Posted on Friday, 8 February 2008
Mr. Collins in the film Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Contrary to popular misconception, the delicate little compliments that Mr. Collins scattered in his wake were quite often sincere. He honestly believed that Lady Catherine de Bourgh was a fountain of wisdom, and he really thought that the potatoes served at Longbourn were the best vegetable dish he had tasted since his mother had allowed him to dip boiled carrots in strawberry jam when he was five years old. Thus, during the dinner at Longbourn, some consternation was felt when Mrs. Bennet informed him icily that they had a cook. Although employing a cook was not objectionable as such, it was unfortunate in Mr. Collins's point of view, because he had plans to marry one of the Bennet girls, and while believing them to be magicians who conjured such delicacies he had imagined his future life full of unsurpassed gastronomic happiness. However, perhaps the bride of his choice could be persuaded to take cooking lessons from the ruler of the kitchen. His desire to marry was due to the advice of his patroness. She had not known about the potatoes, but they were an unexpected bonus, and the treacle tart was excellent too.
After everyone was finished eating, the ladies left the dining room according to the usual custom of separating the sexes to allow the gentlemen to partake of port and occasional cigars. Mr. Collins was quite looking forward to this treat, as he was averse to none of life's innocent little pleasures, but Mr. Bennet disappointed him by saying, "As a man of the cloth, you are certainly no drinker, so it is obviously a waste of time to tempt you with my beverages." Hastily Mr. Collins started to reassure him that by no means did he consider a glass of port, or indeed brandy, to be a sin, but Mr. Bennet did not take his comment the intended way. Instead of offering Mr. Collins a generous dose of the subject matter, he said gravely that he was glad that despite his own higher standards Mr. Collins could tolerate the small weaknesses of his fellow men and did not judge them by their less admirable diversions.
Mr Collins was flustered by this, as he was in fact quite partial to port, but had no wish to contradict his host's compliment to himself. It took him too long to construct a reply that would inform Mr. Bennet of his willingness to keep him company over a glass without making himself appear unduly interested in alcoholic beverages, so Mr. Bennet had time to disappear into his library alone. He begged Mr. Collins's pardon but he had some pressing business letters to write. Under such circumstances he could provide little amusement and he was certain his cousin would enjoy his evening more in the cheerful society of the ladies.
"You might lift their spirits by discussing Fordyce's sermons with them. Be kind and tell me later which topics you have examined for their moral education. I bid you good evening."
Mr. Collins felt disconcerted because things were not going according to plan. He had carefully considered what he should say to Mr. Bennet while they were together alone. He would not go as far as to ask for permission to court one of the daughters yet, but he would gently hint that his intentions lay in that direction, and naturally Mr. Bennet would regard this as a good thing, offer him encouragement and perhaps some advice concerning whom to choose and how to proceed. The eldest and prettiest was the obvious choice, but Mr. Bennet could possibly direct him to another direction if she had some character traits that made her unsuitable to be a clergyman's wife. Lacking this reassurance he was thrown off balance and had to stay alone in the dining room to gather his thoughts for a moment. What should he talk about? What would he need to know before making a choice? Anyway, it was better to wait for a while and let the ladies get settled in the other room before he made his entrance.
A respectable-looking woman came into the room and started to collect dishes off the table. It was not the maid who had served them during the dinner. She seemed surprised to see him there, and he said courteously that he hoped he was not in her way.
"No, sir, of course not."
She worked swiftly and silently, which pleased Mr. Collins, who had had to upbraid his own servants sometimes for unnecessary clatter, and he told her so. As a clergyman Mr. Collins had the responsibility to encourage and educate all the people around him, so he could not consider it beneath himself to converse with servants, especially if they were alone. Thus he gave her to understand that it was a joy to see household chores done in an efficient manner and that Fordyce approved of servants who knew where their duty lay.
"My primary duties are those of a cook, sir," she said.
This information made it imperative for Mr. Collins to compliment her for the excellence of her potatoes. He had previously been deprived of such pleasures, but would try to ensure that he could partake of that wholesome fare more often now that he was acquainted with the Bennets. She seemed pleased with his praise and said that it was her mother's recipe.
"It is wonderful that you are able to continue your mother's legacy. She would be very proud of your expertise in the kitchen, could she see you now."
"Yes, sir, she just said last week that she is happy for me for finding such a good position."
Mr. Collins had automatically supposed her mother to be dead, and having been proved wrong he now had to abandon the comforting expressions he had been collecting mentally. He had stored in his brain a great number of enlightening or useful things to say in interesting situations, but occasionally the conversational direction took him the wrong way. He was obliged to change the subject quickly and asked the first question that came to mind.
"Pray, what is your name?"
"Martha Banks, sir."
Mr. Collins was moved to quote some passages from the Scriptures. In his opinion, there was a lot to be learned from the actions of the biblical Martha, who had chosen a good lot for herself, living a life of doing her duty, taking care of the chores, and being of benefit to others. None could do wrong following her example, and a servant's life was blessed by realizing this. Of course, as a parson Mr. Collins himself was also a servant of his parishioners, and of his benefactress, and it was a great joy for him to be able to be of service, in any small way.
Martha the cook indicated her agreement only with slight respectful nodding, although she was obviously enthralled by his wise counsel. Mr. Collins was pleased to observe that the servants of Longbourn were so deferential, neither too talkative, nor too forward with their betters. Lady Catherine de Bourgh was always quite adamant upon the importance of preserving the distinction of rank and position, and the members of her staff always conducted themselves with the utmost propriety. It would not be convenient for him to marry a woman who had accustomed herself to over-familiar servants, as Lady Catherine could not approve.
Mr. Collins fell into silence for a while, as he speculated how he should ascertain which of the Bennet girls would be most likely to find favour with his patroness, and Martha disappeared into the kitchen bearing a large tray full of dirty plates and bowls. He wondered briefly if he could ask the cook for her opinion, because the servants often had excellent insights into their employers' characters. But of course it was out of the question, because one simply could not discuss such subjects with the household staff. It would encourage excessive familiarity and impertinence. It was a shame though, for servants always knew everything.
A rector's wife should also be knowledgeable and observant in all things. She should be meek but competent, wise but submissive, pleasantly behaved, soft-spoken and eager to serve, yet decisive enough to administer cutting reprimands whenever the occasion arose. There were times when it was more suitable for the female parishioners to receive their moral upbraiding or gentle reminders of proper conduct from another woman, and who better to deliver that than the parson's wife? Lady Catherine did her best to keep the people under her sphere acting upright, but she could not be everywhere at once and some things were quite beneath her notice. Lady Catherine was quite right that he should be married as soon as it might be contrived.
The cook returned with her tray, now empty, and took care of the remains of the desserts. Mr. Collins was reminded of the sublime taste of her treacle tart and said that he had seldom tasted anything as good. She was pleased and listened to Lady Catherine's opinions about indulging one's sweet tooth and the importance of proper nourishment with fascination. When inquired about the regularity of her church-going habits she said that she went whenever she could. Mr. Collins was satisfied and offered her further praise regarding the smooth texture and the slightly sharp taste of her apple sauce, asking if she might teach her culinary arts to -- but oh, that was premature and he ought not to mention anything yet. This caused her to lift one brow enquiringly. Mr. Collins cleared his throat and said vaguely that it would be an excellent thing if any humble establishment could boast of a mistress who was equally adept in the kitchen as herself. She smiled with a slightly puzzled frown, but Mr. Collins did not elaborate. By this time she was finished with the cleaning up, bid him good evening, and retired to her kitchen.
Mr. Collins felt good about his role in the discussion. He took his duties as a parson very seriously and wanted to be a moral compass to his parishioners. Being able to offer moral support and enlightening spiritual commentary to any human being always cheered him up, and after such a fruitful talk he was composed enough to brave the company of the ladies.
