Chapter Five

                                 Mr Collins Proposes Twice

 

At Longbourn the next day, soon after breakfast, Mr Collins asked Mrs Bennet for permission to speak privately to Elizabeth. Mrs Bennet was delighted, and hurried the other girls out of the room, so that Elizabeth and Mr Collins were left alone together. Elizabeth did not want to stay, and got up to leave, but after a moment’s thought, sat down again quietly, determined to listen and reply politely.

‘My dear Miss Elizabeth,’ said Mr Collins seriously, ‘this little unwillingness to hear me, this modesty of yours, can only add to your other charms. You can hardly doubt the purpose of my speech. Almost as soon as I entered the house, I chose you as the companion of my future life. But before I am carried away by my feelings, I think I should state my reasons for marrying.’

Elizabeth was trying so hard not to laugh at the idea of Mr Collins being carried away by his feelings that she was unable to reply. ‘First,’ he continued, ‘it is right for a priest to marry, as an example to other people. Secondly, I’m sure marriage will add greatly to my happiness, and thirdly, which perhaps I should have mentioned earlier, my generous patron has advised me to marry. “Find an active, useful sort of person,” she told me, “a woman who can make a small income go a long way. Bring her to Hunsford as your wife, and I’ll visit her.” So I decided to choose a wife from among my Bennet cousins, to lessen the loss to the family when the sad event of your father’s death takes place. I flatter myself that you will appreciate my motives. And now, nothing remains but to convince you of the violence of my affection. I am quite indifferent to the fact that you bring little money with you into our marriage, and promise you that I shall make no ungenerous reference to this after we are married.’

It was absolutely necessary to interrupt him now. ‘Sir, you forget I have given no answer. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me, but it is impossible for me to accept your proposal.’

‘Of course I understand,’ said Mr Collins, ‘that young ladies often do not accept a proposal of marriage the first time. I am therefore not at all discouraged, and sincerely hope we shall be married soon.’

‘Sir,’ cried Elizabeth, ‘your hope is rather extraordinary after what I’ve said! I am perfectly serious. You could not make me happy, and I’m convinced I’m the last woman in the world who would make you happy. And I’m sure that if Lady Catherine knew me, she would find me poorly qualified for the situation.’

‘If I knew Lady Catherine thought so —’ began Mr Collins, looking very worried. ‘But I cannot imagine she would disapprove of you. And when I have the honour of seeing her again, I shall certainly tell her how modest, economical and practical you are.’

‘Indeed, Mr Collins, all praise of me will be unnecessary. Pay me the compliment of believing what I say. I hope you will be very happy and very rich, but I cannot accept your proposal.’

She got up and was going to leave the room, but Mr Collins was speaking to her again. ‘I am far from accusing you of cruelty in refusing me, as I know it is the custom with elegant ladies in society to refuse a gentleman the first time. I hope to receive a more favourable answer next time I speak to you of marriage.’

‘Really, Mr Collins,’ cried Elizabeth with some warmth, ‘you do puzzle me! I do not know how to express my refusal so that it convinces you!’

‘You must allow me to flatter myself, dear cousin, that you do not intend to refuse me for long. My situation in life, my connections with the de Bourgh family, and my relationship to your own, all make my proposal a very suitable one. And you should remember that in spite of your many admirable qualities, it is not certain that you will receive any other offer of marriage, as you have very little money of your own.’

‘Sir, thank you again for the honour you have done me, but to accept your proposal is absolutely impossible. Can I speak plainer than that? Don’t think of me as an elegant female, but as a thinking creature speaking the truth from her heart!’

‘You are charming!’ he cried, ‘and I’m sure that when both your excellent parents agree, you will accept my proposal!’

Elizabeth did not reply, but left the room silently, determined to ask her father, if necessary, to make her refusal clear to the self-deceiving Mr Collins.

Mrs Bennet had been waiting eagerly for the end of the interview, and when she saw Elizabeth leave the room, she hurried in to offer her congratulations to Mr Collins. He received them with pleasure, adding that he was sure his cousin’s refusal was a natural result of her modesty and delicacy of character.

‘Refusal?’ repeated Mrs Bennet, shocked. ‘Lizzy refused you? Do not worry, Mr Collins. I shall speak to her at once. She’s a very obstinate, foolish girl, but I’ll make her accept you.’

‘Pardon me, madam,’ cried Mr Collins, ‘but if she’s really obstinate and foolish, I do not think she would be a suitable wife for a man in my situation.’

‘Sir, you quite misunderstand me,’ said Mrs Bennet, alarmed. ‘She’s only obstinate in a matter like this. In everything else she is very agreeable. I’ll see Mr Bennet and we’ll arrange it with her, I’m sure.’

She did not give him time to reply, but hurried to the library, where she knew she would find her husband. ‘Oh, Mr Bennet, we need you urgently! We’re all in such confusion! You must come and make Lizzy marry Mr Collins!’

