Breakups are a fantastic time to think about relationship status. How soon are you ready to be back on the dating market? Have you revised your list of qualities you’re looking for in a mate? Are you more picky? Less? On the sliding scale between the worst-date-ever and prince-charming, where would you be content to land? At one point is a relationship not worth further investment? Ever ponder those thoughts?
Oddly enough, sometimes I turn to fiction to solve these questions for myself. And it’s an interesting conclusion I’ve landed for myself. I’ve discovered that unlike most single girls who are desiring marriage, I am not #waitingforMrDarcy. Surprised? Allow me to explain.
“Why should you be surprised, my dear Eliza?—Do you think it incredible that Mr. Collins should be able to procure any woman’s good opinion, because he was not so happy as to succeed with you?”
— Charlotte Lucas, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, chapter 12
Elizabeth Bennet is astonished to learn of the engagement of her best friend, Charlotte Lucas, particularly because the fiance in question had asked her — Elizabeth — for her hand only the day before. That would be astonishing for any woman. No one likes to feel that they can be easily passed over, even if they so chose the rejection.
“Certainly not,” said Anne, who had no desire whatever to publish abroad the fact that Billy Andrews wanted to marry her, preferring her, when all was said and done, to Nettie Blewett. Nettie Blewett!”
— Anne Shirley, Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery, chapter 8
But Elizabeth’s reaction to Charlotte’s news is not merely the insult that Anne felt when she realizes she could be easily replaced with Nettie Blewett. Elizabeth’s shock comes from the notion that Charlotte could accept Mr. Collins’ proposal, particularly because she views Mr. Collins as insensible, arrogant, and a bore. How could Charlotte settle for that?
“When you have had time to think it all over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, 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.”
— Charlotte Lucas, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, chapter 12
I’ve thought about Elizabeth & Charlotte’s situation a lot… particularly when it’s come to the world of exchanging tales of dating with my close friends. It’s easy to view this conversation between Elizabeth and Charlotte as a straightforward dichotomy. Elizabeth had a higher standard and refused to compromise; in the end, she got Mr. Darcy, the man with the money, the love, and the intellect — the modern equivalent of Prince Charming, the man of our dreams. Charlotte was a desperate spinster who jumped at the opportunity to get married; she settled, and therefore, she had only herself to blame when she found her husband annoying and insipid.
But I think there’s a lot more depth to Austen’s characters. I don’t think Charlotte settled. I believe that Charlotte got exactly what she was looking for. Mr. Collins was the man who Charlotte needed. If she had married Mr. Darcy’s twin, she would have been incredibly unhappy. And that’s an important possibility to consider.
So what was Charlotte looking for? And what kind of person did she need?
Charlotte admitted right off the bat that she wanted a person who was settled in a career. She wanted someone who could provide her with financial stability, with an honorable reputation, with security in her social rank, and with a home of her own. She wanted to be able to raise a family in a stable environment, have a name to be proud of, and to be in a position to serve her community (rather than be served by them.) She wanted someone who was honest and attentive but also someone who let her be herself. She wanted someone who worshiped her without trying to change her and without drawing attention to herself.
Mr. Collins offered her all of these things in a partner. He had a respectable career in the clergy with a (nearly) guaranteed position for the rest of his life. He had a very eligible patron who would continue to provide for him. At some point, he would inherit the Bennett estate of Longbourne, which would provide a reasonable income for their family and would place her close to her own family in retirement. A clergyman’s wife would give her a position of respectability and allow her to visit the villagers and attend to people’s needs without attention being drawn to herself. Mr. Collins would always hold her in the highest esteem and praise her without end, but he would never pay too careful attention to exactly what she was doing or how she did it, which meant that she could run her own household freely. He would certainly always be proud of her accomplishments and their family.
Any person who married Mr. Collins would have to put up with his pompous attitude and his incessant need to hear the sound of his own voice. And certainly his wife would always be subservient to his patron since that was the source of their livelihood. But all relationships come with compromise, and Charlotte demonstrates an agility in this regard that is remarkable.
Just imagine that scenario if Charlotte had married Mr. Darcy’s identical twin (we’ll call him D’ for short): The wife of D’ would need to be well-read and engage with witty conversation with D’ and his friends on a regular basis. She would need to be able to challenge him and his long-held ideas. She would travel on a regular basis as D’ would own a substantial estate as well as a house in town; besides D’ would also visit his friends regularly, including the Darcys and the Bingleys. Furthermore, as the wife of the richest man in the county, Mrs. D’ would not only be the center of attention for D’, but she would also be admired by all the villagefolk who she no doubt visited on a regular basis to give alms and counsel. (Mrs. Collins the clergy’s wife could do this as a humble servant of God or a loving pastor’s wife who was a busybody or an unusually helpful soul. Mrs. D’ would be the wealthy mistress coming as the judgment police or as the wealthy benefactor bestowing her riches on the populace.) Mrs. D’ would have to entertain some groups of people on a regular basis, including but not limited to family members, friends, and business partners of D’. D’ would also expect his wife to have a working knowledge of his business and be able to converse with his business contacts’ spouses. Furthermore, as a collector of art and a lover of music and the theater, D’ and his wife would shop in the finest establishments and continue to build their fine collection of fine art to complete their exquisite and ever-growing library. Mrs. D’ would spend much quality time with her husband, following him in his travels and business affairs and engaging in deep intellectual conversations, leisure time made possible by the servants who would cook their meals, keep their house, clean their laundry, and look after their children.
