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ON CHARLOTTE LUCASS CHOICE


February 7, 2013, Posted by Joshua Rothman

In honor of the two-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice this year, were running a series of pieces on Jane Austen and her legacy. Like many long-time readers of Pride and Prejudice, Ive returned, again and again, to the problem of Charlotte Lucas. Pretty much everyone in Pride and Prejudice gets the spouse they deserve, except for Charlotte. Elizabeths best friend is a sensible, intelligent person, but because she isnt young, pretty, or rich, she ends up married to the maddening and empty-headed Mr. Collins. (Lizzy calls him, in a letter to her sister, a conceited, pompous, narrowminded, silly man.) Pride and Prejudice is a joyous novel, but Charlottes marriage is like the tomb in that Poussin painting Et in Arcadia ego. Even at Pemberley, I am here, it seems to say.

I first read Pride and Prejudice in high school, and back then I didnt devote a lot of thought to Charlottes marriage. As time has gone on, though, its seemed more and more important to me. Growing older involves making compromises, and I suppose that has something to do with it. But Ive also become more familiar with the importance, in life, of choice. In a lot of ways, thats what Pride and Prejudice is about: how we make choices. And no story in the novel says more about choices, about their difficulty and meaning, than Charlottes. *** Its often said that, from a material point of view, Charlotte has no choice but to marry Collins. I myself talked this way just now, when I said that Charlotte ends up marrying Collins because she isnt young, pretty, or rich, despite the fact that shes a sensible, intelligent person. But thats actually to misstate, or reverse, Charlottes situation. Its certainly true that she isnt young, pretty, or rich, and that those facts set the stage for her marriage. But its also true that Charlotte marries Collins because she is sensible and intelligent. Its actually her sensibleness that gives her no choice but to do it. What really compels her to marry him is her thoughtfulness. Charlottes been thinking about marriage for years, and shes developed for herself a code of conduct for marriage, a set of rules that recognize the reality of her situation and direct her toward a solution. Long ago, she recognized that she was trapped in a social web; rather than ignoring her predicament, she set about understanding it. Charlottes father, Sir William Lucas, was once a tradesman; after becoming the mayor of his town, he was presented with a knighthood. He retired, and is now a not-very-rich knight. Charlotte, therefore, is too wealthy, educated, and upper-class to marry a working manthat would be a kind of social demotion for her familybut too poor and average-looking to attract a truly wealthy one. She cant marry up or downshe can only marry sideways. She knows and understands all of this. Collins, awful as he is, is actually her social equal. He is stupid and horrible (or neither sensible nor

agreeable, as Charlotte thinks), but, like Charlotte, he occupies the very lowest rung on the ladder of social respectability. For her whole life Charlotte has probably known that she would end up marrying someone like him: a clergyman, probably with some education and the prospect of a growing income in the future. Shes always known that there wouldnt be a lot of men to choose from. Charlotte knows, moreover, that she has to marry someone; its part of her responsibility to herself. When Charlotte first tells Lizzy about her decision, Lizzy is unequivocal in her response: Charlotte, she thinks, is disgracing herself; she has sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage; it will be, she thinks, impossible for her to be happy. To Lizzy, and to us, it can seem as though Charlotte has chosen a kind of oblivion, or spiritual suffocation. Charlottes life, as Lizzy sees it, will consist entirely of her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry. But Lizzy, when she thinks these things, hasnt thought as carefully as Charlotte has about what worldly advantage might mean. Almost certainly, Charlotte has a finely textured idea of the future she is choosingshes spent a long time thinking not just about her present situation but also about what the future might hold. You can get a sense of the sort of future Charlotte might be hoping for by looking to Austens own family. Austens father, George Austen, was an orphan; his father had been a surgeon (a good job, but not a respectable one). In all likelihood, George, too, would have learned a trade and become a workingman, but he had an uncle, Francis Austen, who was a solicitor, and who steered him away from the trades and into the Anglican church, where he could achieve a certain degree of gentility. A clergyman could never become an aristocrat, of course. But he could live a respectable life because his income derived from tithe rather than trade; eventually, he might even achieve some measure of political power by becoming, say, a justice of the peace. With this in mind, Francis paid Georges