Mr Bennet raised his eyes from his book as she entered, and stared at her with calm unconcern. ‘I do not have the pleasure of understanding you,’ he said. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘Lizzy declares she won’t have him, and if you don’t hurry, he’ll change his mind and not have her.’

‘So what should I do? It seems a hopeless business.’

‘Speak to her about it yourself. Tell her you insist on her marrying him.’

‘Call her in here. She shall hear my opinion.’

Mrs Bennet gladly rang the bell, and the servant brought Elizabeth into the library. ‘Come here, child,’ said her father as she appeared. ‘I’ve sent for you on a very important matter. I understand that Mr Collins has made you an offer of marriage, and you have refused?’

When Elizabeth nodded, he continued, ‘Very well. Now, your mother insists on your accepting. Isn’t that right, Mrs Bennet?’

‘Yes, or I’ll never see her again.’

‘You now have an unhappy choice to make, Elizabeth. From this day on, you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.’

Elizabeth could not help smiling, but Mrs Bennet, who had been sure her husband supported her, was very disappointed. ‘What do you mean, Mr Bennet? You promised me you would insist on her marrying him.’

‘My dear,’ replied her husband, ‘I have two small requests to make. First, that you will accept that I know what I promised or did not promise, and secondly, that you will all leave me in peace as soon as possible.’

That afternoon, Charlotte Lucas came to visit Elizabeth, and found the family still in great confusion. The younger girls were quite excited by the news of Mr Collins’ proposal, and Mrs Bennet was most annoyed with Elizabeth. ‘Oh dear Miss Lucas,’ cried Mrs Bennet, ‘can’t you persuade Elizabeth to accept Mr Collins? Nobody else wants to help me! Oh, how ill I feel! And look at Lizzy now! She’s so unconcerned! But I tell you, Miss Lizzy, if you go on refusing every offer of marriage like this, you’ll never get a husband at all! And I won’t be able to provide for you when your father is dead, I warn you now. I told you in the library that I wouldn’t speak to you again, and I won’t. I have no pleasure in talking to an undutiful child like you. Not that I have much pleasure in talking to anybody, with my headaches. Nobody knows how I suffer! But of course, those who do not complain are never pitied.’

Her daughters listened in silence, aware that any attempt to calm her would only increase her annoyance. Elizabeth, however, was determined not to marry Mr Collins, and in the end Mrs Bennet was obliged to accept that fact. When Mr Collins realized that Elizabeth had meant what she said, his manner towards her became coldly and stiffly polite. His long speeches and flattering compliments were transferred for the rest of the day to kind Charlotte Lucas, who took on herself the trouble of listening to him, for which all the Bennets were very grateful.

The next day a letter was delivered to Jane from Netherfield. Elizabeth saw her sister’s expression change as she read it, and when they were alone, she asked about it. ‘It’s from Caroline Bingley,’ said Jane, ‘and it has surprised me very much. The whole party have left Netherfield, and are on their way back to London, probably for the winter. They may not return to Netherfield at all. She says the only thing she sincerely regrets is leaving me behind in Hertfordshire, and promises to write very frequently.’

Elizabeth did not trust Miss Bingley’s apparent affection for Jane. ‘I really don’t think their departure matters very much,’ she said. ‘Mr Bingley won’t be kept in London by his sisters. I’m sure he’ll be back at Netherfield soon.’

‘But perhaps he prefers to stay in London, where many of his friends are. But I haven’t told you everything yet. Let me read you the part which particularly hurts me—’

Mr Darcy is impatient to see his sister, and we confess we are also eager to see her again. Nobody is more beautiful, elegant or accomplished than Georgiana Darcy. Louisa and I have great affection for her, and hope one day to call her sister. My brother admires her very much. He will have frequent opportunities of seeing her, and although I am his sister I must say I think he is most capable of winning any woman’s heart.

‘What do you think of this, dear Lizzy? Isn’t it clear enough? Caroline doesn’t wish or expect me to become her sister-in-law; she’s convinced of her brother’s indifference towards me, and, perhaps because she suspects my feelings for him, she (most kindly!) warns me that he’s very likely to marry someone else!’

‘I have a totally different opinion. Miss Bingley sees her brother is in love with you, while she wants him to marry Miss Darcy. We aren’t rich enough or grand enough for them, and she is eager to have a family connection with the Darcys, so that it may be easier for her to marry Mr Darcy. So she follows her brother to London, hoping to keep him there, and tries to persuade you he doesn’t care about you. But of course he’s in love with you!’

‘I really can’t agree with you about Caroline. I think she’s incapable of deceiving anyone. But Lizzy, my dear sister, even if she’s wrong about her brother, and he does care for me, could I be happy in accepting a man whose sisters and friends all wish him to marry someone else?’

‘You must decide for yourself, and if you consider it more important to do what his sisters want, than to gain the happiness of being his wife, I certainly advise you to refuse him.’

