March 09, 2004

How Repulsive was Mr. Collins?

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 rights as a rector, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.

-- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

I'm on a Jane Austen reread streak. And as I said a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to take up the question of how repulsive was Mr Collins?, or rather, the question of Mr Collins was repulsive how? I don't really have the answer, just a couple of related questions.

In "Sleeping With Mr. Collins," Ruth Perry suggests that while Austen depicted Collins as morally distasteful, "modern filmmakers cannot resist depicting Mr. Collins as physically repugnant and representing Elizabeth Bennet's shock at Charlotte Lucas's marriage as caused as much by her own physical as moral distaste for the man." Case in point: the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, which, more than any other film version, "emphasizes Mr. Collins' physical repulsiveness" (while also, of course, emphasizing Darcy's physcial attractiveness: hence the Darcymania that has apparently been a "mixed blessing" for Colin Firth). As Perry notes, in the BBC production Mr Collins is

particularly repulsive when he asks his cousin Elizabeth to dance, his face shining with the exertion at charm and his smile bared over too many teeth. The way he leans over her much too close, forcing her assent, feels claustrophobic, and encourages our vicarious sexual disgust at the thought of necessary physical contact with him. Any historical difference between Austen's sensibility and our own with regard to sleeping with Mr. Collins is entirely obviated by this shot.

Now, I think Perry's complaint that the film "exaggerates the physical dimension of everything in the novel" and underemphasizes the characters' "intellectual qualities" may be somewhat beside the point. I mean, Yes, of course. But that's the difference between visual and textual representation.

But it's true the novel does not offer a physical description of Mr Collins (and not much of physical description of Darcy, either: we're told he has a "fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien," but we're not given specifics about hair and eye colour, for example. We now know that he looks like Colin Firth). There's nothing in the novel about a shiny face, too many teeth, or greasy hair. Collins is meant to repulse us with his demeanour and even more with his words (both spoken and conveyed through letters).

And I think Perry is onto something when she points out that "the physical repugnance that we in the present century feel at the idea of sleeping with Mr. Collins is entirely absent in Jane Austen's treatment of the matter." Though Elizabeth Bennett is initially incredulous ("Engaged to Mr. Collins! my dear Charlotte, -- impossible!'') and dismayed, she does eventually reconcile herself to the match, and overall does not judge her friend very harshly for marrying for "a comfortable home." As Perry puts it:

The reason that Austen is able to imagine Charlotte's sleeping with Mr. Collins with equanimity is because sex had less psychological significance in eighteenth-century England than in our own post-Freudian era; it was less tied to individual identity, and more understood as an uncomplicated, straightforward physical appetite. Sexual disgust--the feeling that sex with the 'wrong' person could be viscerally disturbing--was an invention of the eighteenth century; it was one dimension of an evolving sexual identity for women that could control their sexual reactions without the interference--whether policing or protective--of a network of kin relations.

I think that's basically right. By mid-nineteenth century, the kind of bargain struck by Charlotte Lucas would be represented novelistically as little better than legalized prostitution. Whereas in seventeenth-century writings (female conduct literature, for example), this kind of marriage can be presented not only as acceptable but even as a moral duty. Still, I wonder if Perry exaggerates the eighteenth-century character of the novel, or at least underestimates its newer, more nineteenth-century flavour. I'm thinking of this line:

'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.'

Isn't there just a hint of that sexual disgust which Perry attrributes to the newer sex-as-identity notion in the bit about a woman not having "a proper way of thinking" about such things? Or am I reading post-Freudian ideas into a work that is innocent of all such notions?

As an example of pre-psychologized sexuality for both women and men, here's a little item that I'll call "Conjugal Debt Not Paid." In Alienated Affections: The Scottish Experience of Divorce and Separation, 1648-1830, Leah Leneman recounts the details of an anullment case (1693) brought by Janet Mcmaluack against her husband Archbald Mcglashan, on grounds of impotence (so the Complainer here is the wife, and the defendant is the husband):

