One of the things I love about Austen lit, is her wide array of characters. These characters are so fully developed that they jump off the page, and to many of us, have become almost as real people. It’s easy to imagine Lizzy Bennet trekking through the fields to Pemberley (and getting her petticoat six-inches deep in mud while she’s at it) or Anne Elliot walking the Cobb with Captain Wentworth and the Musgroves.
Not only does Austen write such vivid main characters, but her secondary characters really pop as well. At first, I wanted to write about my favorite secondary character… but I just couldn’t choose. On thinking about it, though, my mind kept going back to Charlotte Lucas.
I definitely wouldn’t call Charlotte a favorite, but she’s sure intriguing. This is the woman who marries Mr. Collins. Not only that, she goes after him, in her way: “Charlotte’s kindness extended farther than Elizabeth had any conception of;—its object was nothing less, than to secure her from any return of Mr. Collins’s addresses, by engaging them towards herself.” (Chapter 22) She actually WANTS to marry this guy, while Lizzie, and most of us readers, would shudder to even consider it.
Of course, Charlotte is twenty-seven, plain (from what Austen tells us), but intelligent. She thinks it’s unlikely she’ll receive another offer of marriage. And based on her social standing, Collins is a good match.
These are good reasons, but still, WHY DOES SHE DO IT?
I think one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by Charlotte, is the two very different perspectives provided in the ’95 vs, ’05 movies. In the 1995 version, Charlotte is portrayed very much how she is in the book. She’s sensible, she’s smart, she knows how the world works (if only she’d given her advice about showing more affection rather than less to Jane, things might have turned out differently… if Jane would have taken it, which we know she would not). Charlotte tells Lizzy straight up, “I am not romantic you know. I never was.” (Chapter 22) She wants to be mistress of her own home, and she ends up getting what she wants.
In the ’05 version, Charlotte is less self-assured and much more afraid. This Charlotte is worried about becoming a spinster, and being a burden on her parents. I can only imagine being an adult but living under your parents roof in that time—never having a say in your own life, plus the ridicule that would come with it. This Charlotte is a lot more desperate, and I understand that desperation better than I do the sensible Charlotte making the only choice available to her.
Either way, it’s an interesting picture to paint. Charlotte, at Hunsford with Mr. Collins, encouraging him to be out in his garden so he’ll leave her alone, purposefully ignoring him when he says ridiculous things. Charlotte’s choice is such a contrast to her friend Lizzy, and all the Bennet sisters, who think of marriage much differently. The Bennet girls want love, respectability, handsome husbands, or something to make other girls envious. Even Mary, I think, had romantic ideas about Mr. Collins, though she is a lot quieter than the rest.
The role of Charlotte as a character helps us see Jane’s mistake in being reserved with Mr. Bingley, and the difference in opinion on “the marriage state” between her and Elizabeth. A character like Elizabeth would never sacrifice love, or even liking and respecting your partner, for worldly comforts. We really see the difference between these two friends.
Charlotte’s decision is an interesting one. Even though I know how it turns out, I’m always slightly surprised that she marries Mr. Collins, because I never can quite understand why. I mean, I understand for all the reasons above, but like Lizzy, I can’t help but think it’s “impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen.” (Chapter 22)
What do you think of Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr. Collins? Did she have any other choice, based on her circumstances and the time period? Do you know anyone who might make the same decision she did?