He had worried in vain, for the evening went very well. He was received with utmost politeness and was able to encourage animated discussion. He told them more about the splendour of Rosings and described in detail the charms of Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh. As his wife would have access to Lady Catherine's hospitality, it was certainly a tempting point in his favour.
"You are indeed very lucky to have benefited from her generosity," said Miss Elizabeth.
"How many carriages does she have?" inquired Mrs. Bennet. Mr. Collins had to admit that he was not privy to the exact number of the vehicles, but he had seen the closed carriage in which Lady Catherine usually travelled, and it was of premium quality and newly re-upholstered. The horses were prime steppers, each and every one, and their colours were perfectly matched, so the ladies could journey in great style. Miss de Bourgh had an elegant phaeton, also of the first stare.
"La, I simply detest phaetons," declared Miss Lydia.
"What? I thought that you had always wanted one," uttered Miss Catherine.
"Sour grapes," said Miss Elizabeth.
Mr. Collins frowned and thought that she complained for no reason at all. The grapes they had been served at dinner had had a very satisfying taste. He said that in his opinion it was a pleasure when one could get such wonderful fresh grapes at this time of year, or indeed, any time at all, and that one should take care not to undervalue the gifts delivered to us by the Providence.
Lydia did not pay any heed to him. "Father says that he will never countenance buying a phaeton for us. He says that it is much too fast."
Mr. Collins was appalled. "I am sure that Lady Catherine de Bourgh in all her wisdom would never allow her daughter to endanger her health in any unsafe vehicle."
"For my part, I think that a phaeton is a perfectly sensible and comfortable mode of transportation for a young gentlewoman such as Miss de Bourgh, " Miss Mary hastened to reassure him.
"Miss de Bourgh is indeed a woman of excellent breeding, and no one could find anything wanting in her manners or her taste in conveyances. Unfortunately the state of her health has not allowed her to travel very far, and she has not been able to be presented at St. James, although the heiress of Rosings and a young lady of such refinement should rightfully have been the crown diamond of the court."
Later it occurred to him to wonder if he perhaps should have avoided praising Miss de Bourgh quite so much, as such a tribute to another young, unmarried lady might have stirred jealousy in the girls' hearts. He did not want to create the impression that he was in love with Miss de Bourgh when he was going to woo elsewhere. However, it was clear from his discourse that his behaviour towards Miss de Bourgh had been perfectly proper at all times, and he trusted that the ladies would understand that his interest was fixed at their direction, even if the exact recipient of his most courteous admiration was yet somewhat undecided.
All the girls were pleasant, although the tenor of their conversation was regrettably superficial. However, by the lucky invention of reading them Fordyce's sermons aloud, he was able to guide their thoughts away from the shallow towards the improvement of character and spiritual growth, and everyone was most attentive, except the youngest whose thoughts could perhaps not at that time be fixed to piety and propriety. He was definitely not offended at all, as he told them, for such excessive emotional sensibility was quite alien to his magnanimous nature, but he considered her frivolity a severe limitation for a rector's wife. He decided at once that he would not be marrying the youngest of the Bennet girls, the one with the irrational dislike of phaetons. Miss Lydia seemed lively and delightful, but she was too young to marry. She would have to stay home and benefit from her mother's guidance for several years yet, before being ready for such commitment that was required from a clergyman's helpmeet. Lady Catherine would not approve of such a young girl even being out. She had told him to marry a gentlewoman, not a baby. Was that dress really proper for a girl her age?
Mr. Collins was not the sort of silly creature who fell in love easily over a pretty face, so he attempted to make a rational, measured choice, on the basis of sober deliberation and a detailed examination of the qualities and flaws each girl exhibited. Having been able to eliminate Miss Lydia so swiftly he could concentrate on the remaining four, which ought to have made the task slightly easier.
Despite having been apprehensive about marrying and abandoning the benefits of his bachelor life, Mr. Collins was now enough acquainted with the Bennet sisters to feel that marriage to one of his cousins would not be a hardship. They were quite attractive, especially the eldest. She seemed like the obvious choice. Would it not be awkward to marry one of the younger girls while the eldest was still unmarried? Jane was certainly kind, virtuous and demure, and as such would make an excellent wife for a clergyman. Perhaps a little too kind? Would she be able to administer a convincing scolding? He wondered how advanced her cooking skills were. He had seen evidence that she was good at sewing ribbons in her bonnets, but unfortunately that was a talent that was of little use to him.
Then there was Miss Elizabeth. Now what should he think about her? Her face was tolerable, even beautiful when she was laughing, and her figure was appealing. Her disposition was somewhat ambiguous, hard to make out. She talked a great deal, but he did not always understand what she said. It was reported that she was an excellent walker. This was not a characteristic that he required from a wife, but it did not necessarily make her an unsuitable one either. True, he would not wish for his spouse to go traipsing across moors and hills when he was in need of some wifely attention, but on occasion her eagerness to walk might even be a benefit as he could not currently afford horses and a carriage of his own. The parsonage at Hunsford did not at present boast of decent stables, despite Lady Catherine's benevolent improvements.
Miss Mary was rather plain and severe, but obviously devout. She nodded in agreement in all the right places when he was reading Fordyce, and even had a few pertinent points of her own to add to the discourse. Her conversation showed that she had broadened her view by reading several books and adopting wise men's thoughts, for which she was to be commended, although it might have been possible for a female to read too much. He was not sure how Lady Catherine regarded bookish women, the subject never having come up. Miss Mary's way of speaking made him certain that she would be admirably suited to the role of rector's wife when it came to reproaching female parishioners who had strayed from the straight and narrow. Nevertheless, marriage was for a very long time, and although such selfish considerations were obviously not of primary importance, one had to think of one's happiness a little. He was not sure if Miss Mary could make him happy in... -- oh, well, in every respect.
Miss Catherine seemed withdrawn and did not take part in the discussion that arose from the reading aloud. Maybe she was shy of him, which was quite understandable, considering that the girls were certainly not accustomed to young eligible gentlemen visiting. Such demure modesty was rather endearing, but it made conversation awkward, and it was hard to come to any conclusion about her worth and desirability as a marriage partner. She was a definite possibility, however, as her occasional giggles and covert glances at his direction seemed to indicate some partiality toward him. Her youth might be an obstacle, but youth was something that would correct itself in time. Not that it was entirely a disadvantage. Thinking of that lovely, budding innocence of flowering femininity made him quite sentimental and gave him an idea for a sermon he had been sketching to obliquely honour Miss de Bourgh.
However, at dinner his attention had been arrested by Miss Catherine's table manners. She had eaten an incredible amount of ham and chicken and tucked into the treacle tart in a fashion that was as unseemly for a genteel woman as it must have been gratifying for the cook, had she seen it. It was not becoming for a young lady to be that much obsessed with her food. So far her appetites had had no detrimental effect on her figure, but should the delicate sex not consume their sustenance more daintily, in a sophisticated fashion? Practicing moderation was a virtue, and despite the generosity of Lady Catherine, he was not a rich man.
Mr. Collins was caught in his musings and could not come to a decision quickly, although Lady Catherine de Bourgh always said that it was the mark of a true gentleman to be decisive in his actions, and not allow himself the weakness of dithering and hesitation. However, as he had no pressure to depart quickly, and was so well fed at Longbourn, he decided to give himself more time to become acquainted with his cousins. He spent the following week in pursuits that were agreeable in principle but rather tiring. Wooing is hard work, especially when one attempts to keep his options open and court four sisters simultaneously. His conversational skills and diplomatic prowess were taxed to the limits, as he invented ways to compliment and interrogate each of the sisters in turn, without offending the other sisters. His company was quite welcome, however, and he was taken along on several visits and outings where he had occasion to deepen the acquaintance with each of the girls. He read more sermons to them, visited a couple of the neighbouring families with them, and manoeuvred each of his cousins into several semiprivate tête-à-têtes. On one particularly fine morning Miss Elizabeth dragged her sisters on a long walk, and Mr. Collins was usefully employed as he carried the picnic basket. The mushroom gratin packed into the basket was almost worth the trek, but he spilled some wine on the collar of his good blue coat and used the afternoon to try to figure out a way to tie a neck-cloth to cover the stain. That was a futile exercise, but it saved him from having to play charades with his cousins, a pastime at which he did not excel. He had no wish to embarrass himself in front of his cousins. Miss Bennet had been most attentive to him during their stroll, and Miss Catherine had continued to titter nervously while looking at him, which suggested that his charms might be working in an ideal manner.