All of the above would be work and a burden for Charlotte. Charlotte didn’t want a husband who would follow her every move and want to be involved in her daily living. She wanted to be able to send him outdoors to garden and for him to think that was a splendid idea without questioning her. She wanted to be able to entertain whoever she wanted in whatever way she felt possible. As the wife of Mr. Collins, she likely had a lot of freedom in how she raised her children. No need to consult the wisest of physicians or the latest baby-raising fad. Of course, Lady Catherine would always be present to give her own advice, but without servants, Mrs. Collins could no doubt stay home more often with her children and just roll her eyes at the rest of Lady Catherine’s advice/commands. Charlotte wouldn’t have been happy to spend her life collecting antiques or looking at fine sculpture. She wasn’t a showy person and didn’t like attention on herself. That’s why she was always analyzing Lizzie’s life rather than talking about her own.
I do believe that Charlotte settled in one critical area: she married a man who didn’t love her. If Mr. Collins had actually loved her, he would have been a more perfect spouse for her. She knew that he didn’t love her and that he probably never would, but she also knew that he thought that he loved her. Which counts for something. At least he wouldn’t be looking to replace her. She might not have loved him and might never love him, but she liked him and the opportunities that he gave her. And that was sufficient. It would sustain her.
It’s easy to read a story like Pride and Prejudice and walk away as an idealist, looking for the perfect fairy-tale romance where the princess always has blonde hair and the prince is always mounted on a white stallion. In that fantasy world, we know that the princess needs to keep waiting for the guy to ride up on that white stallion. Perfectly good guy on a brown horse? Pass. Perfectly adequate prince with long fancy title who twirls his mustache? Forget it. Parched and fatigued traveler on a white horse? Hmmmm, give him some soup and see if he sits and the table and eats like well-educated royalty. Yes? Marry him, no questions asked.
Real life isn’t like that. Marriage is not a one-size fits all package. We aren’t all looking for the same thing. The same way people go to college for different reasons. And pick different careers. And do different things on spring break. And have different priorities.
And you know what? It’s a good thing. Otherwise, there would be 10,000 girls all competing for the one man on the one white stallion. And, in that scenario, odds are that you’re going to be one of the 9,999 girls left behind. And no one needs to see that in their future.
Charlotte isn’t happy because she makes the best of a bad situation. This isn’t the lemonade out of lemons scenario that Elizabeth convinces herself has to be in place. (Remember that P&P is told in third-person limited narration from Elizabeth’s point of view. How do I know? Eleventh grade English class, and the fact that the narrator only visits the scenes that Elizabeth is in but also knows what she is thinking. E.g. We don’t get to witness Collins’ proposal to Charlotte but we do know what goes through Lizzie’s head when she finds out about it.) Charlotte is happy because she is where she’s meant to be. She wants a symbiotic relationship where someone finally values her and she can run her own home and boss someone around for a change without being the center of attention. As Mrs. Collins, she finally gets to host people for a change and manage someone else’s life for once. No one gives her any credit for it to be sure, but she doesn’t want credit; she just wants the space and the resources to do so. Which Lizzie doesn’t understand because Lizzie needs that verbalization; she needs Darcy to appreciate her intellect and to acknowledge it to himself, to her, and to his friends and relations. Because Lizzie doesn’t recognize that in Charlotte, she cannot understand that Charlotte’s engagement is an opportunity seized for Charlotte. Charlotte’s disappointment is less in Lizzie’s shock at the proposal but more in Lizzie’s insistence to understand Charlotte as someone who has needs just like Lizzie. For all his faults, Mr. Collins has very few expectations of anyone, mostly because he never looks to see if his expectations match real life. And that’s what Charlotte needs in order to flourish — someone who believes in her and in her potential and can give her the resources to flourish. And that’s beautiful. Even if Lizzie never has the capacity to understand it.
I’m just like the next girl in thinking that Mr. Darcy is pretty dreamy. He’s smart, he’s well-read, he’s wealthy, and he’s romantic. But I don’t think he’s meant for everyone. Certainly not for Charlotte and definitely not for Jane nor Lydia. And so that as why I am so bold to counter the tread and say that I’m #NOTwaitingforMrDarcy. I’m waiting for #MrAbigail and I’m not ashamed to say it.