The Bible notwithstanding, Pride and Prejudice is the second-most authoritative book on courtship in an evangelical girl’s library (the first being the beloved IKDG). I have yet, at least in an internet forum, to come across a single Christian woman who doesn’t look to P&P as a blueprint for how to do relationships right. When confronted with the idea that P&P contains a heavy dose of female fantasy (the protagonist, a poor farm girl, marries the wealthiest, most handsome man in the county; he is so besotted that he still loves her despite her giving him a scathing browbeating upon his first proposal), most Christian girls will defend the book because the characters have character and show “growth.” This allows the book to escape being lumped into the shameful romance novel category.
My criticisms aside, P&P does rise far above the typical Harlequin, in part due to its literary value, and (in my opinion) largely due to its incisive take on human nature. Part of the reason that the novel still resonates nearly 200 years later is that Austen captured human nature accurately, and human nature doesn’t change. Everyone knows a Mrs. Bennet, a Miss Bingley, a Lydia Bennet, a Lady Catherine, a Wickham, and so on.
One character who is rarely discussed, though, is Elizabeth Bennet’s best friend Charlotte Lucas. The novel tells us that Charlotte is 28 years old, single, and plain. In rural early 19th-century England, her chance of marrying is all but gone. In contrast to Elizabeth, who at age 20 refuses to marry pragmatically, Charlotte believes that love in marriage is hit-or-miss, and that it is better not to know too much about one’s spouse prior to marriage, since husband and wife are bound to drift apart and annoy each other, anyway.
When Elizabeth vehemently rejects a proposal from her cousin Mr. Collins, a clueless, pompous clergyman, Charlotte swoops in and snags him. Elizabeth is shocked upon finding out and can’t believe Charlotte would give the doofus the time of day, but Charlotte calmly reminds Elizabeth that she is not a romantic and that given Mr. Collins’s material assets and social standing, she figures her chance at happiness is as good as anyone else’s who marries for love.
Shortly after Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins, Elizabeth visits her friend for a few weeks, and through her eyes Austen reveals that Charlotte deals with her marriage by intrepidly avoiding her obnoxious husband whenever possible and politely not seeing his faults otherwise. She is depicted as a tolerant and intelligent wife, if one who openly settled for a man she didn’t love.
I’ve seen some commentary that is critical of Charlotte – if Elizabeth is Austen’s mouthpiece, then Austen herself looked down on Charlotte’s choice to marry Mr. Collins – but I can’t hate on her. Charlotte, old by the standard of the time and not pretty, had two options: either remain a spinster and continue to live at home with virtually zero hope of ever marrying, or marry an obnoxious lunk and get to be mistress of her own house. I think she made the right choice. Collins is not depicted as type who would notice that his wife had very little affection for him; in fact, he comes off as kind of asexual. The world is not everyone’s oyster, and given the circumstances, I think both characters made out about as best they could. It would have been very difficult for Mr. Collins to find a wife who would have fallen in love with him, and nobody was beating a path to Charlotte’s door otherwise.
Would I encourage a modern-day Charlotte Lucas to make the same choice? Maybe. If marriage is what she really wants and she understands its obligations and is prepared to fulfill them, then I don’t see the harm in accepting the non-ideal but only offer on the table. The success of a marriage is due largely to the actions of both parties after the vows. If the actions are good, I think both people will be better off than if they had remained single. Not that even this is easy to find in these non-self-sacrificing times….