To his delight, Mr. Collins found out that there was to be a ball at Netherfield, a neighbouring estate rented by a fellow called Bingley, and he was included in the merry crowd because of his relationship with the Bennets. It turned out to be a capital entertainment, although the supper that was served after the dancing was clearly inferior to the best efforts of the Longbourn cook. He had no taste for these tiny, tonnish delicacies; a grown man could become nothing but hungrier after nibbling at such slight offerings. Of course, whenever he was invited to dine with his patroness, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, who belonged to the very elite of the country, he was often served very elegant cuisine, but as Lady Catherine herself remarked, the ways and customs that were fitting for the high-born and the noble would quite often be ridiculous and out of place if adopted by those of lowlier affiliations, and it behooved anyone to know his or her station. Mr. Collins seemed to remember that Lady Catherine had once said in passing that he disapproved of her nephew's close friendship with the Bingleys, as they aspired to reach outside their circle, and particularly that Miss Bingley earned her censure as she apparently was an ostentatious, designing, presumptuous female. Exactly why, his patroness had not said, but quite possibly she would have been displeased with the catering.
However, despite his reservations about the respectability of the Bingleys, there was no reason to slight them by refusing to attend, and as the ball was a perfect opportunity to engage in some wooing, he secured himself the pleasure of dancing with his cousins. Lady Catherine had nothing against clergymen dancing at a private ball, although she did not condone anyone participating in that indecent display that was more commonly called the waltz. The country dances were unexceptionable, and Mr. Collins threw himself into the fray with enthusiasm. As ever, twirling about the room gladdened minds, softened hearts, and crushed a number of toes, and the invaluable opportunity to interact and observe gave him more insight on the character of his cousins, helping him finally to decide how to proceed.
The eldest was the prettiest of the Bennet girls even in ball finery, and when she smiled so angelically at him when he reserved a dance with her, Mr. Collins almost made up his mind to propose to her. However, as he asked Mrs. Bennet to arrange a private meeting with her in the morning, Mrs. Bennet regretfully told him that there was a complication. It appeared that he arrived at the scene too late to get Jane's attention. She was supposedly the object of Mr. Bingley's affections, and Mrs. Bennet spoke of her engagement to her friends as a decided thing. Mr. Collins was sorry but he quite saw that he should not break up a previous attachment, as it would be an act of a cad and cause serious heartbreak for his host, Mr. Bingley. Mrs. Bennet told him that the rest of the girls were unattached, and he was welcome to court any one of them. She described their virtues at length. Every one of them would make a good wife for a clergyman, and he could not have made a better choice.
As a matter of fact, he had not made a choice yet, so he had to concentrate his thoughts to the task. With two girls eliminated, three to choose from, he was able to narrow his focus, and found the evening quite instructive.
Miss Mary was apparently not inclined to dance, but she agreed to grant him one dance with her, as a special favour for him. She looked almost reluctant, but the prospect of the company of Mr. Collins was enough to tempt her, and they spent an agreeable moment together. Mr. Collins thought fondly of the steadiness of her character that was not bent on frivolity. That would be an excellent thing for a clergyman's wife. It would not do to have people talking about her fast manners. Miss Mary also played the pianoforte most enthusiastically. Mr. Collins had seen her practice her tunes diligently, and thought that it would recommend her to Lady Catherine, who liked musical entertainment in her soirées and always called attention to the value of constant rehearsal. For a short while he seriously considered falling in love with her.
However, although Miss Mary was the most pious of the Bennet sisters by far, as she made very clear even at a ball, piety was not everything. She was not as pretty as her sisters and had the propensity to argue, when it would have been more proper for her to listen deferentially. It was she who introduced the topic of the advisability of clergymen dancing at balls. He told her that Lady Catherine approved of dancing in moderation, if the rules of decency were observed. While they could heartily agree that dancing was not a very edifying activity, and that to read sermons in the privacy of one's own home was infinitely more beneficial to one's spiritual growth, she disconcerted him by saying that the local parson never danced, and indeed, never attended balls at all. Being unaware that that gentleman was seventy-three years old and had two lame legs, he was unsure about how to regard her information, and although as a member of the clergy he was the higher moral authority, he felt the need to justify his own attendance to Miss Mary somehow. Happily he came up with a quote. "There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance, as David says in his psalm," he observed.
"Indeed," she said. "Only it was not David in the Book of Psalms who said so; it is a snippet from the Ecclesiastes."
Yes, indeed it was a shame that Miss Mary argued so much. Such a pity that a young, conscientious woman ruined her character by being quarrelsome and presuming more wisdom than a female of her age and persuasion could rightfully ever suppose to have. To submit quietly to the instruction of her elders and to show more respect to the superior male understanding would have been much more becoming. Lady Catherine would surely not approve of a woman who preached more than herself.
Miss Mary being off the list, Mr. Collins was down to Cousin Catherine and Cousin Elizabeth. He remembered Cousin Catherine's suspected partiality towards him, and went in search of her. However, he did not find her demurely sitting with the widows, waiting for him to come to her; she was out there dancing with Miss Lydia, singing out of tune. She had her hair mussed and appeared to be flirting with a couple of the best-looking officers of the militia.
He was disappointed. Miss Catherine had not spoken to him all night, and instead she seemed to have a jolly good time with those red-coated rakes. Perhaps she was trying to make him jealous. But to do that in such a way... The morals of those officers could be quite suspect. Miss Catherine, along with her younger sister, was acting too boisterously by far, not serious enough to be a rector's wife. Were they drunk already? His patroness would never countenance such unseemly extroversion; it would upset Miss De Bourgh.
That eliminated Miss Catherine. Therefore his bride was to be Miss Elizabeth, not an unpleasant choice by any means. An excellent dancer, a competent conversationalist, and the owner of a fine pair of eyes, she would grace any gathering and would not put him to shame. A clergyman had to think of appearances, particularly one associated with Lady Catherine De Bourgh.
After reaching this decision Mr. Collins had a most gratifying discussion with Mrs. Bennet. His future mother seemed very much bent on furthering the match of his choice. No doubt Miss Elizabeth was her favourite daughter, and she wanted to see her second eldest well married to an eligible gentleman. Her remarks showed that his proposal would be very welcome indeed, and he was satisfied. Mrs. Bennet was a most pleasing relation, and any man would be happy to have her as a mother-in-law. Lady Catherine had been very wise when she advised him to marry among his cousins, although it had not been an easy choice, given there were so many of them and all single and attractive. However, Cousin Elizabeth had been his favourite from the start, which made it practically love at first sight.
"Can she cook at all?"
"We have always been able to afford a cook at Longbourn, and there is no need for any of my daughters to do the servants' work, although all of them are clever enough to do anything they desire. I could show you a very pretty handkerchief that she has embroidered for me." Mrs. Bennet began rooting her reticule and finally found the desired piece of linen. It was white, had a monogram and a few tiny flowers, and it looked much like any other handkerchief to the untrained eye of Mr. Collins. However, as it was an example of the handiwork of his intended, he was prepared to admire it from the bottom of his heart, and swallowed the disappointment occasioned by her lack of other domestic virtues.