tuition until he could win a scholarship to Oxford. Unlike Mr. Collins, George Austen was intelligent, charming, and attractive. (One of Jane Austens nieces, Anne Lefroy, wrote that he was considered extremely handsome it was a beauty which stood by him all his life. In particular, she remembered his hair, remarkable for its perfect milk-whiteness, very beautiful, with short curls about the ears, and his eyes, not large, but of a peculiar and bright hazel; Aunt Jane, she thought, had inherited them.) While at Oxford, he met Janes mother, Cassandra Leigh. She wasnt rich, but she came from a well-educated and well-connected family; one of her ancestors had been the Lord Mayor of London. Eventually, George was able to become what was known as a pluralist: a clergyman who oversaw two churches and had two incomes. They added to that money by farming their land and selling the produce, as well as by taking on pupils in the parsonage. With all of that combined, George and Cassandra were able to raise a large family. They had six sons and two daughters. Neither of the daughters married, but two of the sons became clergymen themselves, and two more became admirals in the navy. One son was adopted by a childless couple, and inherited a great deal of property from them. The Austens struggled; they werent rich. But they did live with a degree of security and gentility that many people would have envied, and, in this, they followed one of the recognizable patterns of social mobility in the Georgian age. Its easy to imagine Charlotte hoping for a similar future. In the best of all possible worlds, she and Collins might build a life like the Austens. That possibility isnt something that, in good conscience, Charlotte could set aside. Shes happy to have the chance for such a life. At the age of twenty-seven, Austen writes, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it. ***

If Mr. Collins were like George Austen, of course, no one would find Charlottes marriage the least bit unsettling. Unfortunately, hes heart-stoppingly awful. My favorite televisual Collins is David Bamber, who played him for the BBC, in 1995. Bambers Collins isnt merely dumb or silly; hes aggressive, even slightly unhinged, the Cujo of suitors, a mentally shambling matrimonial zombie. (Almost as soon as I entered the house, he tells Lizzy , I singled you out as the companion of my future life.) The idea of living with him, and of intimacy with him, is horrifying. Collins, you might feel, isnt quite a real person. Hes more like a villain: so awful that he makes you wonder whether Charlottes sensible, intelligent plan might be a mistake. In an odd way, Collinss awfulness and Charlottes pragmatism take the measure of one another: in order to make Charlottes pragmatism feel problematic, Austen has to make Collins really terrible; and, by the same token, in order to make marriage to Collins even remotely plausible, she has to make Charlotte almost unbelievably pragmatic. But the result, at any rate, is an almost perfect puzzle for readers. Charlotte, by her own reasoning, has no choice but to marry Collins; Collins, meanwhile, is so terrible that he makes you question the whole idea of being responsible in the first place. Maybe, you think, Charlotte should toss everything out. Do something crazy. Decide, in a Dostoyevskian grand gesture, that it would be better to be alone than to be with him. Austen herself once received a proposalher only proposal, in factfrom a Collins-like man. His name was Harris Bigg-Wither, and she had known him since childhood. He wasnt a catch. (Caroline Austen, another of Janes nieces, recalled him this way: Very plain in personawkward, and even uncouth in mannernothing but his size to recommend himhe was a fine big manbut one need not look about for secret reasons to account for a young ladys not loving him.) He was, however, well-to-do; he owned several estates, and marrying him would have given Austen a family life of her own, as well as

