By the Book: Mr. Collins’ Proposal

Was Mr. Collins’ proposal as outrageous as modern readers believe?

Congratulations to RMORREL winner of the paperback set.

Courtship and Marriage5Once 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 EmmaRobert 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.”

Rejected offers 

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!)

For a chance to win a complete paperback set of the 4-book Given Good Principles series (US only for the paperbacks. I’ll arrange something else if the winner is international.) Leave me a comment about what you think about Mr. Collins’ proposal now. Has you mind been changed about him at all?


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A Lady of Distinction   –   Regency Etiquette, the Mirror of Graces (1811). R.L. Shep Publications (1997)

A Master-Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury or The Widower and Batchelor’s Directory by a Younger Brother, published in 1742.

Day, Malcom   –   Voices from the World of Jane Austen. David & Charles (2006)

Gener, S., and John Muckersy. M. Gener, Or, A Selection of Letters on Life and Manners. 3rd ed. Edinburgh: Printed for Peter Hill …, A. Constable & and A. MacKay ;, 1812.

Jones, Hazel   –   Jane Austen & Marriage . Continuum Books (2009)

Lane, Maggie   –   Jane Austen’s World. Carlton Books (2005)

Laudermilk, Sharon & Hamlin, Teresa L.   –   The Regency Companion. Garland Publishing (1989)

Le Faye, Deirdre   –   Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams (2002)

Ray, Joan Klingel   –   Jane Austen for Dummies. Wiley Publishing, Inc. (2006)

Ross, Josephine   –   Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners. Bloomsbury USA (2006)

Selwyn, David   –   Jane Austen & Leisure. The Hambledon Press (1999)

Shapard, David M.,ed.(2011)   –   The Annotated Sense and Sensibility: Anchor Books  

Vickery, Amanda   –   The Gentleman’s Daughter. Yale University Press (1998)


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    • DarcyBennett on January 10, 2017 at 8:05 am
    • Reply

    Poor Mr. Collins, it sounds like he certainly followed all the rules making a very exemplary offer of marriage. All of the rules make sense to me except for the part where it was common for a woman to refuse the first, second and sometimes third time someone asks. That seems cruel that a man would not know whether she meant her refusal or whether to continue his suit. Thanks for the post and giveaway.

    • Lynn Char on January 10, 2017 at 8:17 am
    • Reply

    Very interesting post. I actually went back and read the entire proposal scene with the information you shared in mind. While he is still rather ridiculous, especially when he mentions Lady Catherine repeatedly, I don’t suppose his thoughts or feelings on the subject are as ludicrous as a modern reader might suppose. Now I have to go back and read Darcy’s Hunsford proposal…was that as bad as I remember?

    Thanks for teaching me something this morning!

    • Eva Edmonds on January 10, 2017 at 9:21 am
    • Reply

    I did not realize that Mr. Collins was following Regency protocol. I can easily understand, now, why he stated he would propose again. The humorous aspect is that Elizabeth clearly indicated on many occasions that she did not was an offer of marriage from him but he, of course, did not see it. Nor did Darcy see it and they were both refused! Thank you for the giveaway.

    • Sheila L. Majczan on January 10, 2017 at 9:40 am
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    I am sure Mr. Collins would have been much better received…If he took the time and trouble to attempt to discern the lady’s inclinations before offering his hand. He took the mother’s enthusiasm to be a reflection of the daughter’s standing. He could have used that proposal with Charlotte and she would be perfectly happy. I have to mention though that in his proposal Collins does a sort of back track thing with saying he should have mentioned Lady Catherine’s instructions and thoughts on the matter FIRST. “Violence” of his feelings…who says that? Is he going to crush her in his embrace? Mangle her, strangle her…with his attentions? Get away from me.

    • Linda A. on January 10, 2017 at 11:21 am
    • Reply

    And I thought WE had a lot of dating rules that I never knew about or understood. Sounds like the Regency period had even more. And to be asked by Mr. Collins, eww. Thank you for a chance to win.

