Was Mr. Collins’ proposal as outrageous as modern readers believe?
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Once a gentleman survived the rigors of a courtship and wished to propose—and it was only the gentleman who could extend an offer of marriage—he had the dubious advantage of having very clear procedures to follow. He did have some choices, though. He could offer a proposal in person or more formally, in the form of a letter.
Making an offer of Marriage
In Emma, Robert Martin used this vehicle for his first, ill-fated proposal to Harriet Smith. In many ways, Wentworth’s passionate letter to Anne Elliot in Persuasion was also a proposal of marriage.
In either case, it was nearly impossible to conceal his intentions from his intended. An unengaged couple was never left alone, unless an offer of marriage was being made. Similarly, a man did not write to a woman he was not related to unless it was to make an offer. So either way, the lady could be fairly certain of what was coming.
Mr. Collins’ Proposal
In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins’ proposal contains all the hallmarks of a proper Regency era proposal—even though it makes the modern reader cringe and squirm. Consider:
- He secured parental approval.
“… but allow me to assure you that I have your respected mother’s permission for this address…”
- He, as convention required, recognized her maidenly modesty—a proper woman would never be direct about her expectations or feelings—and treated it as a feminine virtue.
“You can hardly doubt the purport of my discourse, however your natural delicacy may lead you to dissemble; my attentions have been too marked to be mistaken. Almost as soon as I entered the house I singled you out as the companion of my future life.”
- He established his credentials, including the means he could offer to support her and her future children.
“Allow me, by the way, to observe, my fair cousin, that I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. … I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father (who, however, may live many years longer…”
- And he did not take her seriously when she refused him.
“…it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”
According to the conventions of proposing, a man should express great doubt about the woman’s answer, regardless of what he really felt about his probable reception. This would be a sign of respect, since it suggested that her charms were such that she could expect many worthy offers of marriage. (Shapard, 2011)
While a young woman could refuse an offer of marriage—not really considered a good idea, mind you, but it was possible—she could easily acquire a reputation for being a jilt for doing so. In fact, both parties could be damaged by a refused offer of marriage, so matters were to be handled with the utmost delicacy and consideration for the feelings of the young man.
The woman might tell a sister or a close friend of a refused proposal. Elizabeth Bennet told her sister Jane., while Harriet Smith discussed Robert Martin with Emma. But she certainly would not talk of it to her acquaintance at large, and most especially not to another man.
Not only was it more ladylike to hold her tongue, it might mollify his dignity and prevent him from gossip that could taint her reputation.
Thus, a rejection should begin as Elizabeth Bennet’s did, with reference to her consciousness of the honor being bestowed upon her by the gentleman in question.
“You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without farther loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me, I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than decline them.”
This gentle approach to rejection also had the dubious advantage of making it easier for a suitor to propose a second time, as noted by Mr. Collins.
“When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on this subject I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; … because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.”
While being very civil, it did make it difficult to make one’s true feelings clearly known. That, though, was in keeping with the general approach to courtship which largely kept feelings out of the conversation entirely.
Welcome Austen Variation Readers (and everyone else!)
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