It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a writer (of no fortune nor fame) reads the work of a venerated author, the writer will have the audacity to suggest better techniques might have been deployed.
That’s pretty Austentatious, right?
Ok, so we will chat about how Austen’s first line in this amazing novel is one of the most adapted in all of literature, but that’s a post of another color. Today, I want to look at a possible mis-step on the part of Austen in the early pages of her most famous and well-read of all her novels.
The target of this exploration is none other than the character who is possibly the most comic of all in the Austen canon.
Not Mrs. Bennet
One of the areas Austen shines is in her dialogue. Who can read Mrs. Bennet exclaiming over the arrival of Mr. Bingley with his five thousand a year, her lamentations that her husband will not visit him, and not hear the shrill melodrama of her voice? And when Jane and Eliza are in residence at Netherfield, who does not admire the wit and humor of Lizzie’s exchanges with Darcy? The astute reader can hear the humor in Darcy’s voice, the playfulness he is willing to allow through on so slight an acquaintance, which Lizzie herself completely overlooks and which Miss Bingley, recognizing them as the seeds of attraction, begins to panic over.
But if we go to those early pages when Mr. Collins first enters the scene, his dialogue is not given directly but indirectly. Of course, every scene must be weighed in the balance, the benefits of action and dialogue weighed against the length of the scene – after all, conveying what characters say and do, how they look and express themselves, takes far more space on the page than summary. But indirect dialogue – the summary of what is said rather than the direct portrayal of it – is far less active and engaging for the reader! While it is an important tool in the writer’s toolbox, it should be used sparingly and in those moments of least import.
Take these examples:
“He had not been long seated before he complimented Mrs. Bennet on having so fine a family of daughters, said he had heard much of their beauty, but that, in this instance, fame had fallen short of the truth; and added, that he did not doubt her seeing them all in due time well disposed of in marriage” (Austen 64-65).
!! What a joy and delight it would have been to hear his exact words. Just after this scene, we move into direct dialogue as Mrs. Bennet laments the sad state of her “poor girls” and their “destitute” state without such good marriages as Mr. Collins implies will be coming ere long (65). Direct dialogue continues as they discuss the entail – Mr. Collins apologizes; Mrs. Bennet makes light of the situation, against which her own dialogue earlier that day stands in complete opposition.
Next, a critical moment – Mr. Collins conveys his intention of marrying amongst the Bennet daughters:
“…for in a quarter hour’s tete-a-tete with Mrs. Bennet before breakfast, a conversation beginning with his parsonage house, and leading naturally to the avowal of his hopes, that a mistress for it might be found at Longbourn, produced from her, amid very complaisant smiles and general encouragement, a caution against the very Jane he had fixed on.” ….”Mr. Collins had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth – and it was soon done – done while Mrs. Bennet was stirring the fire” (71)
Again – !! To lose the words that must surely have been absolutely ridiculous and absurd – from both Collins and Mrs. Bennet – it’s a loss I feel every time I pick up this volume.
Dear reader, oblige me with one further example and I will have done. We are on to the next day. Mr. Collins has intruded upon the girls’ walk to Meryton and is being introduced to their Aunt Philips:
“She received him with her very best politeness, which he returned with as much more, apologising for his intrusion, without any previous acquaintance with her, which he could not help flattering himself however might be justified by his relationship to the young ladies who introduced him to her notice. Mrs. Philips was quite awed by such an excess of good breeding”… “Mr. Collins repeated his apologies in quittting the room, and was assured with unwearying civility that they were perfectly needless.”
That night, however, the civility on Mrs. Philips part has indeed worn thin: “Mrs. Philips was very thankful for his compliance but could not wait for his reason.”
Now, of course, we’re going to get more of the fabulous Mr. Collins later, and there shall be a Part II coming along by and by. Yet, I do have to say that as a writer, I am led to wonder why, when introducing such an important and comic figure, did Austen choose to convey him in these first glimpse indirectly rather than directly? I have to imagine that it would be worth the extra page or two give at least some of this via direct dialogue, thus to present and center him through his own words and actions on the page as a figure of folly and ridicule.
As it is, we understand Collins to be this figure through summary and indirect action and dialogue, rather than directly, and this, I feel, was the wrong choice. We are told Collins is ridiculous. We would rather be shown. And based on the bits of Collins that we get, I have no doubt Austen could have done it. Indeed, I think Austen is actually at her best in conveying her ridiculous characters: Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, Mrs. Jennings, The Steele Sisters (they should be a band), then on to Mrs. Norris, Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates, Mr. Eliot and his preening eldest daughter, and finally John Thorpe, Isabella, and the terrorizing General Tilney. I would argue that Austen is more in love with her villains than heroes and this is shown in the delightful way she shows them on the page.
Alas, poor Mr. Collins will have to wait for his chance to shine, but it will arrive momentarily.
For now, I leave you with this question, and I hope you’ll “condescend” to answer it:
Why do you think Austen chose indirect portrayal of Mr. Collins in these early pages?