The case of Janet Mcmaluack against Archbald Mcglashan* contains some quite extraordinary evidence. Not long after the marriage in 1686 he left her "upon the account of a Report spread abroad in the Country, That ane [one] or other of them were impotent [I'm pretty sure that legally, only he could be deemed impotent, but I'd have to look this up, which I'm not inclined to do at the moment]." Their relatives therefore decided to make a "Tryall"' They put them in bed together and stationed a relative at either end. Mcglashan lay on top of her:
And after his making some faint simulat motions, the Complainer was by the said two friends inquired if or not the Defender was any wayes virill or active, or had any erection or ejaculation by these pretended false motions, whereunto the Complainer Answered, that he was neither virill, potent, or active, and had no ejaculation nor erection at all, yea not so much virility or strength as to enter the secret of her body, Which being then by the Defender faintly tho impudently denied, the freinds forsaid for a further tryall of the matter, put down their hands betwixt the two bodies, by which they fand that what the Complainer had formerly declared, was manifestly true of the Defender, ... and publickly Declared by them in presence of diverse famous [i.e., reputable, of good fame] witnesses then present the Defender rose from his Bed and having put on his Cloaths withdrew himself from the Complainer, and ever since has had no society of Converse with her, knowing himself not capable thereof.

Okay, this is not a simple case of late seventeenth- versus late eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century ideas. I'm obviously glossing over some relevant social/economic/cultural differences: these were common folk, not gentry, in the Scottish Highlands, not the south of England. The point is, though she very probably doesn't have this particular example in mind, Perry is not just making stuff up when she speaks of an earlier period in which sex has less psychological significance and was less tied to individual identity. Early modern court records (to cite just one example of relevant sources) will back up her claim.

To modern readers, the above scenario just sounds absurd. And it's clear that the wife who participated in this "Tryall" could not have invested sexuality with the kind of psychological significance that is now considered a natural and normal part of psychosexual identity. But I'm thinking that some kind of different psychosexual identity now obtains for men too. For us, it's just manifestly obvious that such a "Tryall" would tend to actively create the very condition that the husband was being asked to disprove. Was this actually the case? Could a defendant have passed such a trial (though this particular defendant didn't)? I have no idea. What's striking is that people thought it reasonable to assume that he might. And not only did relatives, friends and neighbours consider this a fair means of "trying" the case, but the court agreed with them. The complainant was granted an annullment.

*Re: the different surnames of the married couple. Under Scottish law, a married woman kept her maiden name, but might be addressed informally as Mrs [Husband's Surname].

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 9, 2004 11:00 AM

Fascinating. But if she marries him, she doesn't only have to sleep with him--she has to live with him--and, obviously, his companionship must have little value, or even negative value, given his character. So, is the idea that companionship should exist between the sexes also "an invention of the 18th century"?

Posted by: David Foster at March 9, 2004 11:58 AM

Notice that Charlotte does manage to spend as little time as possible in Mr. Collins' company, by encouraging visits to Lady de Bourgh and by picking a sitting room that is unattractive to him. When Mr. Bennett reads a letter from Mr. Collins at the end of the book which indicates that Charlotte is pregnant, not much is made of that. It's just glossed over. And the way Charlotte spreads gossip to Mr. Collins (re: Darcy being interested in Lizzy) indicates that she does get along with him pretty well.

Posted by: meep at March 9, 2004 12:21 PM

Henry VIII supposedly couldn't consummate his marriage to Anne of Cleves because she was physically repulsive to him, and that's 16th c., but a man, so maybe not applicable?

As far as Mr. Collins, though, I've always found him repugnant, and never imagined him as being attractive, but also not repulsive. Here's the thing, though -- I would argue that the Beeb's Mr. Collins is physically repulsive precisely because he is such a creep. Maybe I'm the only female to think this, but if I were shown a still of Mr. Collins (can't remember the actor's name) as a prospective date (presuming I were spouseless), I'd think, "hmmm, a bit stocky, could use a stronger chin, interesting nose, eyes not bad ... not a strong choice, but I'd go for coffee to see what he's like." I think it's because his character is just sooooo icky that we imbue the poor man with a physical repulsiveness that, if he were playing a nice and helpful dad character, might not be there.

I would almost go so far as to say that the characteristics valued in a spouse at a time where marriages were still greatly about property and family ties, i.e., "character", a good reputation, moral stability, the ability to bring in an income or run a house, a desire for children and family, and a mutual understanding of partnership would act as factors that make a person perhaps not drop-one's-jaw attractive, but attractive enough.

