Sunday, 17 July 2016

Jane Austen's Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins ('Pride and Prejudice')

Lady Catherine is an unforgettable character. She exemplifies the potential vulgarity of aristocracy. She is the matriarch of this world. She picks up all the grandeur that used to belong to kings; but she is a queen with the sensibility of a housekeeper. There is no largeness to her spirit. There is poverty of conversation in her presence. She lives for minutiae, keeping women in line and receiving the compliments of men, which, as Elizabeth discovers, seem to gratify in their excess.

Lady Catherine feeds off the inferiority of her circle, desiring even (as Mr. Collins notes) that their style of dress be beneath hers. She has no real regard for Mr. and Mrs. Collins: she invites them only 'when she could get nobody else'. Her speech is full of insults only barely restrained. (Speaking of her pianoforte, she says: 'Our instrument is a capable one, probably superior to - You shall try it some day.' In the space of that dash she was about to say 'anything you have ever played before'.) 

Sense and taste, for Jane Austen, are not inherited along with wealth.

Jane Austen gives Mr. Collins a psychology, and a space for our pity. In Chapter 15, we learn that his life was largely 'spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father'. It is tempting to find in this history the beginnings of a Freudian text. Kept at a distance from his mother, he spends his life toadying up to dominant women. But however ardent his regard, he can never win their favour. He is unloved. Whatever is unpleasant in his manner must be, in part, a reflection of Lady Catherine. That he dwells on the prices of windows, for example, must be because she did first. And that he is forever praising is because she courts praise: they are a matched set.

The clergy as an institution comes off in a poor light, deserving of any insult even Mary Crawford could offer. Lady Catherine keeps her poor parson around as a conduit of information, a tool in her system of control.