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Must Read Voraciously To Improve Style: The Collins Conundrum

It almost kills my soul to say this, but let’s forget Mr Darcy for a moment. Let’s even forget the greatest literary character of all time: Elizabeth Bennet. Today I am here to talk to you about one of the only men to have ever had the patronage of the esteemed Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Lock up your daughters, everyone, we’re going to be talking about the loquacious Mr Collins.

At the risk of exposing my love for alliteration, let us start with the premise that Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice is quite a contentious character. While it is true that any modern-day reader might be struck by the eloquence of Regency-era speech and prose, I believe Mr Collins takes this a step further. His sentences are overly verbacious, and often full of affectatious and sometimes arrogant comments. Case in point: ‘My dear Miss Elizabeth, I have the highest opinion in the world of your excellent judgement in all matters within the scope of your understanding’. He masks misogyny and hubris with what seems like a compliment; he assumes himself far more knowledgeable than any of his cousins purely because he is a man. And while his mentality and attitude might have been a fairly common occurrence in the 1800s, we must remember that such condescension is noticeably absent from characters such as Mr Bingley.

Purely from the hope that the future of one of her daughters will be secured, Mrs Bennet is perhaps the only character who bears any sympathy towards Collins. Despite this reasoning, another connecting factor between him and Mrs Bennet is ignorance. The latter is an almost perpetual source of embarrassment to her two eldest daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, while Collins is, in reality, far less intelligent than he believes himself to be. Not only does he think himself above social convention when he goes to ‘attack Mr Darcy’ without a formal introduction, but he also demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the female mind when Elizabeth turns down his proposal (oops, spoiler alert). Here is his pièce de resistance:

‘I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application… as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character… As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.’

There is undoubtedly a function of Mr Collins’s existence that should not go amiss: his adding to the comedic elements of Pride and Prejudice. He is laughable to the readers because of his lack of self-awareness, misplaced superiority, and erm… quirky word choice (see ‘elegant females’). The Bennet sisters laugh at him because of his unique social interactions, as does their father. All in all, he is a hyperbolic creation that demonstrates Austen’s genius in creating someone so simultaneously infuriating and ridiculous. Indeed, when I recently reread Pride and Prejudice, I was surprised to find myself irritated by a character who had previously held a special place in my heart. And I began to wonder why I used to be so fond of a thoroughly frustrating personage. Was it because my opinion of characters, as of people, had changed over time? Was it because of Austen’s talented description of him? Was it because of my usual affection for rather strange and irksome fictional characters? In fact, the answer turned out to be quite simple.

The answer was Tom Hollander, and I’m not just saying this because we both stand tall at a majestic 5’5’’. Hollander’s interpretation of Collins in the Oscar-nominated 2005 adaptation is the stuff of legends. But for all the adaptation’s positives, it is the screenplay that is at fault for my misplaced fondness. Who could ever forget Hollander’s amazing delivery of the lines: ‘What a superbly featured room and what *excellent* boiled potatoes. Many years since I’ve had such an exemplary vegetable.’? Try as I might, no amount of scouring Austen’s original text yielded any mention of ‘excellent boiled potatoes’ or ‘exemplary vegetable[s]’. In fact, Austen’s writing of this scene seems comparatively bland: it lacks Hollander’s awkward manner and strained voice. But I am not a film critic, I am a book columnist. So, why has Hollander’s acting supplanted by admiration of Austen’s prose?

Usually, I find adaptations irritating because they compromise the integrity and authenticity of the novel. Yet for some reason, I can get on board with this adaptation despite its deviations from Collins’s intended character. Austen stresses that he is a very tall man, while Hollander is pointedly shorter than almost all his cast members. Therefore, his talk of ‘elegant females’ or his approach to Darcy seems that much funnier. But despite his ‘exemplary’ acting, we must remember not to lose sight of the original Mr Collins. In the book, he is more arrogant, haughtier, and less likeable. Our fondness for him should ultimately come from the comedic relief he provides at his own expense.

My dilemma with Mr Collins is, essentially, a difficulty to reconcile my love for Pride and Prejudice the novel, and Pride and Prejudice the film. This Collins Conundrum™ is a testament to how well-loved adaptations can alter your memory of even more well-loved books. At the end of the day, I will always admit that Austen’s writing is superior to Wright’s directing, even if it means sacrificing my unambiguous fondness for Mr Collins. But this does not mean that I cannot appreciate both creative works independently. In fact, a word of advice to all future suitors: if you’re not commenting on the excellence of the ‘exemplary vegetables’ that are boiled potatoes, then we won’t work out. This is a truth universally acknowledged.