Eliza isn't particularly attracted to Darcy's looks, either, for that matter -- at least not as I recall. He grows more physically attractive to her as she grows to respect and trust him. IMO, though, even that relationship is a bit troubling, as there's more gratitude involved in it than this modern medievalist girl is comfortable with!

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at March 9, 2004 02:11 PM

"So, is the idea that companionship should exist between the sexes also "an invention of the 18th century"?"

Subject to the usual qualifications that make historians sound hopelessly pedantic, I would say "Yes," the idea (if not the actuality) of companionate marriage is an eighteenth-century invention (but many would disagree with me).

Notice that in the Scottish annullment case, what's going on between the couple is a matter of public concern (and the husband is being policed every bit as much as the wife -- in this case, more so). I think it's fair to say that marriage comes to be seen as a much more private affair (of course, people still talk of the state of marriage as some kind of register of the state of the nation's welfare or virtue -- but I doubt most of those people would advocate the kind of "Tryall" that was made c. 1693).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 9, 2004 02:34 PM

"Henry VIII supposedly couldn't consummate his marriage to Anne of Cleves because she was physically repulsive to him, and that's 16th c., but a man, so maybe not applicable?"

The portraits of Anne of Cleves and accounts from contemporaries certainly don't much credit Henry's assertion that her looks were the source of his .... trouble. Henry's age, expanding girth, and failing health point to an altogether different culprit, methinks.

While womens' looks are often discussed with the same level of interest as the income of either sex in Austen, she doesn't seem to me completely immune to sexual appeal in men either. Henry Crawford in "Mansfield Park" is perhaps the best example of this: Henry has little moral attractiveness, yet his romantic appeal to Maria is understood to be at least in part sexual (and also understood to be due to weakness and vanity on the part of Maria), although he is described as a not-very attractive man.

Posted by: Matilde at March 9, 2004 02:50 PM

Actually, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine the Tryall as a reality TV program...

Posted by: David Foster at March 9, 2004 04:56 PM

It would probably be going a bit too far for US audiences, but you might be able to pitch the idea to some overseas networks. Apparently there are reality TV shows in Europe that make the American stuff look very tame indeed. If you decide to go ahead with the project, please note that I'm available for hire as an historical researcher/consultant.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 9, 2004 05:10 PM

In the matter of companionate love, don't overlook the medieval-early Renaissance "courtly love" tradition, and certainly don't overlook Shakespeare's sonnets or his comedies. The ideal that men and women should get along together, and that there should be some higher-plane aspect to the relationship, isn't new. Look, for that matter, at the poetry of Catullus.

Posted by: John Bruce at March 9, 2004 05:16 PM

It is to Jane’ s credit that Mr. Collins is found disgusting, not by his teeth or complexion, but by his personality.

Later in the paragraph that describes Mr. Darcy as noble and tall, Austen goes on to say that his coldness turns off everyone.

“...he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.”

In fact, in the beginning of the book, he’s not much better than Mr. Collins, superficial and concerned with appearances and social status. It’s his reformation that makes him so attractive. Mr. Collins’s failure to change makes him a swine.

Mr. Collins is a gross characterization of Mr. Darcy. He is Darcy without intelligence or breeding.

Looks for Austen are secondary to personality. And the characters that concern themselves most with appearances are superficial and mean. Miss Bingley savages Elizabeth’s looks later in the story, when she realizes that she has a rival. Darcy responds by saying that he used to find her unattractive, but now, after he has grown to know her, he considers her “one of the handsomest women of my aquaintance.”

Posted by: Laura at March 9, 2004 05:55 PM

It's been a long time since I tried to read Clarissa, but I seem to remember that Clarissa is driven to run away with Lovelace's aid because she cannot stomach the thought of sleeping with the man her parents have picked out for her.

So strong sexual revulsion is (at least in fiction) thinkable earlier than Austen.

Posted by: jam at March 9, 2004 06:02 PM

RE: #8

John is certainly on to something with both the courtly love tradition and Catullus. But to offer a bit of my own pedantry, I'd point to the Hellenistic "ideal romances" roughly contemporaneous with Catullus as a more direct precursor. (I'm sure Margaret Dooty's _The True Story of the Novel_ is relevant here, though I can't recall if she mentioned Austen at all). Here you have not only a "spiritualized" compatability between the sexes (found in a more patronizing form in Plutarch as well), but also a striking and unabashed interested good looks and phyiscal desire. Late antique Christian marital ethics plays a key role in the mediation of the idea of compatability, I'm sure, though I can't articulate it clearly at the moment.

