Lady Susan might be described, following Thackeray, as ‘a novella without a heroine’ – which I must confess I find rather refreshing. What I like best about it is the open ending:
Whether Lady Susan was or was not happy in her second choice, I do not see how it can ever be ascertained; for who would take her assurance of it on either side of the question? The world must judge from probabilities; she had nothing against her but her husband, and her conscience.
The latter doesn’t seem to have troubled her before, so why should it now? And the former, though a complete fool, is loaded. So, personally, I think that nothing would prevent his wife from spending his money while she gets a little comfort on the side …
As Jane Austen’s major novels approach their conclusion, however, we’re not allowed to harbour any doubts about the marital bliss of her heroes and heroines. A leap of faith is required and disbelief must be suspended. But as far as secondary characters go, we may judge for ourselves.
Charlotte Lucas is not romantic, as she tells Lizzie Bennet in chapter 22, Vol. I. Sour grapes, perhaps, but she knows she cannot afford to be. At 27, she’s past her best-by date – at least Marianne Dashwood would say so, and Lady Russell entertains no hope that Anne Elliot might, at that age, be ‘tempted’ into marriage ‘by some man of talents and independence.’ Charlotte is also rather plain, and her parents can give her ‘little fortune.’ Her father used to be in trade, but, having been ‘‘risen to the honour of knighthood,’ quitted business, bought a new house, and now occupies himself ‘only in being civil to all the world.’ Nor is the daughter particularly accomplished – we don’t see her play the pianoforte or sing at parties. Thus,
Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.
As Jane Austen herself acknowledges, ‘single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony.’ What other schemes could Charlotte have devised to avoid future poverty?
A knight’s daughter couldn’t possibly work for a living during her father’s lifetime, and then she might have been too old to start as a governess or a companion. On the other hand, applying for a position would have reflected on her brothers and they might not have liked it. Therefore, she would have had to depend on them for her livelihood and be content with whatever they gave her. The Lucas boys wouldn’t have been particularly generous, if their relief at her engagement to Mr Collins is anything to go by.
‘There certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them’ – imagine if you’re not even pretty. On average, twenty thousand men were killed or injured every year during the Napoleonic Wars, and many thousands more were fighting overseas. To put it quite bluntly, ‘There was a scarcity of Men in general, & a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much.’
Charlotte is under no illusions, and her expectations are rather moderate: ‘I ask only for a comfortable home,’ she acknowledges. To achieve this goal she must follow certain rules:
- ‘A woman had better shew more affection than she feels.’
- ‘It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.’
- You mustn’t let your fancy for a poorer or socially inferior man make you ‘appear unpleasant in the eyes’ of another ‘of ten times his consequence.’
Unfortunately, Mr Collins’s shortcomings are too obvious for a clever girl like her to miss … Lizzy does not take her friend’s views seriously, which makes you wonder about her skills as a ‘studier of character’: ‘You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself.’ When she finally does, Elizabeth can’t believe it:
She had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she could not have supposed it possible that, when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage.
Mr Collins wants ‘a gentlewoman … an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way’ – fortune not essential, mince-pie experience an advantage. In exchange, he offers a ‘highly desirable’ establishment. He’s also heir presumptive to the Longbourn estate. Deal! ‘Love and eloquence’ are really not necessary – the recipient of his protestations might even think ‘his attachment … imaginary.’
Charlotte seizes her chance. She knows Lizzy will never accept what looks like an imminent proposal, so she starts by talking to him at the Netherfield ball. The following day she pops in at the Bennets’ just as her friend’s suitor is
meditating in solitude on what had passed. He thought too well of himself to comprehend on what motive his cousin could refuse him; and though his pride was hurt, he suffered in no other way. His regard for her was quite imaginary; and the possibility of her deserving her mother’s reproach prevented his feeling any regret.
Charlotte soon learns about the latest developments, and is ready to be ‘detained first by the civility of Mr Collins, whose inquiries after herself and all her family were very minute, and then by a little curiosity,’ which leads her to eavesdrop on his conversation with Mrs Bennet:
You will not, I hope, consider me as shewing any disrespect to your family, my dear Madam, by thus withdrawing my pretensions to your daughter’s favour, without having paid yourself and Mr Bennet the compliment of requesting you to interpose your authority in my behalf.
This is all she needs to know. Now she must listen to him: ‘Such was Miss Lucas’s scheme.’