Although his observation of his young cousins at the ball had been most helpful and he had arrived at life-altering conclusions that night, the evening was otherwise largely uneventful. Mr. Collins danced with Miss Elizabeth and afterwards showed her very special attention. During one country dance they sat out together he enticed her into introducing him to Mr. Darcy, Lady Catherine's nephew, in the hopes of impressing her with his lofty connections. He was able to reassure that gentleman that his aunt had been well when last seen, and was granted a very polite, formal bow. He was also introduced to a Mrs. Long who had lived in Kent and had a lot to tell him about the county, and spoke at length with Sir William Lucas, a most admirable, sociable gentleman who was a frequent guest at St. James's. He told Sir William all about his excellent prospects and his great good fortune of becoming the favourite of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Sir William's interest was very gratifying. He had already danced with Sir William's daughter Charlotte once, but Miss Lucas's father was apparently unaware of this, as he encouraged him to dance with her a second time. This was not entirely proper, as it could encourage unfounded gossip, but it was impossible to refuse politely in Miss Lucas's hearing. Sir William was so affable and polite that obliging him in this small matter was almost his duty. Their second dance turned out to be the supper dance, so he had to escort Miss Lucas to supper although he had wished to be able to promote his suit with Cousin Elizabeth at that time. However, Cousin Elizabeth could not possibly object to his paying friendly attention to her best friend, and as Miss Lucas was a charming listener and very interested in hearing about Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the mealtime passed agreeably, although the food left something to be desired. Certainly the highlight of the ball was his dance with his intended, but all in all the whole night had been quite entertaining.
When they returned to Longbourn, it was very late -- or early, depending on the viewpoint. Mr. Collins felt ravenous after the dainty canapés and minuscule sandwiches he had consumed at the ball, and he was certain that he would not be able to sleep without eating something first. Having spied some light from the kitchen he decided to brave that fortress in search of aid and found Martha the cook there, baking something that smelled wonderful. He had forgotten her last name but not her culinary skill, and it was a happy Mr. Collins who went to bed half an hour later, nourished with Martha's mutton pie, fresh bread, fruit compote and some rice pudding. He should ask Miss Elizabeth to take cooking lessons before the wedding, if she could not persuade the cook to take a position with them at Hunsford. He wondered how much that woman's wages were and if he could afford to offer her more. Surely it would be worth it for that treacle tart alone. Such a delicacy would astound even Miss de Bourgh with its remarkable consistency and flavour.
Mr. Collins had been right to be wary of the quality of the cuisine at Netherfield, as it made most revellers slightly ill the following day. The morning found the residents of Longbourn paler and less cheery than usual, wincing at loud noises and having breakfast after noon. Mrs. Bennet put her indisposition down to nerves after an exhausting night.
"But the punch was excellent, was it not, my dear?" remarked Mr. Bennet quite inconsequentially.
Miss Lydia lamented that her gown had been torn last evening, and could not imagine how it might have happened. Miss Mary declared that there was a time to rend and a time to sew, and that she hoped that the exertions of the previous evening had been well worth the time it took to fix the damages. Miss Bennet smiled beatifically, said that it had been a most pleasant ball, and offered to help Lydia with her dress.
As Mr. Collins believed in moderation in all things, he had eaten the suspect canapés quite sparingly and had certainly not drunk too much the previous evening. Thus he had to ascribe his own queasy condition to the emotional after-effects of his life-changing decision at the ball. A prospective bridegroom had the right to some pre-engagement jitters, surely. Having never experienced pre-engagement jitters before, he was surprised to find that the feeling was so much akin to nausea. He had imagined them more like a light fluttering. Mr. Collins did not have any serious second thoughts about having decided to propose to Cousin Elizabeth, as the other sisters were clearly unthinkable, but as he did feel slightly apprehensive, he thought it prudent to slip into the kitchen to ask the cook for a restorative drink to fortify him before the encounter, which he had scheduled for the same morning. Naturally he did not tell her the reason of his nervous ailment, but he managed to procure a glass of cooking sherry anyway. Apparently Miss Lydia had also gone to the kitchen earlier in search of relief, and the cook said she knew just what helped in their situation, offering him an extra plate of bacon and eggs to go along with the sherry.
The quiet moment in the kitchen did not calm him down completely. Thinking back on his relationship with Cousin Elizabeth he could not be absolutely confident of his reception, despite Mrs. Bennet's earlier assurances of the suitability of the match. Although Cousin Elizabeth was uniformly charming and her good looks rivalled even those of Miss De Bourgh, she was, perhaps, just a tiny bit intimidating and unpredictable. Some of her words appeared to contain mysterious hidden meanings, and she seemed rather distant. It could not be said that she was exactly encouraging his suit, although she was always unfailingly polite. A little shyness was not unbecoming in an unmarried young woman, and it certainly would not do for a clergyman to marry a female who was overly familiar with the gentlemen of her acquaintance, but Mr. Collins felt that an occasional smile in his general direction might not have been considered too intimate. She could have made his progress a lot easier had she been that way inclined. She was sometimes quick to be contrary just for the sake of being contrary, although no one could in all honesty disagree with what was being said.
However, the assumed indifference and arch disagreement were in all probability just a ploy to incite his interest. Mrs. Bennet would certainly know of her inclination, why else would she have encouraged his suit? Miss Elizabeth was usually cheerful enough, and would no doubt relax her guard with him once they were married. Although a more straightforward show of regard would have made him feel more self-assured, he could not really fault her for trying to capture him using her feminine wiles. After all, he had travelled here just for the purpose of being captured.
Mr. Collins only hoped that his choice would have Lady Catherine De Bourgh's approval. After great deliberation, it was obvious that Cousin Elizabeth was the best of the bunch, but she seemed to voice some of her opinions very decisively, which might not be always acceptable to his patroness. But she had told him very emphatically to marry a gentlewoman, and without a doubt Cousin Elizabeth was one. Why, they were even related.
Mr. Collins lingered in the kitchen a while longer than he had planned, observing the cook and the kitchen maid in their work. They were able to do surprisingly many tasks at once, an exemplary competence. The bacon was crispy, and the eggs had been fried exactly right, leaving the yolk just the tiniest bit runny. The kitchen was spotless clean, which was lucky, as his stomach would certainly have revolted at the least sight of unpleasant residue. However, the sherry, the bacon and the eggs finally worked their magic, his nausea receded and he was able to exit the kitchen and attempt the sealing of his fate.
Things involving fate are never easy, and neither was making his proposal, as Miss Elizabeth tried to avoid being left alone with him and required some maternal coaxing to submit. It was naturally an excellent thing that one's future wife was not eager to be alone with gentlemen she was not married to, but in the circumstances it was rather vexing.
So it was not completely without misgivings that Mr. Collins proposed. Yet it came as a shock when it really started to look like his suit would not prosper. The proposals he had directed at other ladies had been rejected twice before, citing reasons quite unfathomable to him, but he had been surer of his success with Cousin Elizabeth. How could any of the Bennet girls refuse, considering his brilliant prospects and the wretched financial situation they were in? Conversing with Mrs. Bennet, he had made certain that the ladies of Longbourn were quite desperate for any offers and his would be one of the most eligible they would ever be likely to receive. Nevertheless, it was not to be. His fate was to be rejected, but not without argument.
"You are hasty, Cousin Elizabeth. I am offering you a life in Longbourn, once your father is dead. I offer you myself, and the privilege of enjoying Lady Catherine De Bourgh's most condescending attention. How can you spurn such a proposal in your present situation? You should be reminded that it is by no means certain that you will ever receive another."
"In that case, I must sincerely advise you to think better of your proposal, Mr. Collins. Surely it cannot be in your best interests to offer for a girl whose charms are so deficient that she dare not even hope to garner any other man's affection."
Cousin Elizabeth looked annoyed, and Mr. Collins realized vaguely that he had stuck his foot into his mouth at some point of this conversation. Try as he might to extract said appendage, he only managed to make things worse by saying that far from deficient, her charms were quite ample, all the while staring at her cleavage. He searched his brain for a few nervous compliments, but they sounded unsuitable for the occasion, even to his own ears. When he had rehearsed those particular tidbits he had had his patroness in mind, rather than a proposal. Maybe it was not particularly lover-like to say that a woman's wisdom was like a fine wine, because it only got better with the years. At least Cousin Elizabeth did not seem to appreciate it, as she said brusquely that she would rather recommend marriage to someone not quite as stricken in years as herself. "You cannot afford to waste your time on ladies past their prime as you must be interested in begetting an heir."