I'm curious though why IA would place the invention of companionate marriage as an invention of the 18th century. Perhaps she could say a bit more? I for one would would be interested in her observations.

Posted by: Eric at March 9, 2004 07:14 PM

It is not clear to me that only moderns regard Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins as a mesalliance. People in different situations and different eras make very different assessments Charlotte Lucas's decision to marry Mr. Collins--and so acquire a comfortable living now, Longbourne Manor itself upon the death of Mr. Bennett, at the price of taking the odious and obsequious Mr. Collins as a life-companion and as a lover.

Ann Marie and I spent last night watching the Hecht/Hitchcock's "Notorious," which spun out many of the same issues in heightened and concentrated form. The female lead--Alicia, played by Ingrid Bergman--loves the male lead--Devlin, played by Cary Grant--and he loves her. But Devlin cannot believe that a Woman With a Past is capable of True Love. And so Alicia is enlisted in an American intelligence operation: she is to seduce, marry, and spy upon Alex Sebastian--played by Claude Rains--a Nazi Weaponeer of Mass Destruction who stores his enriched uranium in his wine cellar in wine bottles of the 1934 vintage.

Ben Hecht and Alfred Hitchcock clearly have consigned Ingrid Bergman to a Fate Worse Than Death, and indeed almost to death itself. (But she is rescued by Cary Grant in the last moments of the last reel, and Hecht and Hitchcock relent and have mercy so that the Sexually Transgressive Woman does not die but just becomes very sick.)

And there must be also something to be said about the archetypical role in this of Claude Rains. In how many Classic Hollywood Studio movies is sexual contact with Claude Rains's character a hideous, hideous fate? In "Casablanca" the first clue we have that Rick--Humphrey Bogart--is a hero rather than a villain is when he uses his rigged roulette wheel to rescue the Very Young Bulgarian Girl from the lupine clutches of Claude Rains's character Captain Renault.

Could Claude Rains play Mr. Collins in an adaptation of _Pride and Prejudice_? Or is that just too wrong on too many levels for anyone to contemplate?

Posted by: Brad DeLong at March 12, 2004 11:34 PM

Claude Rains? I´m shocked, shocked that anybody would even consider casting him as disgusting Mr Collins. For Chrissake.

Now Peter Lorre - that's another matter...

Posted by: anna at March 12, 2004 11:53 PM

I'm not shocked, just sceptical. Rains has the glamour of evil villainy, whereas Collins is just garden-variety icky.

I need to rewatch Notorious.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 13, 2004 04:49 PM

If we're talking dead actors, I think George Sanders would have been great. Living actors? I think the guy who played him in the beeb productions was close to perfect.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at March 13, 2004 06:29 PM

"I'm curious though why IA would place the invention of companionate marriage as an invention of the 18th century. Perhaps she could say a bit more?"

Just noticed this comment. Yes, I should say more, and will do so when I get back from my break (at which point, I'll also run a poll on Jane Austen's female characters. I wonder if anyone will vote for Mary Crawford?)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 13, 2004 10:32 PM

"Eliza isn't particularly attracted to Darcy's looks, either, for that matter -- at least not as I recall. He grows more physically attractive to her as she grows to respect and trust him. IMO, though, even that relationship is a bit troubling, as there's more gratitude involved in it than this modern medievalist girl is comfortable with!"

Nice one, Medievalist!

Posted by: greatcathy at March 14, 2004 11:21 PM

Claude Rains would not work...too much intelligence. Also, he's too striking. I think it is important that whomever plays Mr. Collins be able to act mundane. I agree that the actor in the Beeb adaptation did an excellent job.

Finally, Perry complain that modern filmmakers "cannot resist" making Mr. Collins repulsive, but the visuals are a tool for filmmakers to build character. Of course the filmmakers could have cast a handsome man as Mr. Collins and made it work, but they would have had to go out of their way to make a point that was not really resonant with the central themes of the book.

Posted by: Angelica at March 15, 2004 03:23 AM

all i ahev to say is ure all strange

theres only 1 mr colins i no n he aint repulsive

Posted by: jade at May 6, 2004 11:02 AM