Like many long-time readers of “Pride and Prejudice,” I’ve 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. Elizabeth’s best friend is a sensible, intelligent person, but because she isn’t 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, narrow-minded, silly man.”) “Pride and Prejudice” is a joyous novel, but Charlotte’s 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 didn’t devote a lot of thought to Charlotte’s marriage. As time has gone on, though, it’s seemed more and more important to me. Growing older involves making compromises, and I suppose that has something to do with it. But I’ve also become more familiar with the importance, in life, of choice. In a lot of ways, that’s 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 Charlotte’s.
It’s 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 isn’t young, pretty, or rich,” despite the fact that she’s “a sensible, intelligent person.” But that’s actually to misstate, or reverse, Charlotte’s situation. It’s certainly true that she isn’t young, pretty, or rich, and that those facts set the stage for her marriage. But it’s also true that Charlotte marries Collins because she is sensible and intelligent. It’s actually her sensibleness that gives her no choice but to do it. What really compels her to marry him is her thoughtfulness.
Charlotte’s been thinking about marriage for years, and she’s 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. Charlotte’s 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 man—that would be a kind of social demotion for her family—but too poor and average-looking to attract a truly wealthy one. She can’t marry up or down—she 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. She’s always known that there wouldn’t be a lot of men to choose from.
Charlotte knows, moreover, that she has to marry someone; it’s 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. Charlotte’s 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, hasn’t 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 choosing—she’s 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 Austen’s own family. Austen’s 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 George’s tuition until he could win a scholarship to Oxford. Unlike Mr. Collins, George Austen was intelligent, charming, and attractive. (One of Jane Austen’s 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 Jane’s mother, Cassandra Leigh. She wasn’t 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 weren’t 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. It’s 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 isn’t something that, in good conscience, Charlotte could set aside. She’s 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.”
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