Such brazenness! Mr. Collins was taken aback by her mentioning begetting in his presence, but as he was in fact quite intrigued by the process of begetting, Cousin Elizabeth's reasoning had some merit. Were women her age already too old to have children? How old was she anyway? He would not have considered her quite that much aged, but then again, after living most of his life with his widowed father in an exclusively male household, he really did not know that much of those delicate feminine matters, and it was to be expected that the Bennet girls would be more informed. The family did have five daughters and a mother still counted among the living. But nevertheless, had he not known much older women who had produced offspring? Cousin Elizabeth's situation could not be completely hopeless. If her fears concerning heirs prevented her from accepting his suit, then he must set her mind at rest post-haste.
"You need not be uneasy that as your husband I should hold it against you if you do not give me a son. I am not unreasonable, and I quite see that the matter is out of your control, although I consider it quite probable that we shall have no difficulty doing what must be done, and the usual result will follow in a satisfactory, speedy manner."
"How delicately put, Mr. Collins. I must admire your eloquence. However, there is one small difficulty preventing the speedy arrival of the usual result. I have declined your offer of marriage, and I have no desire to live in sin with you."
"Cousin Elizabeth! How can you talk in such manner? My patroness would not approve of such bold speech; a decent woman should be more careful than to mention things like living in sin."
"In that case it would be extremely imprudent for you to marry me, then. We would not want your patroness to shun you, because your chosen life partner is an indecent woman."
Her expression was somewhat beyond annoyed now, and Mr. Collins got even more flustered if it was possible. He hastened to reassure her that he did not consider her an indecent woman but simply a young charming lady who would, after their marriage, benefit from the sensible advice of himself as a man of the cloth, and who would, without a doubt, also derive great wisdom from the guidance of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a great privilege. By no means did he think that her character needed particular improvement, but it was a biblical fact that a woman should be governed by her husband, and he deemed it a great honour to be able to stand by her side and lead her towards their future life together. Also, he thought that her beauty was the equal of the first roses in the spring, and that if she would not mind having the cook teach her how to prepare the famous potatoes, there would be no home in the whole of Kent that surpassed their domestic felicity.
This speech was convincing and delivered with great forthrightness and ardour, but failed to persuade Cousin Elizabeth of the desirability of their union. "Thank you for appreciating my appearance and believing in my ability to charm you with my cooking, but frankly, I have had quite enough of this, Mr. Collins. We must not stand here and argue about this any longer. You have made it abundantly clear that what you require in a marriage is a wife who is completely different from myself, and I must not impose myself on you, however closely I resemble a flower. You are welcome to visit Longbourn whenever you want to taste the cook's exemplary potatoes; you and I do not have to marry to secure you that privilege."
It appeared that her speech was not a good omen, but maybe she was fishing for more compliments. Mr. Collins's hope was beginning to falter, but he was always ready to gratify a lady with praises, and had high confidence in his ability to charm with his frank admiration and to appeal to a woman's vanity. So he told her that she fit his requirements admirably, and that she was everything any man could desire in a companion and helpmate. Then he reminded her once more that if she refused him she would quite likely be a spinster in the making, as it was not certain that anyone else would have her.
Cousin Elizabeth let out a strange sound, no doubt affected by his solid reasoning. He was encouraged by this and begged her to consider that nothing could be more suitable than the union of the heir to Longbourn and a daughter of the present master. Thereafter he mentioned the unfortunate consequences of her refusal. If not for their marriage, her family would be in dire straits after her father's death with no money and no place to call home.
"Only if you decide to throw us out of our home the moment our father dies, and leave us to starve in the ditch."
The implications of this remark made Mr. Collins stumble over his tongue again, as he attempted to formulate a reply that would not paint him as a cruel man who would be unkind to a widow and her daughters but would not bind him to an unwanted obligation towards the women. This was not easy to do, even for a man of his eloquence, and therefore he decided to try another persuasive tactic.
"Cousin Elizabeth, what is the meaning of this? What can you be thinking of when turning me down? Are you holding out for a better offer, perhaps from a lord?"
"Dear me, it would certainly take a lord to improve on your offer, sir."
"I must tell you that I foresee only the most dire consequences if you should aspire to such a match, as it is not likely that your station in life will tempt a lord to marriage. Earls, viscounts and suchlike are apt to be an unscrupulous lot, who drink and gamble and are accustomed to getting their way in everything. Such a man would not hesitate to lead a young woman of genteel birth on and abuse her most shamefully, leaving her ruined for life."
"Mr. Collins, I thank you for bringing this danger to my attention. I was quite unaware of the peril the aristocracy poses to a maiden and to our civilized society."
Always mindful of the respect that was due to those of a higher rank, he feared that he might have phrased his admonition in too strong terms and attempted to take some of it back. But Miss Elizabeth would not heed him.
"No, Mr. Collins, do not try to escape my gratitude, as your warning will be most useful to me in the future. It is now clear to me that I must guard my virtue most diligently against the rakish ways of stray lords. I believe that I will be assisted in this task by the fact that it is most unlikely that I should ever clap my eyes on one, but I promise you faithfully to hit him with my reticule and run screaming for help if ever I am accosted by one. It is certain that they are nothing but vermin out to harass the undeserving, if you say so."
Mr. Collins had merely desired to rid his intended of any misguided hope for more exalted offers, not to encourage her to talk about them disrespectfully or behave in an unseemly fashion towards the nobility. He did not deem such violent outbursts to be proper but as it was all speculation, he let it go. There would be time enough to correct her when they were married, as it would be unlikely for them to come across any lords on the first day of their marriage. Anyway, there was pertinent information to affirm. "Is it really true that you do not know any lords?"
"Oh yes, at Longbourn we are quite fortunate in that no members of the peerage have imposed their immoral company upon us."
It was not that fortunate in Mr. Collins's point of view, as it could be quite useful to have the acquaintance of rich lords and the opportunity to gain their patronage, provided that one could shield one's wife from their licentious behaviour. But he would be prepared to accept Cousin Elizabeth even though she could not throw him in the way of lords; he was a reasonable man and would not hold this inadequacy against her, particularly as it was not her fault. She could not go around introducing herself to lords, and after all, it was no more than he had expected. In a way it was even better that the husband was used to moving in more exalted circles than the wife, so that it would be him to instruct and guide her in how to behave properly.
Mr. Collins felt that he should at once explain to her that not all persons of rank were immoral. It would not do to have his wife insult his patroness, who, after all, was the daughter of an earl. Her father, the previous earl, must definitely have been a most upright character, as described by his most honoured patroness, and no blame could fall upon the current earl either, that gentleman being Lady Catherine's brother. Lady Catherine herself was a pillar of society, always very considerate, wise, and willing to offer others any advice and kindness that was at her power to distribute, and as for Miss de Bourgh, who was the granddaughter of an earl, as Cousin Elizabeth could certainly deduce, she was unfailingly proper and constantly admired and sometimes she even waved to small children.
"I am greatly relieved to hear that," Cousin Elizabeth said gravely.
"These are the persons that you, as my wife, will have the felicity to know and interact with, a most tempting circumstance and a vast benefit to you."
"Yes, very tempting, but as I have repeatedly said no to your kind offer, the implications should be easy enough to understand. I shall have to be deprived of the beneficial interaction with Lady Catherine de Bourgh and must hope that I can find other edifying acquaintances. Now I must ask to be excused."
"Cousin Elizabeth, your behaviour is very singular. I would have you know that there are lots of women who would be exceedingly keen to marry a man like myself, a clergyman with solid principles, a good living, and excellent prospects."