financial security not just for herself but also for her unmarried sister. She accepted his proposal, and there was a celebration in the Austen house that evening. Then, the next morning, she announced that she had changed her mind. Austen, I imagine, agreed to marry him because it made sense, and because she was the kind of person who did what was sensible. But, as Fanny Lefroy, one of her nieces, wrote, overnight she experienced a revulsion of feeling. By and large, this has been seen as a wise decision, rather than a disaster. (We would naturally rather have Mansfield Park and Emma, the Austen biographer Claire Tomalin writes, a little venomously, than the BiggWither baby Jane Austen might have given the world.) All this happened in early December, 1802, a few weeks before Jane turned twenty-seven Charlottes age. Thinking about George and Cassandra, Charlotte and Collins, and Jane and Harris, Ive often been struck by the way their stories overlap. Theres a sense in which, by writing about Lizzy and Charlotte, Austen was writing about two generations of her own family. Charlottes marriage is animated by her parents hope but its made dangerous by her own experience. She is taking two different stories, from two different moments in time, and placing them alongside one another, implicitly comparing the caution and constraint of an earlier generation with the individualistic freedom of a later one. Family history, I find, is an interesting lens through which to think about the marriages in Pride and Prejudice. I come from an immigrant family, and, when I contemplate its history, I often think about how lucky weve all been. My parents and grandparents came, pretty much, from nothing, but were blessed with intelligence and character, and favored, on an unknowably vast number of occasions, by chance. If things had been slightly different, who knows where we mightve ended up? Im the beneficiary of all their good fortune; Ive had to make fewer compromises and accept fewer hard realities than my parents or grandparents.

Perhaps Austen had similar thoughts and, in writing Charlotte and Collins, tried to correct for the sample bias created by her parents luck and success. Just as Austen herself had just enough security, just enough freedom, to reject Harris Bigg-Wither, so Lizzy can reject Collins: accepting his proposal, she can tell him, is absolutely impossible. But that impossibility, we know, is just a matter of chancejust a matter of where you happen to be located along the path of social progress. A few days later, when Charlotte tells Lizzy that shes engaged to Collins, the same phrase slips out, in a moment of almost unforgivable rudeness: Engaged to Mr. Collins! My dear Charlotte impossible! Its now a cruel thing to say. For Charlotte, marrying Collins is the only possibility. In fact, its not marrying Collins thats impossible. *** In 1940, the critic D. W. Harding wrote an influential essay on Austen called Regulated Hatred. Harding wanted to overturn a certain view of Austen. For some readers, Austens novels are a kind of cathedral, within which certain idealsvivacity, thoughtfulness, wit, affection, romance, and so onare enshrined. To them, Austen seems like a philosopher, a romantic rationalist; you go to her books when you want to be reminded of whats great and good. Harding, who had trained as both a literary critic and a psychologist, thought that this view of Austen missed what was most interesting about her. To understand Austen, he thought, you had to think of her as a person living in a town, in a house, surrounded by friends and family. Her novels, he argued, were really for, about, and against the people she lived with everyday. How did Austen feel about the people around her? She loved her family and friends, and had a deep need of their affection and a genuine respect for the ordered, decent civilisation that they upheld. But, at the same time, she was sensitive to their crudenesses and complacencies, and knew that her real existence depended on resisting many of the values they implied. She wanted to express her resistance, to declare her spiritual, if not practical, independence. She

needed to share her interior life, her deep convictions and feelings. What she needed was a way to do this without transgressing the bounds of decorum, of propriety, of good taste, of sound judgment, fairness, and equanimity. The novels, Harding wrote, gave her a way out of this dilemma. This, rather than the ambition of entertaining a posterity of urbane gentlemen, was her motive force in writing. Part of her aim was to find the means for unobtrusive spiritual survival, without open conflict with the friendly people around her whose standards in simpler things she could accept and whose affection she greatly needed. Few critics today are as openly therapeutic as Harding. Even so, I like the way he thinks about Austen. I admire the philosophical aspects of her novels, the way theyre like perfectly organized little worldsFrench gardens planted in English soil. But I love Hardings Austen more: the Expressionist Austen, the modern, emotional, psychological one, the writer trying to say something, in a gentle, regulated way, to themher friends and family. Charlottes marriage, more than any other episode in the novel, seems to me a coded expression of Austens own dissent. In thinking about Charlotte, most people I know waver between acceptance and anger, between frustration and understanding. Like Lizzy, they pace back and forth between How could she marry that man? and Of course, she had to; between What a sad case! and Lots of people do it. Maybe thats how Austen felt about her own disappointing, insufficient proposal. And Charlottes choice expresses some other, more surprising feelings. Theres anger, sadness, understanding, and all the rest of it. But theres also a thirst for rebellion, a desire for risk, even a smidgen of relief, which Lizzy feelsa sense of being very lucky. Among other things, Charlottes marriage says: Thank God I didnt have to marry him. Thank God I had a choice, and could say no. Charlottes decision gives Austen a way to express everything that Lizzy and Darcys marriage cant. ***