‘How can you say that?’ said Jane, smiling a little. ‘You know I wouldn’t hesitate, although I’d be sad if they disapproved of me. But, oh dear, if he doesn’t come back to Netherfield, I’ll never have to make the decision!’

But Elizabeth was sure Mr Bingley could not be kept away from Jane by his sisters, and soon persuaded Jane to take a more hopeful view of the situation.

That day the Bennets, with Mr Collins, went to dinner with the Lucas family at Lucas Lodge. Again it was Charlotte who spent most of the evening listening to Mr Collins. Elizabeth was very relieved, and thanked her friend gratefully for the trouble she was taking.

But Charlotte’s kindness had a particular aim, which Elizabeth was unaware of. Her plan was to encourage Mr Collins to transfer his attentions to herself. In fact, she was managing so well that, when she said goodnight to him after dinner, she would have felt sure of success if he had been staying in Hertfordshire for another week. But she did not fully appreciate the fire and independence of his character, which caused him to get up very early the next morning and escape from Longbourn House, in a great hurry to reach Lucas Lodge and throw himself at her feet.

She did not keep him waiting for an answer, and the happy couple found themselves engaged as quickly as Mr Collins’ long speeches would allow. Charlotte’s parents were delighted to agree to the marriage, and Lady Lucas began to work out, with more interest than she had ever felt before, how many more years Mr Bennet was likely to live. Charlotte herself was quite satisfied. Mr Collins, certainly, was neither sensible nor agreeable, but still he would be a husband. She did not think highly of men or of marriage, but she had always intended to marry. Although marriage might not always bring happiness, it was the only honourable way in which a well-educated woman with little income could provide a home for herself. Now twenty-seven, and lacking beauty, she felt she was lucky to have found a husband. She knew, however, that Elizabeth, whose friendship she greatly valued, would be astonished and possibly disapproving. So she decided to go to Longbourn House to tell her friend the news herself.

Elizabeth was indeed shocked at first, and could not help crying out in surprise, but when Charlotte explained her reasons for accepting Mr Collins, Elizabeth tried hard to understand. When the rest of the Bennet family heard the news, they were also astonished. Mrs Bennet was quite horrified, and could not stop complaining bitterly about Charlotte’s wickedness, Mr Collins’ stupidity, and Elizabeth’s obstinacy. Mr Bennet was much calmer, only saying he was pleased to discover that Charlotte, whom he used to consider quite sensible, was as foolish as his wife, and more foolish than his daughter!

That day was Mr Collins’ last at Longbourn, and he left with many speeches of thanks, as well as a promise to return very soon. Mr Bennet warned him to be careful not to offend his patron, by being absent from his duties too often, but Mr Collins, although extremely grateful for this sign of Mr Bennet’s cousinly affection for him, was naturally eager to return to Hertfordshire, to see his future wife.

Only two weeks later he did, in fact, come back to stay at Longbourn, but spent most of his time at Lucas Lodge, making arrangements for the wedding. Mrs Bennet still felt very offended by him, but she was now becoming anxious about something even more important – Mr Bingley’s continued absence. Day after day had passed with no news since the arrival of Caroline Bingley’s letter. Elizabeth was now rather worried, and Jane feared the worst.

Finally, a second letter arrived from Caroline Bingley, and when Jane read it, she realized that all hope was over. The Bingley family were staying in London for the whole winter, and Georgiana Darcy was a frequent member of their circle. Miss Bingley boasted joyfully of this friendship, and looked forward to her brother’s probable marriage to Miss Darcy.

Although she was deeply upset, Jane bravely tried to control her feelings. ‘Do not worry, Lizzy, I shall be able to forget him in a while. I have nothing to complain of, as he made no promises to me. I just thought he cared for me, but I was wrong. Luckily, no one is hurt except myself.’

‘My dear Jane!’ said Elizabeth. ‘You are too good. You always think the best of everybody. Now I think the worst of most people, and do not see much real value or common sense around me. Mr Bingley, for example. He may not be intending to hurt you, but misery can be caused by someone being just weak and indecisive. I’m convinced his sisters and his friend, Mr Darcy, are trying to influence him against you. Another example is Charlotte. I can’t understand how she could agree to marry such a self-important, proud, silly man!’

‘Dear Lizzy,’ said Jane, ‘we must respect Charlotte’s decision. She may well be happy with Mr Collins. And as for Mr Bingley, we shouldn’t expect a sociable young man to be so careful of his behaviour. Women often imagine admiration means more than it really does.’

‘And men want that to happen.’

‘I prefer to believe that I was mistaken in thinking he cared for me, and that his sisters love him and approve of his wish to marry Miss Darcy. I don’t want to think badly of him or his sisters. That would be worse than anything.’ Elizabeth had to accept Jane’s wishes, and from then on, Mr Bingley’s name was seldom mentioned between them.