"I am certain you are right, sir, and it seems to me that your wisest course is to approach one of them. Good day, Mr. Collins."
Posted on Monday, 11 February 2008
Cousin Elizabeth made a point of not slamming the door as she exited. Mr. Collins was left to fume alone. He was angry at being rejected, although after a moment of deliberation it was clear that he should not take her response quite seriously. As he had often thought that Cousin Elizabeth's words contained hidden meanings, he was unable to believe that her refusal was intended to be taken at face value either. She simply could not afford to reject a suitor in her present undowered state, and she had not offered any convincing excuses for declining his offer. He had to conclude that she sought to increase his affections by refusing him at first. She must have hoped that saying no would inspire him to utter more fervent declarations, no doubt a desire resulting from reading too many lurid novels.
He sighed in exasperation. Should he persist in his suit and try again? Lady Catherine was all for determination and perseverance, his nature had never been fickle, and Cousin Elizabeth was quite charming and practically irresistible, but really, why did she have to make such a difficult scene out of such a simple thing? What could be easier than to get engaged? People did it all the time. The man proposed, the woman accepted, they were congratulated by their friends and relatives, and the lady's parents organized a wedding. By rights, the choosing of a wedding dress should be the most demanding part of the affair, and the bridegroom had nothing to do with that.
Suddenly there was a dreadful commotion outside the room. Judging from the sound, a herd of squealing wild piglets seemed to be approaching. Or maybe it was Mrs. Bennet who had found out that Cousin Elizabeth had refused his offer. She called his name, wailing desperately. "Where is Mr. Collins? He must be reassured at once and told that you did not mean it. You must apologize, or he will not have you. Oh, to think that you could be engaged to him now!" Mrs. Bennet's voice rose to a frightening volume, shrieking and scolding Cousin Elizabeth. Mr. Collins winced and shuddered in distaste; the noise made his head throb.
He could not hear Cousin Elizabeth's replies now, but was she such a very loud woman too when she was upset? A clergyman should be married to a calm, quiet kind of female. Lady Catherine did not condone behaviour such as this. He was certain that Miss De Bourgh had never shrieked in her life.
Mrs. Bennet's reprimands were so thunderous that he could easily distinguish the words through closed doors. "You unfeeling, ungrateful, selfish girl! You could have saved us all from homelessness and starvation, but you refused, with not a thought for your mother! A serpent's tooth in my bosom! Are you out of your senses?"
Although Mr. Collins hated such caterwauling, especially now that he was not feeling quite right (had the sandwiches they had eaten at Netherfield gone off in the warmth?) he could sympathize with the expressed sentiments of Mrs Bennet. Maybe Cousin Elizabeth was depraved, daft or otherwise deranged. Why else would she have chosen to reject him? It was obvious that marriage to a respectable, honest, eminently eligible gentleman was preferable to living as a spinster, and she would have to be a fool or worse to think otherwise. She could not even cook, and yet she had thought herself too good for him.
Mr. Collins wandered towards the kitchen absent-mindedly. In a world gone mad, the scent of pots on stoves was the one thing that could be relied upon to calm one's senses. Maybe there would be more bacon.
He found Martha the cook in her usual haunt, stirring a thick stew, the aroma of which was somehow comforting. She had certainly heard the awful uproar, but as a well-trained servant should, she forbore from asking questions or commenting upon it. She only acknowledged his presence saying, "Sir." Then the blessed angel of mercy took one good look at him, nodded, and gave him another glass of the cooking sherry without him having even to ask. It was just a small one, mind, as he was no drunkard, and was not in the habit of emptying the wine cellars of his hosts.
She filled a bowl with the hot stew and told him to taste it to find out whether it was too salty. He breathed in the aroma, and went to heaven. He told her that the saltiness was exactly right, but maybe she could add just some more herbs. She took his sage advice (no pun intended), and the end result would have been fit for a queen. It would really be too bad if he could not marry into the Bennet family, as he would hate to miss the wedding breakfast created by their treasure of a cook.
The cook assigned some tasks for the young kitchen maid, and her swift efficiency in giving the directions reminded Mr. Collins of his desire to have his future wife learn her kitchen skills from the best. "How did you learn to be such a wonderful cook?"
"Wonderful? I have been cooking all my life, and feel that I am still just a beginner compared to my mother. She started to teach me twenty years ago, when I was no taller than that little broom over there in the corner."
"Have you ever taught anyone to cook?" he asked.
"Well, I have had several girls working under my supervision, sir."
"And have they achieved your excellence?"
"Annie is pretty clever with a saucepan, but of course it takes a very long time to learn to do everything properly."
Mr. Collins was shocked to find out that it took over twenty years to learn to cook. Had he thought about it at all, he would have supposed it to be a matter of few weeks. Roasting, frying, and keeping things immersed in hot water -- how hard could it be? But maybe there was more to the art than that. He wondered if Cousin Elizabeth knew how difficult it was, and if he had made a fatal faux-pas when he mentioned his expectation of having her learn cooking before getting her agreement to marry. Perhaps it had scared her. She must have supposed herself unable to acquire cooking skills in such a time that might elapse before their wedding, and had refused to marry because she did not believe herself up to the task.
Mrs. Bennet entered and said, surprised, "Good heavens, here you are, Mr. Collins. I looked for you everywhere." She spoke in a normal volume, which was a blessing, and was apparently intent on placating him. "I am sorry about the reply you received but please, do not despair. Elizabeth must have been momentarily befuddled by your proposal, but I assure you that she will soon change her mind and all will be well."
Mr. Collins considered this for a while and then decided that it had to be so. "I dare say that you are right. She is a woman of sense and cannot avoid seeing the qualities that make me a desirable husband. I expect that she shied away from the match because of her cooking skills."
"What on earth are you talking about? We have Banks to do the cooking, and the girls do certainly not have to toil in the kitchen. Lizzy does not have any cooking skills."
"Exactly so, Mrs. Bennet."
Even if Cousin Elizabeth said yes the next day, or the day after that, twenty years was a rather long time. Who knew what horrors his stomach would be subjected to in the meantime? He supposed that he could afford employ someone to feed him and teach her, but it would have been so much simpler if his intended had already been proficient in the art. Would his wife expect him to taste and praise her rations, while she was still only learning? His dreams of domestic felicity had always involved a cherished lady smiling at him while stirring a soup, creating amazing sensual pleasures for him to savour like his mother had done for his father, but now it started to seem more than a little impractical. He had been told to marry a gentlewoman, and it seemed to him that they were in general slightly backward in such talents.
Mrs. Bennet smiled at him benevolently. "Do not worry, I am determined that the wedding will take place if I have to drag her to the altar with my own two hands. I will speak to my daughter and soon make her see reason, and her father will force her if need be. She takes these foolish starts sometimes, and can be quite headstrong, but she will make you a lovely wife."
"Will she? Oh dear, I am not at all sure that I wish to be married to a headstrong woman who needs to be dragged to the altar. It would make a most dreadful commotion, and cause unseemly amounts of unpleasant gossip, which Lady Catherine would not take kindly to."
Mr. Collins did not at all like the rather alarming direction this conversation was taking. To think that his wedding would be like a dramatic scene from a cheap novel or a distasteful play -- it was not to be borne. Clergymen should be married quietly, keeping their dignity intact and honouring the occasion with all the solemn reverence that was owed to the sacrament.
"Oh no, Mr. Collins, you mistake my meaning. She is quite tractable, indeed a most amiable child, and there will be no need at all to drag her anywhere once she is made to realize the wisdom of this match. I dare say it is only that your proposal took her by surprise."
"Do you then think that I should have wooed her for a longer time, to reassure her of the intensity and constancy of my affection for her?"
Mrs. Bennet smiled coyly. "I am sure that you know best how to proceed, sir, but maybe just a slight increase in attention, dazzling her with your proficiency at the dance floor, eloquent conversation, elegant compliments... Girls enjoy that sort of thing."
