The Cult of Lady Catherine de Bourgh

C. E. Brock illustration for the 1895 edition ...

Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Collins is a clergyman. He is the most devoted, sincere disciple a deity could wish for. The irony (Jane Austen– ironic?) is that Mr. Collins is not a Christian clergyman, but a high priest of the Cult of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

The evidence:

  1. Mr. Collins lives by every maxim from Lady Catherine’s lips, no matter how trivial. She controls every aspect of his daily routine. Shelves in the closet? Happy thought indeed.
  2. Mr. Collins witnesses to everyone in the book, in hopes of converting others to Lady Catherine.
  3. Mr. Collins sings praises to Lady Catherine.
  4. Mr. Collins turns Lady Catherine’s estate, Rosings Park, into a place of pilgrimage. He recounts the number of windows. He can detail the size, shape, style, and price of the staircases in her home. Receiving an invitation to dine at Rosings is in Mr. Collins’ mind a form of predestination.
  5. As another person might put on his “Sunday best” to go to church, Mr. Collins has a specific mode of dress for visiting Rosings. He assures Elizabeth not to worry about the simplicity of her attire, as “Lady Catherine likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.”
  6. Mr. Collins assumes any child of Lady Catherine’s must also be a deity, by virtue of divine inheritance. Therefore, he also worships the wilting, talentless Anne de Bourgh. “She is, alas, too sickly to venture much into society. And as I have told her Ladyship, she has thus deprived the court of its brightest jewel.”
  7. Lady Catherine dictates and blesses certain sacraments, including his marriage.
  8. Lady Catherine is his Provider and Sustainer, since she gave him the living at Hunsford.
  9. Mr. Collins fears Lady Catherine’s retribution against certain sins against Herself. For example, when Elizabeth begs off going to tea because she has a headache, Mr. Collins cannot “conceal his apprehension of Lady Catherine’s being rather displeased.”

Most telling, Mr. Collins references Lady Catherine ten times more than he references God or Christianity. He is an idol worshipper right out of the Old Testament, but a funny one.

Austen uses words of religion and devotion in describing Mr. Collins’ interactions with Lady Catherine. In Elizabeth’s first visit to Rosings Park, Mr. Collins “took his seat at the bottom of the table, by her ladyship’s desire, and looked as if he felt life could furnish nothing greater.” Mr. Collins is the devotee, submitting to his lady’s decrees. “He carved, he ate, he praised” every dish on the table. “Lady Catherine seemed gratified by their excessive admiration.” The deity accepts worship. She delivers her opinion on every subject in so decisive a manner, “as proved she was not used to have her judgment controverted.” Mr. Collins and company “ascend” the stairs to Rosings, as though approaching the throne of heaven. Austen also deftly slips into this scene the words “authority,” “miraculous,” “rapturous,” “awed,” “witness,” and repeatedly in association with Lady Catherine, “condescension.” This observation of rank is not merely the old British class system at work, it hints at the divine gap. The forms of dining are more than manners in high society; they are elevated to sacred ritual. At the dinner table, there are all the servants and articles of plate which Mr. Collins had “foretold.” With this well-chosen word, Austen assigns Mr. Collins (and he assigns himself) the role of prophet. Later in the book, Mr. Collins assigns himself the role of angelic messenger, warning the Bennets of his deity’s wrath should Elizabeth marry Mr. Darcy.

Charlotte, her sister Mariah, her father Sir Lucas, and especially Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne and Anne’s companion Mrs. Jenkinson are pulled in to worship at Lady Catherine’s feet of clay. Even Col. Fitzwilliam and Darcy, when they visit, submit halfway to the Religion of De Bourgh. I don’t believe for a moment Darcy is awed by his aunt; he just finds it easier to go along with the established rituals with which he was raised.

Elizabeth Bennet is the first person in the book (and maybe Lady Catherine’s life) to declare the emperor has no clothes. Well, that’s an inexact statement. Elizabeth simply, in a move right out of the book of Daniel, refuses to bow down before the idol. At first she does so with fair politeness, shunting aside Lady Catherine’s demands for worship. Elizabeth muses about the appropriate age for girls to come out into society when Lady Catherine would prefer she keep her opinion to herself. With a smile Elizabeth refuses to own her age. Later in the book, when Lady Catherine forbids Elizabeth to marry Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth’s refusal to bow is the focus of the scene. “And will you promise me never to enter into such an engagement?” Lady Catherine says. “I will not be intimidated into anything so unreasonable,” Elizabeth replies. “You can now have nothing further left to say. You have insulted me in every possible method. I must beg to return to the house.” Elizabeth says “beg” but in reality, Lady Catherine has no choice, as Elizabeth throws the false idol out of the house.

It is Elizabeth’s refusal to join the Cult of Lady Catherine that finally pushes Darcy to break away from the false religion himself. He sins against his aunt by marrying Elizabeth, when he was, as Lady Catherine put it, “destined” to marry Anne de Bourgh.

Queen Nebuchadnezzar has met her match.

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