One of my favorite characters from Pride and Prejudice is the inestimable Mr. William Collins. As a character, he is the comic relief in the novel and movies, ridiculous and sycophantic, absurd in every sense of the word. But in writing, he’s so much more fun, as there is so much you can do with him. I think that Mr. Collins is the one character at whom I have laughed more often than any other when reading variations.
My last novel featured a slightly different, but no less ridiculous, Mr. Collins. One of the reviews, however, spoke of his portrayal, saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that it was over the top and beyond what Jane Austen intended for the character. It got me thinking and wondering whether I had gotten silly in my portrayals, and if so, why? The why is easy to answer: David Bamber. His Mr. Collins is by far my favorite. He is silly, his mannerisms are priceless, and he’s slimy and oily, while still being essentially (I think) a decent person. I’ve changed the character up in small ways several times, but at heart I’ve always portrayed him as a similar type to David Bamber’s Mr. Collins. Let’s take a look and see if I’m anywhere close to how Jane Austen imagined him. (And I apologize in advance if I quote some extremely well-known passages!)
First, how does Jane Austen describe him? Elizabeth’s first impression is as follows:
“He was a tall, heavy-looking young man of five-and-twenty. His air was grave and stately, and his manners were very formal.”
There is not much there, but you can never tell a book by its cover, right? At the beginning of the next chapter, however, Jane Austen gives a little more insight into his character:
“Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of his life having been spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father; and though he belonged to one of the universities, he had merely kept the necessary terms, without forming at it any useful acquaintance. The subjection in which his father had brought him up had given him originally great humility of manner; but it was now a good deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity. A fortunate chance had recommended him to Lady Catherine de Bourgh when the living of Hunsford was vacant; and the respect which he felt for her high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his right as a rector, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.”
It seems clear in this famous passage that Jane Austen intended Mr. Collins to be an object of hilarity, and this is confirmed by many other passages which speak to his words and actions:
“ . . . you may imagine that I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies . . . (These compliments) arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.”
“In pompous nothings on his side, and civil assents on that of his cousins, their time passed till they entered Meryton.”
“Mr. Collins, awkward and solemn, apologising instead of attending, and often moving wrong without being aware of it, gave (Elizabeth) all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give.”
I’m sure I could find many other examples, but I’m as sure you’re all familiar with them! Mr. Collins is ridiculous—that is beyond a doubt. But you already knew that!
Let’s now compare it with a few passages from my most recent work Chaos in Kent. Am I guilty of portraying him as being even more foolish than in Jane Austen’s work? First, the description:
“Mr. Collins was not a handsome man; Elizabeth was prepared to forgive him of that flaw without reservation, as not all men were particularly handsome. He was tall but portly, his face round and pudgy, and his hair, greasy and lank, hung about his head like the mop fixed on the head of a scarecrow.”
It’s easy to see that I give him less physical attraction than Jane Austen did, though her description was brief and can be interpreted. In the next sentence, I round out his character a little more:
“Further interaction—colored, no doubt, by what her father had learned of his character—did not improve her impression of the man, for he bowed low to them all and expressed his gratitude and pleasure at their introduction with a plethora of words, fit for a Shakespearean comedy rather than the reunion of two long-estranged branches of a family.”
And what of his actions? This is the most difficult part to compare, but I’ve done my best to pull out a few quotes that I think are particularly relevant:
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said he, his voice solemn and his air grave. “I am most happy to make your acquaintance and cannot state in language animated enough how pleased I am to have you all visit my humble abode. As my patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, likes to say, ‘Words cannot express the importance of family ties.’ Our reunion must have been ordained from on high, for I feel such a sublime rapture at our meeting as to render me utterly without any means of expressing myself. Having said this, Mr. Collins proceeded to give lie to his words, for he greeted each of the members of the Bennet family in turn, speaking in language almost obscene in its verbosity the same sentiments he had expressed to Mr. Bennet only moments before.”
“It is hard that we have been deprived of such inspiration. We must console ourselves that you have used your talents to become great in other matters, for we would be bereft without your graciously bestowed guidance.”
“Their attention was caught at that moment when Mary stumbled a little over the notes. Though Elizabeth had often thought Mary’s playing was a little pedantic, she was technically proficient, and such a stumble was noteworthy. On the heels of this misstep, Elizabeth could hear her hiss: “Turn the page now, Mr. Collins!”
A quick glance at the pianoforte showed Mr. Collins clumsily turning the page, bumping into Mary as he did so, causing her to stumble again. “Only one!”
“A thousand apologies, my dear Cousin,” came the tones of Mr. Collins. He reached across again, to turn the page back, and almost knocked her from the bench.
There are many more examples I could choose from both Pride and Prejudice and Chaos Comes to Kent, but I don’t have the space to go over them here. I think I conclude that Mr. Collins is more overtly ridiculous in my works, I don’t think he’s any more over the top than In Jane Austen’s. However, I think my portrayal of him probably reaches heights of stupidity which Jane Austen never considered! But that is fine. A little change adds new and interesting dimensions. Either way this little exercise has been beneficial for me as a writer. It’s always good to go back and look at what you’ve done before, examine tendencies, etc.
As a final announcement, my next novel, tentatively entitled In the Wilds of Pemberley (though as always, there is a chance the title will change) is in editing and will be available on Kindle on July 20. I look forward to the release date!
P.S. Did you know that David Bamber, who portrayed Mr. Collins in the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice was over forty at the time?