The following morning,
In as short a time as Mr Collins’s long speeches would allow, every thing was settled between them to the satisfaction of both; and as they entered the house, he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men; and though such a solicitation must be waved for the present, the lady felt no inclination to trifle with his happiness.
True, he’s neither sensible nor pleasant, but she’ll be saved from want. Lizzy, however, thinks she can never be ‘tolerably happy.’
Charlotte is confident:
Considering Mr Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.
Yet she holds that
Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always contrive to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation.
None of this will satisfy her friend, though Miss Bennet is willing to hope for the best:
You do not make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper. Consider Mr Collins’s respectability, and Charlotte’s prudent, steady character. Remember that she is one of a large family; that as to fortune, it is a most eligible match; and be ready to believe, for every body’s sake, that she may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin.
But nothing can reinstate her in Lizzy’s good opinion:
‘Were I persuaded that Charlotte had any regard for him, I should only think worse of her understanding, than I now do of her heart. My dear Jane, Mr Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man; you know he is, as well as I do; and you must feel, as well as I do, that the woman who marries him, cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger, security for happiness.’
‘I must think your language too strong in speaking of both,’ replied Jane, ‘and I hope you will be convinced of it, by seeing them happy together.’
This is precisely what her friend seeks to achieve by inviting her to Hunsford. In the meantime, she writes cheerfully about her new life, taking care to mention only what might be praised. Lizzy decides she’d better wait and see for herself.
Personally, I find Charlotte’s perceived need to justify herself rather pathetic – after all, friends shouldn’t sit in judgement, should they? Still, if Lizzy were somehow to be persuaded that things are not so bad as she may have thought, Charlotte would perhaps stop wondering whether she’s made the right choice …
The Parsonage was, indeed,
rather small, but well built and convenient; and everything was fitted up and arranged with a neatness and consistency of which Elizabeth gave Charlotte all the credit. When Mr Collins could be forgotten, there was really a great air of comfort throughout, and by Charlotte’s evident enjoyment of it, Elizabeth supposed he must be often forgotten.
The Collinses have a ‘comfortable income,’ but few servants, and cannot afford frequent journeys or a pianoforte. Though they dine at Rosings twice a week, ‘the style of living of the neighbourhood’ is much higher than theirs and therefore their social life is limited. In spite of Lady Catherine’s petty objections, it appears Charlotte is a good manager, and nothing is done extravagantly.
Charlotte’s degree of contentment, … her address in guiding, and composure in bearing with her husband, and … that it was all done very well.
Mr Darcy thinks the house looks ‘very comfortable,’ and Elizabeth admits that her friend ‘seems perfectly happy’
On parting, she reflects:
Poor Charlotte! — it was melancholy to leave her to such society! — But she had chosen it with her eyes open; and though evidently regretting that her visitors were to go, she did not seem to ask for compassion. Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms.
Elizabeth appears to take it for granted that at some point she’ll grow bored with her usual employments. Actually, there is no evidence to support her assumption. Furthermore, by the end of the book Charlotte is pregnant, so we may imagine her children will soon occupy her mind and time. And, eventually, she’ll become mistress of Longbourn, which will pose new challenges and involve new responsibilities – plenty to look forward to.
Charlotte set herself a goal, thought out a plan, and pursued a strategy. Her efforts have been crowned with some success: Mr Collins may be a bit of a nuisance, but a career path has opened up for her. She shouldn’t be pitied.
Dr Johnson defines happiness as ‘felicity; state in which the desires are satisfied.’ The third example for the word is taken from John Locke’s An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Here’s the full quote:
The various and contrary choices that men make in the world do not argue that they do not all pursue good; but that the same thing is not good to every man alike. This variety of pursuits shows, that every one does not place his happiness in the same thing, or choose the same way to it.
‘Know your own happiness’ is Mrs Dashwood’s advice to Edward Ferrars. Charlotte may just have found hers: her reality-checked aspirations have been fulfilled, and she deserves all the credit for it. And however irksome Mr Collins’s society may be, deep down she must be grateful to him for having provided her with a home – a feeling that might grow into some kind of regard.
Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net
Adkins, Roy and Lesley. (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.
Johnson, Samuel. (1755). A Dictionary of the English Language. Retrieved from http://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/
Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.
Locke, John. (1689). An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Retrieved from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/locke/john/l81u/