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The Good, The Bad, and The Funny: Proposals in Jane Austen (Part 3)

Image at the beginning of Chapter 34. Darcy pr...
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Today, the worst proposal in Jane Austen.

By that I mean not that it’s bad writing, but that Austen made them intentionally disastrous. A proposal Austen wrote to put the blemishes of our would-be-lovers under a fluorescent lightbulb. And therefore, instigate character change.

And the winner, by the landslide, is Mr. Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

Darcy: “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Again, the brilliance of Austen is in the setup. Lizzie never sees it coming, nor do the readers, unless they are particularly astute (I wasn’t). I have a good friend who says the first time she watched the movie she sprang off the sofa on the line above and shouted, “WHAT?!!!” among some other choice words. Some of the movies give hints of Darcy’s regard too early on. I think all first-time readers of P&P should stand up and shout their incredulity at Darcy when they reach this scene.

Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her immediately followed. He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.

This is good general advice for life. You don’t start any proposal of any kind, asking for donations, nominating someone for office, etc, by enumerating all the arguments against the idea.

But there is a larger lesson for the Christian reader. Lizzie and the reader are both astonished by this declaration of love because there is nothing to back it up. Oh, there are hints here and there that Darcy is inclined toward our heroine, but they are few and far between: a dance, a conversation over a piano-forte. Yet even Lizzie’s most positive encounters with Darcy are at best, ambiguous. Darcy does not yet comprehend that love is not merely a feeling. It must be borne out in words and more importantly, actions.

Lizzie turns Darcy down like a thermostat in a heat wave. It’s the best favor she could have done him, because it challenges Darcy to look at himself. Later in the book he does demonstrate love for Lizzie in words by being kind to the Lizzie’s aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. Most notably, he demonstrates love in action by finding the perfidious Wickham and enabling (insisting) he marry Lizzie’s sister Lydia to save both Lydia and the Bennet family from scandal. And he does this in secret, the ultimate show of love freely given, without expectation of return.

If I were to pick the one reason Darcy fails so abysmally in this proposal scene, I would quote the famous passage in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. “Love is not proud.” And as the title of the book is Pride and Prejudice, I think I have good evidence for saying so. But my personal challenge from this painful proposal is this: like Darcy, do I show my love for others in word and action, or do I just think I do?

Although Darcy is hurt and mad as all-get-out after this blundered proposal, he does in the end admit the good it did him. Which shows a trait I’d like to develop: to be grateful for correction. After our happy union of lovers, Darcy admits, “I have been a selfish being all my life in practice, if not in principle.”

Here in one sentence is the summary of the Christian struggle.


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The Good, The Bad, and the Funny: Proposals in Jane Austen (Part 2)

"But there was no doing anything with Mr ...

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I meant to reveal my nomination for the worst proposal in Austen today, but I am sidetracked because I forgot to present the runner-up for funniest proposal:

In a very honorable second place:

Mr. Elton to Emma Woodhouse in Emma.

I thought about categorizing this as a bad proposal. But the proposal itself is not bad. It earns perhaps a 6.5 out of 10 on both artistry and technical merit.  Mr. Elton says some sweet ( if exaggerated) things. As you will recall, Mr. Elton has finagled a private carriage for himself and Emma on the way home from a Christmas party.  He is “hoping—fearing—adoring—ready to die if she refused him.”  He seizes her hand, calls
her charming, tells her he has thought of no one else for weeks.

Indeed, there’s only one thing wrong with this very fine specimen of a marriage proposal:

He’s proposing to the wrong woman.

As with Mr. Collins, it is Austen’s setup in the chapters leading up to this scene that makes the proposal so tragically funny. Emma has been trying to set Mr. Elton up with her friend, Harriet Smith.  Only here in the carriage does Austen reveal how her characters interpreted and misinterpreted the situation.  I think those who imagine Jane Austen as a detective (as seen in some spin-offs) are not so far off:   Tiny hints planted earlier are revealed and explained here in a new light, rather like the payoff in Agatha Christie.  Mr. Elton was praising Emma’s drawing, not Harriet as her subject.  His charade (riddle) about courtship might have been added to Harriet’s collection, it was Emma who asked him for a submission and it was for Emma he intended the hint.  The proposal reveals a good deal about character and twists the plot in a whole new direction, all in the  ¾ mile ride from Randalls to Hartfield.  Austen is, as ever, economic.

And funny.  Emma mistakes Mr. Elton’s first professions as inspired by too much Christmas wine.  And Elton, taking a page from Mr. Collins, is a hard suitor to unsuit.  Even after Emma assures him he is utterly mistaken in her feelings, as she sits in shocked silence, he takes another stab at matrimony:

“Two moments of silence being ample encouragement for Mr. Elton’s sanguine state of mind, he tried to take her hand again, as he joyously exclaimed: ‘Charming Miss Woodhouse!  Allow me to interpret this interesting silence.  It confesses that you have long understood me.’”

Ah, yet again the brilliance of Austen.  Pairing together just the right words.  Interesting silence.  Two words strung together, if they are exactly the right words, speak volumes. If only I could learn to edit myself like Austen!

So are there any lessons the Christian reader can take from this scene?  Certainly.

  1. Things are not always as they appear.
  2. The successful matchmakers in scripture tend to be older than those whose lives they are arranging.  Naomi did a pretty good job with Ruth and Boaz. Lots of useful man-catching hints about the use of perfume, good clothing, and gleaning.  But if you are in the same age group as your victims – er – the lucky recipients of your interference, you may be mistaken for a primary player instead of a Yenta. Matchmaking, as we see in Sense and Sensibility, is an old woman’s game.
  3. Don’t make important life decisions after nipping at the Christmas wine. Even if your judgment is not impaired, people might assume it is.


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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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First Impressions

Detail of a C. E. Brock illustration for the 1...
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It’s 5:32am.

I am putting breakfast on the stove, still in my PJs and with a spectacular case of bedhead. I’ve propped my laptop on the counter and am watching Elizabeth Bennet reject Mr. Darcy’s blundered proposal for the 422nd time. I do not have to look up to picture every tiny flare of Colin Firth’s proud nostrils. This is fortunate – otherwise I might chop my fingers instead of the green onions.

Every day before I face the world, I seek the wisdom and wit of two writers. The first is the Author of Life. The second is the author of Pride and Prejudice. Okay, so I know WWJD does not stand for “What Would Jane Do?” But as a Christian and a bibliophile, I look for Christian meaning in everything I read, secular books included. And I compare my life to Jane Austen novels at least once a week.

For Christian readers who love to overanalyze, welcome to my blog.  It will not be exclusively about Jane, but don’t be surprised if she crashes the party (the ball?) more than anyone else.  Other period and/or British writers like Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte will make appearances as well.

Thought #1:

“Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

Jane Austen

I love this quote. There is something, however, that bothers me about the futility of a life full of “busy nothings.” If God knows our every day ahead of time, if He laid out work for us before the dawn of time, then He can use even our “busy nothings” as “busy somethings.” Luther told us we can “milk cows for the glory of God.” Well then, I can read Jane Austen for the glory of God. All the little nothings of my life, the traffic jams, the encounter with the frazzled clerk at Meijer, the jammed stapler on my desk, the kids’ plays I attend, all these busy nothings really turn into busy somethings depending on how I handle them. I do believe God wants us to do grand things. But I also believe we can find him in the minutiae of life. In the busy nothings.

Thought #2:
The only thing better than reading Jane Austen is reading Jane Austen with a scone in hand. Ooo, and a sizeable dollop of Devonshire cream.  (Click for a great recipe.)

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