charlotte’s failure to maintain Elizabeth’s standard of integrity, highlights her attempts to benefit both her chosen spouse and herself through the proper use of her talents.

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