Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 22)
The marriage of convenience. It’s a trope that’s often used in romance novels, but it was a common reality in Jane Austen’s day. A marriage of convenience is one born not out of love, but out of the benefits to both partners. Besides fulfilling the societal expectation of being married, the poorer partner would gain wealth, comfort, and stability while the richer partner would presumably gain the— er, fringe benefits that go along with marriage.
There are three marriages of convenience that feature prominently in Austen’s novels: Maria Bertram and Mr. Rushworth from Mansfield Park, Mr. Willoughby and Miss Grey from Sense and Sensibility, and Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice.
We know that the first two of these marriages were very unhappy, with one ending in infidelity and divorce, and the other continuing on, both partners living miserably with a spouse who they don’t love.
But what about the third couple? Could Charlotte and Mr. Collins have been happy together in their marriage of convenience?
Let’s look at some clues from the text.
“I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.” (Chapter 22)
Charlotte seems to be going into this with her eyes wide open. She’s aware of Mr. Collins’ character, including his obvious faults, but considers his situation in life to be advantageous to her. She is also not predisposed to be unhappy about her union with him, which I believe significantly boosts her chances of finding happiness later on.
But how does Charlotte like her new life after being married? Our first report comes through Charlotte’s letters to Elizabeth after her wedding and subsequent move to Hunsford.
She wrote cheerfully, seemed surrounded with comforts, and mentioned nothing which she could not praise. The house, furniture, neighbourhood, and roads, were all to her taste, and Lady Catherine’s behaviour was most friendly and obliging. It was Mr. Collins’s picture of Hunsford and Rosings rationally softened; and Elizabeth perceived that she must wait for her own visit there to know the rest. (Chapter 26)
So far, Charlotte seems content with her life and her surroundings. But what of the marriage itself? We get more details when Elizabeth visits Hunsford.
When Mr. Collins said anything of which his wife might reasonably be ashamed, which certainly was not unseldom, she involuntarily turned her eye on Charlotte. Once or twice she could discern a faint blush; but in general Charlotte wisely did not hear. (Chapter 28).
Charlotte has already developed a mechanism for overlooking anything ridiculous her husband says, however often. She shows restraint and respect for him, and does not seem to be bothered by his overall antics at any point either. We also learn that she has a sure-fire way of getting him out of the house and out from underfoot.
Mr. Collins invited them to take a stroll in the garden, which was large and well laid out, and to the cultivation of which he attended himself. To work in this garden was one of his most respectable pleasures; and Elizabeth admired the command of countenance with which Charlotte talked of the healthfulness of the exercise, and owned she encouraged it as much as possible. (chapter 28)
Also in this chapter, Elizabeth observes,
When Mr. Collins could be forgotten, there was really an air of great comfort throughout, and by Charlotte’s evident enjoyment of it, Elizabeth supposed he must be often forgotten.
Poor Mr. Collins! To be often forgotten by his wife. Or at least this is what Elizabeth supposes. Yet Mr. Collins does not consider the time they spend apart to be any hindrance upon their marriage. He tells Elizabeth,
My dear Charlotte and I have but one mind and one way of thinking. There is in everything a most remarkable resemblance of character and ideas between us. We seem to have been designed for each other. (Chapter 38)
Charlotte herself seems overall to be content with the marriage.
Elizabeth, in the solitude of her chamber, had to meditate upon Charlotte’s degree of contentment, to understand her address in guiding, and composure in bearing with her husband, and to acknowledge that it was all done very well. (Chapter 28)
Based on all these observations, I think it’s safe to say that Charlotte and Mr. Collins certainly fared better than the other two couples who had marriages of convenience, and the both seem quite happy and content with their arrangement. We know too, that there was at least some amount of marital intimacy. We learn near the end of the novel that they are expecting a child. Mr. Bennet shares the contents of a letter he received from Mr. Collins, and he adds,
The rest of his letter is only about his dear Charlotte’s situation, and his expectation of a young olive-branch.
Marital relations would have been expected for any couple at that time, especially given the need to produce heirs, but it shows at least that Mr. Collins and Charlotte have something more between them than just cohabitation.
But what about love? Could their marriage of convenience have eventually turned to something deeper, despite Charlotte’s statement that she is “not romantic and never was”?
That topic was never explored by Jane Austen, but it was a question that continued to pop up in my mind, and eventually became the centerpiece of my novel, “Marriage and Ministry”, which is on sale this week only for just 99 cents (US & UK). Scroll down to read an excerpt from my story.
If William was silent as the grave the day before, he more than made up for it on the second day of our journey. I suppose, in a way, I was glad that I had made him so happy and that he was back to his usual self. But at the same time, it was a bit exhausting listening to his endless stream of talking, and of course, the topic of exposition he never seemed to exhaust was anything related in any conceivable way to Lady Catherine! I was grateful for a respite from it by closing my eyes to sleep the remainder of the journey.