It goes without saying, too, that Charlottes marriage doesnt just sit there, inert; it plays a role in the plot. The critic Stuart Tave, in a classic essay on Austen called Limitations and Definitions, describes the way it affects Lizzy. Charlottes marriage, he writes, pushes Lizzy to rethink what she has been doing, to understand better those people who have not acted as she expected they would. There was a time when she would not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity or blur the line between selfishness and prudence in matrimonial affairs. Now she is asking cynically what the difference is between the mercenary and the prudent motive, and where does discretion end and avarice begin. Lizzy, before Charlottes choice, was a bit of a fantasist herself; after it, she grows more realistic. Her own openness to Darcy derives, to a large degree, from her openness to Charlotte. Its because of Charlotte that Lizzy permits herself that famous thought, when she looks across the valley at Darcys estate: To be mistress of Pemberley might be something! And Charlottes choice teaches Lizzy other, more abstract lessons. One lesson is that there are many kinds of happiness. Another, as Tave writes, is that life is not a disorder to be ordered, a given mess on which those of tidy compulsions impose a tidiness. It is not a meaningless heap from which meaning is extracted. Meaning is the first fact. From Charlotte, who will always live an imperfect life, Lizzy learns that imperfect things matter just as much as perfect ones. And Lizzy learns to trust in the sturdiness of individualsin their ability to persist, to survive, even to thrive, through the most dramatic changes and upheavals. It seems impossible that Lizzys friendship with Charlotte should be able to survive Mr. Collins, and yet they remain friends. Charlotte is still Charlotte. This lends Lizzy a certain confidence. The core of a person isnt so easily changed; and, conversely, a person can change a great deal, can navigate her way through extreme circumstances, and still remain herself. That, really,

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is the most remarkable aspect of Lizzys relationship with Darcy. Its a wildly changeable relationship. Theyve argued and flirted, offended, admired, disdained, respected, hated, and loved one another. Theyve said all sorts of outrageous and unforgivable thingsstarting, of course, with Darcys muttered verdict about Elizabeth, Tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me. At some point, youd think, a line wouldve been crossed; something would have been said that couldnt be unsaid; a commitment to animosity wouldve been made that couldnt be dissolved, an opinion formed that couldnt be reversed. It never happens. When Darcy proposes to Lizzy, hes nervous, for the obvious reason that, over the past year, hes offended her in a hundred different ways. But Lizzy, Austen writes, reassures him that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances. Its a miracle, he knows. His behavior, he tells her, was unpardonable; the letter he wrote, he says, contained expressions which might justly make you hate me. The feelings of the person who wrote, and the person who received it, Lizzy says, are now so widely different from what they were then, that every unpleasant circumstance attending it must be forgotten. A little later, Lizzy comes home and tells Jane the good news. At night she opened her heart to Jane. Though suspicion was very far from Miss Bennets general habits, she was absolutely incredulous here. You are joking, Lizzy. This cannot be!engaged to Mr. Darcy! No, you shall not deceive me. I know it to be impossible. You cant blame Jane for her skepticism. And her skepticism must be only a shadow of what Lizzy and Darcy themselves felt once they had examined their feelings and recognized them for what they were. They could easily have given upcould have concluded, sensibly, that after all that had happened a future together would be impossible.

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It turns out, though, that people can change their minds, their circumstances, their opinions, their plans, their rules, their lives, without losing track of themselves. Theres something miraculous in peoplea resilience, an infinitenesswhich can survive constraint, transformation, reversal, and anything else imaginable. The thread doesnt have to be broken. This neverending pulse of personality is what gives Lizzy and Darcy the courage to change, and its what makes it possible, I think, to hope for Charlottes happiness. People, Austen seems to say, are not so easily dominated by their own lives. Charlotte will always be a little apart from her circumstances. Her life will go on.

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