    • Glynis on January 11, 2017 at 3:14 am
    • Reply

    Well I suppose it was right for the period but Mr Collins??? Elizabeth would never have accepted him no matter the manner of his proposal! I totally agree with her refusal as I think she would have rather lived in poverty than with him (I know I would!) Now Mr Darcy should have stopped after his first sentence although with her thoughts at that time she would have still refused him (hmm, maybe a touch of insanity in her family?).
    Thanks for this post.

    • Nancy Duell on January 11, 2017 at 5:56 am
    • Reply

    Thank you for all the interesting facts on regency etiquette. Mr Collins and Mr Darcy should have paid attention more to Elizabeth then her Mother.

    • Miriam on January 11, 2017 at 8:49 am
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    I first read P&P so many years ago, I don’t remember how I felt about the proposal back then, but I’ve known for a long time that by standards of the day, he was totally appropriate – although he was rather dense in not realizing that Lizzie was trying to avoid it. I enjoy both your fiction and non. I actually do have the Given Good Principles set in Kindle (although I haven’t read it yet), but would love to also have it in paperback, especially since I can give it to my mom to read. Thanks for the opportunity.

    • Margaret Fransen on January 11, 2017 at 9:18 am
    • Reply

    Collins didn’t get the approval of the correct parent–to me it seems as though he showed disrespect for Mr Bennet in not going to see him, as head of the household, first. (I daresay it wouldn’t have changed the story at all. Bennet, for his own amusement, would have allowed Collins to speak to Lizzy.)

    • 50of47 on January 11, 2017 at 10:11 am
    • Reply

    Collins may have followed all the rules in his proposal, but Darcy certainly broke them all in his, although he did acknowledge her [and Jane’s] virtue in his letter. It’s amazing what people say when their arrogance leads them to believe that the rules don’t apply to them, and that their sense of entitlement will give them whatever they want.

    • Carol on January 11, 2017 at 12:59 pm
    • Reply

    Mr. Collins may have followed the rules of the Regency period, but Elizabeth vowed to marry for love. She didn’t love him nor even respect him. Any he could really have any feelings for Elizabeth either. They haven’t known each other long enough for any feeling other than observing his disgusting habits: greasy hair, smelly, gorges every meal, talks with his mouth killed with food, and his nattering on about us patroness.

    • Lynda E. on January 11, 2017 at 1:04 pm
    • Reply

    I’m not sure that your excellent article changed my opinion of him by much, but it is interesting that he followed prescribed methods. He seems to adhere or reject as it suits him, though, like when he introduced himself to Darcy after discovering he was Lady Catherine’s nephew. Thanks for the article, and for the giveaway!

    • Agnes on January 11, 2017 at 4:46 pm
    • Reply

    I may be wrong and look at it from a modern perspective, but weren’t those rules changing somewhat right then? I mean, none of Austen’s heroes talked to their intended girl’s parents before proposing to the girl herself. Obviously, the engegement depended on parental approval, but Darcy, Bingley, Capt. Wentworth, Knightley etc. did not wait for it before securing the acceptance of their beloved girls. I don’t really think JA intended for her audience to conclude that they all behaved improperly… It’s just one example though. The whole proposal seems to suggest that the letter of the rules isn’t enough if one doesn’t get the spirit of them. The idea that the gentleman wasn’t supposed to take a refusal seriously (because, well, how could she be such a jilt!) is something I did not know about. I guess, at least in theory, a gentleman would not get to the situation of proposing unless he had a reasonable chance of being accepted (in Mr. Collins’s case, Mrs. Bennet’s obstinacy did not allow Elizabeth’s “no” signals to go through).

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!

    • Sarah on January 11, 2017 at 5:07 pm
    • Reply

    The absurdity of Mr. Collins telling Elizabeth that he will try again and her refusal does her credit I now see in a different light. What a horrible fashion, it sounds like proposing was high stakes and I am glad to not be bound by such rules (and that my refusals were heard the first time).