Mr. Collins frowned. "I am sure that my patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh would have approved of my conduct, which is not outside the spectrum of what is considered acceptable in the least. I have been under the certain impression that my behaviour has been quite solicitous and considerate, and it has always been my intention to be mindful of proprieties."
Mrs. Bennet's cough was delicate. "Do not suppose that I blame you in the least. I am certain that you said everything that was to be expected of you, and nothing more, but I do think that you should have danced twice with Lizzy instead of that frumpy Charlotte Lucas. Take it from me, Lizzy may very well have had the mistaken notion that you intended to court Miss Lucas, and that would account for her refusal. No girl likes to think that the objects of the affections of her suitor are interchangeable, if I may say so, but once she is put to the right of it, she will delight in marrying you," Mrs. Bennet concluded hopefully.
Mr. Collins was tempted to snort contemptuously - interchangeable indeed. Had not he focused on Cousin Elizabeth from the first moment, by all the force of his passion? Were she a reasonable kind of a female, she should have perceived it at once.
"Are you saying that she is of a jealous temperament? For I must remind you that I am a man of the cloth, and as such it is my duty to direct and shepherd also the female members of my cherished flock, and it would not suit me in the least to have a wife who would fall into green-eyed vapours every time she saw me paying some necessary attention to another woman in my priestly capacity."
Mrs. Bennet was able to honestly assure him that she did not think it likely that Elizabeth would be jealous of Mr. Collins's attentions. She had never seen any evidence that her second eldest had tendencies to fall into vapours, whatever the provocation, although surely it was only natural that a woman would not wish to see her husband hanging on another woman's sleeve. However, seeing as how Mr. Collins was a clergyman, and a parson to the great and discerning Lady Catherine de Bourgh no less, certainly he would give his wife no reason for undue anxiety.
Mr. Collins agreed that the fineness of his principles would prevent any offensive conduct towards his wife; it was unthinkable that he should ever err on the side of immorality. Considering this, it became even more incomprehensible why his suit had been rejected, when by rights it should have been accepted with alacrity. Women moved in mysterious ways. The question was: how far should a gentleman go to accommodate their whims?
Perhaps Cousin Elizabeth was determined to torment him in the hopes of testing his affections. She might have been reading those silly novels in which ladies did that, rejecting proposals right and left, causing the poor men untold agony and making them grow even fonder by the end of the book. While tormenting their suitors might have been the custom of modish females, the practice was starting to look very repugnant to him, and it impressed him that marriage to any such creature was probably not something to which he should aspire. Their habit of making a man struggle for their notice was perhaps adorable at first, but once one gave the matter more thought, it became clear that it was a repulsive tradition, and a clergyman's wife might need to be more serious and accommodating.
The cook was busily slicing some vegetables. It occurred to him to wonder whether it might not be quite the thing to conduct such a conversation in the hearing of servants. Well, one servant, as Martha the cook had sent the maid on some kind of errand. She added more ingredients into that stew of hers. She appeared very well-bred, almost succeeding in looking like she had not heard a thing. If she happened to be a gossiping sort, she would have such a juicy tale to tell that it would keep her popular for quite some time. But Mr. Collins resolved that it was of no consequence; let her tell the tale, as he had nothing to be ashamed of.
"I dare say she has an artistic temperament," he said in a dejected tone, and snatched a carrot.
"Oh yes, my Lizzy is a most imaginative sort, very creative, absolutely charming," Mrs. Bennet reassured him.
"Mrs. Bennet, a clergyman's wife needs to be very down to earth and pragmatic, not subject to any flights of fancy, nor any queer starts," Mr. Collins said, sounding suddenly very firm. He was arriving at a decision at last.
"No, no, absolutely not," she said quickly. "That is my Lizzy down to the tiniest detail, a very calm and collected girl. She has not a scatterbrained thought in her head. Extremely sensible, that is how I should describe her."
"Would you say that it was sensible of her to refuse my offer of marriage?" Mr. Collins inquired, in much the same tone he would have used if he had asked Mrs. Bennet whether she thought that the whore of Babylon was a virtuous woman.
His hostess was flustered. "No, of course that was a quite silly thing to do, but you may be sure that she was only astonished by your proposal and uncertain how to respond, having not received any offers before and being unaccustomed to the correct forms of conduct."
"With all due respect, Mrs. Bennet, I had thought that the rules for such situations were simple enough. The lady says yes, or no, but preferably yes. From that, everything else should follow quite naturally, but in this case the events took a most unnatural course, and even my extraordinary patience is being taxed to its limits."
Yes, there should be limits. Dignity demanded it, and few gentlemen would repeat their proposals after being so unceremoniously rejected. Forgiveness was a virtue in general, but lack of pride was not. With a heavy heart, Mr. Collins decided that it was impossible for him to renew his addresses. However charming his cousin might be, a good man's companionship should not be so lightly spurned, and Cousin Elizabeth needed to be taught a lesson. She would think twice before refusing another respectable marriage offer.
This he told Mrs. Bennet, "Regrettably I must disappoint my cousin's hopes, as well as any your excellent self may have entertained. A frivolous woman would not be a suitable companion to me, and therefore I must look elsewhere for a wife. I shall not be toyed with, and henceforth I do not intend to upset Cousin Elizabeth any further with my offers."
"Oh, oh!" It was back to that shrill voice. "What have I done to deserve this? Elizabeth, you disgraceful wretch!"
"It would certainly not do for me to be marrying a disgraceful wretch," Mr. Collins pointed out, quite reasonably in his own opinion.
Mrs. Bennet shrieked and clutched her bosom. "Hill! Hill! Banks! Where are my smelling salts? I am about to faint."
She did not faint, however, which Mr. Collins was grateful about, it being most inconvenient for gentlemen to be obliged to dart across rooms to try to catch and support fainting bodies, especially as he did not count lightning reflexes among his many virtues. She was too busy fretting and complaining about Elizabeth's disobliging treatment of her mother to fall into an unconscious state. All her other girls were so much better behaved, so much more dutiful, and she would wager that Lady Lucas never had such trouble with Charlotte. It was quite beyond her to understand why Lizzy insisted on going on so independently, unlike her sisters.
This mention of Lizzy's sisters led to an idea that brightened her aspect for a small while.
"You can have one of the younger girls. They are quite jolly, and completely unattached, and as it was only yesterday that you were asking me about all the girls, and had not at all made up your mind that it should be Elizabeth, it cannot matter to you very much whom you marry."
Mr. Collins could not like this remark, and told her so. As a clergyman, he was most discriminating about whom he married because of the solemnity of his position. Being elevated to the responsibility of shepherding his parish, and enjoying the patronage of the most venerable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, it was unthinkable for him to marry just a random person. It had to be a very suitable woman and a match carefully considered to ensure that the rector's home and marriage were an appropriate example for all his parishioners to follow. Besides, he had noticed that Miss Catherine and Miss Lydia seemed to be very much fond of a red coat, which meant that a poor cleric could not hope to rise very high in their estimation.
"Well then, Mary will marry you. Surely you cannot call her frivolous and she knows her duty to her family. Yes, Mary is just the wife for you."
Mr. Collins actually considered this for a moment. "Can she cook?"
"No, of course not." Mrs. Bennet said indignantly. "We are not so poor that our daughters have to do menial tasks."
Mr. Collins took exception to Mrs. Bennet's attitude. She spoke as if there was something wrong with women who cooked or taught their daughters to do so. His own dear mother had certainly not thought so. Why, she had been the best baker in the whole of Suffolk.
"Then I am afraid that marriage to Mary is out of the question," he said firmly. "I do not want to wait for years while my wife attends to the missing parts of her education."
Mrs. Bennet wailed at this insult. She declared that everyone had said that Mary's education was very profound, and nobody read more sermons than Mary. "Ask her anything about the Proverbs!"
"That is very well, but one cannot live on Proverbs alone."
"She is also very skilled in playing the pianoforte, and ever so diligent with the needle. You would not regret marrying her."
