The Good, The Bad, and The Funny: Proposals in Jane Austen

"To assure you in the most animated langu...

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Today, my nomination for the funniest: Mr. Collins to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

If this proposal scene were the only reason for including the pedantic Mr. Collins in P&P, I would still commend Austen. Like Lizzie, we put up with Mr. Collins’ ingratiating company for several chapters before this showstopping payoff. Indeed, in every P&P film version I have seen, this is one of the highlights of the whole story. The camera homes in on every nuance of body language, every clearing of the throat, every art of the comedian(enne’s) timing.  One of my favorite touches in film is how Lizzie casually and consciously puts obstacles between herself and her unwanted suitor. In both the A&E Jennifer Ehle version and the Bollywood Bride and Prejudice, she roadblocks Mr. Collins with a vase of flowers. Flowers are also put to good effect in the Keira Knightley version, when before Mr. Collins even begins his proposal he displays a tiny purple flower under Lizzie’s nose. She regards this as a ticking time bomb. I imagine this is the audition scene for every actor who has ever portrayed Mr. Collins.

What makes the proposal so deliciously funny is that the woman he is infatuated with is not even in the room: Lady Catherine DeBourgh. When I say infatuated I am not insinuating Mr. Collins intends any romantic union with his patroness. She is more his goddess divine. This proposal to Elizabeth is in fact an act of his worship of Lady Catherine. He references Lady Catherine as a primary motivator in this scheme. While Jane and Elizabeth are interchangeable in Mr. Collins’ mind, Lady Catherine is such a deity he can quote her verse for verse:

 ‘Mr. Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry. —
Chuse properly, chuse a gentlewoman for my sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way. This is my advice. Find such a woman as soon as you can, bring her to Hunsford, and I will visit her.”

Another day, we can debate whether it is possible for people to preach on subjects they haven’t experienced.

I also enjoy that Mr. Collins says he is using “the most animated language” and assures Lizzie of “violence of his affections,” when it’s clear he’s just going through what he believes are the proper motions.

I confess I feel the tiniest bit sorry for Mr. Collins, as played by David Bamber in the A&E version, at the moment Lizzie gives up and walks out of the room.  He wipes the sweat from his brow and murmurs about how eventually she will find his proposal acceptable.  But I cannot feel all that bad for him, as she isn’t really proposing to her.  Lizzie is interchangeable with any woman in Mr. Collins’ mind. To Mr. Collins, marriage is like a cake mix: just add bride.

Next blog:
the bad proposals. Votes, anyone?



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