My husband woke me when we arrived. Lady Catherine had insisted that our private coach convey us all the way to Hunsford Parsonage, thus sparing us the hassle of hiring a post chaise in Westerham to complete the last bit of our journey.
I looked out the window as we came up the lane.
“There it is, my dear! Our home!” William pointed out excitedly.
The parsonage was a sweet two-story stone cottage, covered with ivy. The garden beside it lay dormant for winter, but the trees and shrubs were all well-manicured, and I could foresee that the landscape might be quite pretty come spring when in bloom.
The servants greeted us at the door. I was introduced to Mrs. Perry and Mrs. MacDougall, the housekeeper and cook, respectively. The manservant, Hines, assisted by Jesse the stable hand, took our trunks upstairs. William boasted that we also employed a maid. William’s first object was to give me a full tour of the house. We entered through the hall, which was sparsely furnished with a coat rack, an ornate clock mounted on the wall, and a small wood-framed mirror. On the eastern side of the hall was William’s study. He opened the door briefly for me to observe the bookcases crammed to overflowing, and his desk with a view of the lane, by which he could observe all of Lady Catherine or her daughter’s comings and goings. Turning to pass through the doorway on the western side, we entered the dining room, which was completely taken up by the enormous dining table and chairs. As I squeezed myself between a chair and the wall to get a better view of the room, William remarked, “Lady Catherine selected this dining set especially for our benefit. It seats twelve persons in all! She told me, upon hearing of my engagement, ‘Mr. Collins, now that your parsonage is to have a mistress, you must be prepared to entertain a party of guests now and then. I must see to it that you have a suitable table for doing so’. Naturally, I was most grateful for her consideration,” he concluded.
Pressing myself into the wall again to extricate myself from corner in which I was lodged, I replied, “I share your thanks, but I do wonder if a smaller table might have been more in keeping with the size of the room.” William seemed not to have heard me. He opened the door on the other side of the dining room which led to the kitchen, and I had no choice but to follow him.
“As you can see, we have an excellent kitchen, with a wood-burning stove, and a large window to allow plenty of natural light for Mrs. MacDougall to see to prepare our meals.” William continued walking, pointing out the staircase leading to the basement quarters where the servants resided. Another doorway opened into a small breakfast nook with a round table and a sideboard. This dining arena was more in keeping with my tastes, I thought with a smile. William looked to my face to see whether I approved. Finding approbation, he continued his tour by passing through the elegant, yet comfortable, drawing room, with its fine velvet settees facing a broad fireplace. I admired the intricate pattern of the luscious rug beneath my feet.
“Do you like it?” William asked, noticing my close study. “This is the rug I mentioned before. Lady Catherine assisted me in purchasing it from a traveling merchant who brought it all the way from the orient.” He continued relating details about the rug and other furnishings. Finally, he stopped beside a closed door.
“This room is my special surprise for you, Charlotte.”
A surprise? I thought to myself with a bit of glee. Whatever could it be?
He opened the door to a small parlour, furnished with a floral upholstered settee and matching chair, an end table, and a small desk in the corner.
“I converted this room into a parlour for your own private use. I had some furnishings brought in, but I left the walls bare. You may decorate it however you wish. When you want to entertain a guest or two, or just want a place to escape, you can come here. I won’t bother you.”
Escape. Funny that he should put it that way. Perhaps he was more aware of his own mannerisms than I thought, if he expected I might need a place to steal away to from time to time. To get a ‘respite’, is what I would have said in place of ‘escape’. For, it was not that I was being imprisoned or held hostage by some brute. Rather, I think every spouse needs a bit of a break from the other now and then, and it seems he knew this too.
“Thank you, William.” I gave him a heartfelt embrace.
He then took me upstairs to show me the rest of the house. When we reached our bedroom, he was eager to show me my new wardrobe and vanity. I, however, was more interested in the bed. I heaved myself upon it in a bit of an unladylike fashion and sprawled out across the top. William seemed a little surprised, then, brushing decorum aside, followed suit. Laying on his side and propping up on one elbow, his face so near I could feel his breath, he asked me, “Do you like your new home, Charlotte?”
I thought for a moment, then replied. “Yes, I believe I do.”
“You know, there’s still time before we need to change for dinner,” he said with a smile.
“You’re welcome to take a nap if you like, dear.” I said. “I’m rested enough from the drive.”
“A nap was not what I had in mind.” William’s eyes twinkled, and I understood his meaning.
It was nice to be desired, I thought, as we shut the world out for a little longer.