    • Daniela Quadros on January 11, 2017 at 5:28 pm
    • Reply

    What an interesting article! So Mr Collins was just being proper! lol. Poor Elizabeth! Thanks for the giveaway! 🙂

    • Suzanne Sakaluk on January 11, 2017 at 5:52 pm
    • Reply

    I think, while Mr. Collins was following all the rules, he couldn’t grasp the subtleties of proposing marriage. He had no natural grace or common sense so he did everything by rote. He must have had a handbook – Gentle Living for Dummies. I think he was aware that he did everything wrong but couldn’t figure out what or why. That is why Charlotte was an ideal wife for him. She could steer him in the right direction and he ended up acknowledging that in his own weird way. That’s why he attended Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s marriage instead of comiserating with Lady Catherine.

    • Erika Messer on January 11, 2017 at 9:50 pm
    • Reply

    I have always thought of Mr Collins as being over the top in absolutely EVERYTHING he does LOL. Although I never liked his character because of that, I never thought of his proposal to Elizabeth that odd. He is definitely a “dandy” character in the same way as Thackeray’s Jos Sedley from Vanity Fair. They both have the same type of personality in different ways. And they are both outspoken and over the top on most of their ideas. In certain ways I also see Mr. Collins as a Darcy of sorts. I know that sounds weird but if you think about it – they both are prejudiced against the Bennetts (as Mr. Collins is always making sure to let them know about their “place”) and they both are very proud – Mr. Collins obviously because of his affiliation with Lady Catherine. And of course they both go overboard on their beliefs and such – Darcy is just not so outspoken. But he does have those values he holds so dear that women should be proficient in so many things – just as Mr. Collins does. So even though I think they were meant to be opposites I actually see a lot of similarities. So anyways like I said I was never a fan of Mr. Collins so this didn’t change my opinion, I just think he was doing what was normal in most society but just doing it in his own fantastical way 🙂

  1. I understand much better now the way things were done in those days, thank you, but Mr. Collins is still too greasy and smarmy for me to appreciate, even if what he said was not truly obnoxious in those days. Thank you very much though, for the education. I love reading your articles and learning more about the mores of the times!

    • Madenna Urbanski on January 12, 2017 at 12:25 pm
    • Reply

    If Collin’s proposal was appropriate for the period, I think I only showcases how awful Darcy’s first proposal was. It also shows Elizabeth’s dedication to her ideals of marriage for love. It is, of course, much more fun to think of the proposal as ridiculous and much easier to decline. Thank you as always for the background info!

    • Deborah on January 12, 2017 at 12:57 pm
    • Reply

    Collins’ proposal did always make me cringe, but it could be because of his description added to the proposal. Now the proposal makes more sense as it follows protocol perfectly, but what else would we expect someone who makes comments with as an unstudied way as possible and is parson to Lady Catherine. 🙂

    • RMORREL on January 13, 2017 at 1:51 pm
    • Reply

    I feel certain that there are several other requirements for a proper proposal, including actually asking for a young lady’s hand and permitting an opportunity for her to respond, both of which were lacking in Mr Collins’ proposal. So, no, his proposal does not improve when it is analyzed according to expectations at the time.

    Based on the information you provided, I wonder if Elizabeth ever told Darcy that Mr Collins proposed to her. After all of the JAFF stories I have read, it is difficult to remember what actually happened in P&P. But I don’t think she did. Interesting.

    • Laura H on January 16, 2017 at 9:13 pm
    • Reply

    This was very interesting. I find Mr. Collins to be a character that wants to do all by the book ( or at least the way Lady Catherine wishes) so I can see him following the protocol of the time to the letter. So, yes, he did propose properly, but his proposal still seems very unromatic and stiff to me. Thanks for sharing this article with us.

    • RMORREL on January 23, 2017 at 7:15 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Your books arrived today and I am beyond thrilled to have them. Of course I devoured them as ebooks but having actual books is such a treat. I truly appreciate your generosity.


  2. Your description of the Regency era propriety of Mr. Collins’s proposal of marriage to Elizabeth Bennet was indeed enlightening. Likewise, her refusal sans terseness I now understand more than ever. Thank you for the illuminating discourse on the subject.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Laura!

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