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.
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
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.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 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.