PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.23, NO.1 (Winter 2002)

 
 
Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins, and the Art of Misreading
  CAROLE MOSES

Carole Moses (email: camoses@suscom.net)  is a Professor of English at Lycoming College, where she teaches Shakespeare in addition to Renaissance, early American, and classical literature. She has published on authors such as Shakespeare, Melville, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.

 Two words words used repeatedly by Mr. Collins to describe Lady Catherine de Bourgh are “condescending” and “affable.”  During Elizabeth’s visit after his marriage, he promises that she will witness Lady Catherine’s “affability and condescension” (157), a promise he sees fulfilled during the dinner party at Rosings.  Indeed, only the “knowledge of her affability” (160) allows him to credit the munificence of her invitation.  After Lydia’s elopement, he writes to Mr. Bennet saying that Lady Catherine “herself condescendingly says” that no man of honor will ever connect himself to the Bennet family (297).  And he later warns Mr. Bennet by letter about Lady Catherine’s objections to a match between Elizabeth and Darcy, referring to her “usual condescension” (363) in expressing her displeasure.  Even when Austen is not quoting Mr. Collins directly, her ironic narrative voice echoes his thoughts.  Lady Catherine, we are told, arose with “great condescension” (161) to receive them at Rosings; the invitation itself is an “instance of Lady Catherine’s condescension as [Mr. Collins] knew not how to admire enough” (160).

These two words—“affability” and “condescension”—echo Milton’s description of Raphael’s visit to Adam in Paradise Lost.  After listening to Raphael describe God’s creation of the universe, Adam thanks him for his “friendly condescention”  (9) as Book VIII opens.  At the end of this book, Adam bids Raphael farewell, alluding to his affability and condescension: 

Gentle to me and affable hath been
Thy condescension, and shall be honour’d ever
With grateful Memorie: thou to mankind
Be good and friendly still, and oft return" (648-51) 

Although there is no direct evidence that Jane Austen knew Paradise Lost, it seems highly unlikely that the family of an educated clergyman, one whose library contained five hundred volumes (Grey 279), would not know this poem.  Furthermore, as Isobel Grundy notes, “The whole family were avid book-borrowers and book-exchangers” (189).  And three writers whom Austen did read—Johnson, Addison, and Cowper—wrote admiringly of Paradise Lost (Hanford 349-50, 356).  It is difficult to imagine that Austen would not have read what was rapidly becoming an English classic (Hanford 329-54).  Indeed, one critic has speculated extensively on her debt to Milton in Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park (Harris 71-80; 161-66). 

The echoes of Milton in Pride and Prejudice are so slight that they might simply be the result of unconscious borrowing.  But they certainly develop the characterization of Mr. Collins, which argues for authorial intent.  As Grundy points out, Austen often underscores the foolishness of some of her characters through their inept literary allusions (195).  Only Mr. Collins could find a parallel between Lady Catherine and the archangel.  Raphael gives Adam good advice about his spiritual state; Lady Catherine examines the Collinses’ household, finding “fault with the arrangement of the furniture, or detect[ing] the housemaid in negligence” (169). Indeed, her officiousness extends to “The care of [their] cows and [their] poultry” (163). Referring to Austen’s other characters who read and remain unenlightened (John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, the Crawfords in Mansfield Park, and Sir Edward Denhem in Sanditon), Margaret Anne Doody states that “the good heart may indeed make good use of literature, but good books of any kind cannot give wisdom to a fool or create a right heart in a perverse reader” (349). Mr. Collins’s inappropriate Miltonic echoes reveal him to be both a fool and a perverse student of Milton.

Works Cited 

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R.W. Chapman. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. 

Doody, Margaret Anne. “Jane Austen’s Reading.” The Jane Austen Companion. Ed. H. Abigail Bok. New York: Macmillan, 1986. 347-63. 

Grey, J. David. “Life of Jane Austen.” The Jane Austen Companion. Ed. H. Abigail Bok. New York: Macmillan, 1986. 279-82. 

Grundy, Isobel. “Jane Austen and Literary Traditions.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: CUP, 1997.  189-210. 

Hanford, James Holly. A Milton Handbook. 1926. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1961. 

Harris, Jocelyn. Jane Austen’s Art of Memory. Cambridge: CUP, 1989. 

Milton, John. The Riverside Milton. Ed. Roy Flannagan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989.

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