"I am certain that her embroidery would not let anyone down, but it is a great shame that she will be unable to tend to her husband's nourishment."
This was too much for Mrs. Bennet. "Why do you need your wife to feed you? Is it an economic measure? You could always employ a cook."
Mr. Collins remembered his late mother, in an almost clean apron, handing out hot buns fresh from the oven to his father and himself, a boy of five or so. It was a fond memory. He thought he could still smell cinnamon. He did not believe that a hired servant could ever recreate that warm, maternal ambience, although a good cook could do a lot with potatoes.
Aloud he said, "I am just convinced that it helps to create a cosy home atmosphere. Besides, one cannot always rely on servants, as they insist on having days off to attend burials, they have to be dismissed for impropriety or get married and leave with a moment's notice, and their aging mothers are constantly dying of contagious fevers or breaking their legs and needing care. Lady Catherine de Bourgh always says that the mistress of the house should have a sufficient working knowledge of household tasks to be able to direct and control the domestic staff. "
Although his explanation was entirely reasonable and comprehensive, Mrs. Bennet seemed inclined to be argumentative.
"If it comes to that, your wife may also have relatives who break their legs. I am quite astonished that such a fine lady as Lady Catherine de Bourgh should do cooking and cleaning herself; one would have supposed that Rosings had servants enough that the mistress of the house need only hire a competent housekeeper. But you know them better than I do, so my thoughts are of no consequence. I presume that Miss de Bourgh does the gardening in a most graceful fashion."
Somehow Mrs. Bennet had got a completely wrong idea, and Mr. Collins hastened to reassure her that the staff situation at Rosings was quite unexceptionable, that Lady Catherine was able to instruct and supervise without lowering herself to the level of a mere housekeeper, although the impressive liveries of the Rosings footmen were chosen according to Lady Catherine's own impeccable taste, that Miss de Bourgh occasionally did some very sophisticated flower arrangements but she had no need to dirty her own noble hands with something as common as soil, and that it was only natural, as Lady Catherine always said, that those of the highest rank and most elevated position in the society lived in grander circumstances than those who had humbler origins, less affluent prospects, and more modest pretensions, and had to take a more active part in the daily chores of their household.
Mrs. Bennet stared at him dourly. "I hope that we have no pretensions, Mr. Collins, but it is quite out of line to suggest that our birth is so low and our wealth so unsatisfactory that we should treat our daughters as unpaid kitchen servants. We may not have smart livery but we do have a good cook."
Mr. Collins was quick to protest that he had utmost respect for the Bennets and their wealth, to say nothing of the cook. Despite his decision not to marry into the Bennet family, it was in his interests to stay on their good side. Although he must be the most severely wronged party in the affair, he was worried that Mrs. Bennet had been offended, and behaved in his most polite fashion when he said that the Longbourn dinners were utterly delicious, a treat for one's palate, and that the choice of foods was entirely suitable for the Bennets' position in the society, achieving the perfect balance between too sumptuous and overly parsimonious, which, according to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, was where many genteel families went wrong in their estimation.
However, Mrs. Bennet was not placated by his assurances.
"Even Sir William Lucas is able to employ a sufficient number of servants that Lady Lucas, Charlotte and Maria are not forced to toil in the kitchen."
"Working is good for one's immortal soul," said Mr. Collins. "If girls are allowed to have idle hands, they may get into mischief."
Although intended as spiritual advice, it seemed that this was interpreted as an insult to Mrs. Bennet's maternal practices. He was told that her daughters were not idle and had never harmed anyone. If Mr. Collins only knew how hard it was to raise five daughters, he would have another tone. Mrs. Bennet had done all she could as a mother, and let nobody say any different. Then it was something about her poor nerves, and how nobody took any notice of her suffering. Elizabeth was so ungrateful, and he would regret not taking Mary, and what would become of them now?
Mr. Collins frowned at the outburst. "I am sorry to say that marriage to any of your daughters is quite out of question now, but it is not necessary to disquiet yourself so. Pray, do calm down, Mrs. Bennet."
"Calm down! Now there is nothing else for us, but the hedgerows!"
"What?" Mr. Collins could not comprehend why she chose to change the subject and rant about gardening all of a sudden but he deemed it wisest to humour her. If Mrs. Bennet was suffering from some dangerous nervous disease, she should not be agitated any further. "Your hedgerows are very neatly cut and the pride of Longbourn, Mrs. Bennet."
Did nervous disturbance run in her family? Maybe he had had a lucky escape. It would have been too devious by far if those artful Bennets had snared him into a marriage to a mentally unstable person.
"Their cut will not comfort us much, will it?" She moaned and wiped tears from her eyes. "We are ruined, the whole lot of us."
Mr. Collins had no idea what to do with a weeping woman. "Have a biscuit," he offered. "They are utterly delicious."
"A biscuit! You are offering me a biscuit in my own kitchen!" She sobbed and sniffled more loudly. He could not understand why the mention of a biscuit upset her so. They truly were an extraordinary delight, but perhaps Mrs. Bennet was against refreshments in between meals.
The cook gave her mistress a handkerchief. This made Mrs. Bennet take note of her surroundings and she seemed to remember that she was not alone with Mr. Collins. Her sobbing ceased abruptly. "Banks! What are you doing here, listening to our private conversation?" she said rather angrily.
"I am preparing dinner, ma'am."
To Mr. Collins this seemed like a legitimate justification to find oneself in the kitchen, and maybe Mrs. Bennet could see some merit in it as well, as she merely muttered something vague about the nastiness of eavesdropping and turned back to Mr. Collins.
"And what are you doing in the kitchen, Mr. Collins? We have a very nice parlour in which our guests usually like to spend their time."
Mr. Collins could not think of a reply. He could hardly explain to his hostess that he was attracted to the kitchen by the cooking sherry and the extra meals he was in the habit of taking there, and as he had never thought of rehearsing useful compliments one could utter about the charms of kitchens, he was at a loss for a suitable excuse to be there. "This is a very nice kitchen too, a most spacious room," he finally said lamely.
"I dare say you are quite looking forward to inheriting it!" Mrs. Bennet glanced at the remains of his rich snack. "Do treat it as quite your own already, if you please."
"Yes, indeed I am not averse to the thought of owning Longbourn one day, as it is such a respectable estate, although naturally one must wish Mr. Bennet to enjoy a long and happy life yet. But I had hoped that I might live here with one of your daughters. However, it is no good lamenting for things that will never be. I have to tell you that my patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh will be most displeased when she hears this tale. It was of her instigation that I resolved to woo among your daughters, as she said that nothing would be more suitable than for me to marry one of my cousins, my patroness not being generally in favour of marriage between wholly unconnected people. She will not like hearing that your daughter's conduct made a match impossible."
One could not say that Mrs. Bennet had heretofore spoken in wholly unemotional tones but this definitely roused her ire. It made her stand up straight and gave her voice a steely undertone, which was much scarier than her screeching or her sobbing. "Mr. Collins, if you insist on blabbering so, I must regretfully inform you that it is all nonsense. My daughters bear no duty towards Lady Catherine, and none of them are under any obligation to marry you against their will, just because some interfering old biddy thought that they should."
This was Mrs. Bennet's parting remark. Blabbering, nonsense? Some interfering old biddy? Yes, she was clearly deranged.
"No doubt it is all for the best," Mr. Collins said, more to himself than the cook whose presence he had momentarily forgotten. She could make herself invisible in times of need like any good servants should. Now she materialized with a cup of very strong tea.
"Maybe you could use this, sir."
"Thank you." The lingering effects of shock made Mr. Collins give expression to his gratitude in an unusually concise manner, but it was really most solicitous of her. "Thank you, it is most kind."
The tea was brewed very strong and had a smoky scent. It was exactly what he needed after his trying morning. "Would you pour me another glass of that sherry to go with the tea?"
She paused. "I would, sir, but I am not sure that my mistress would approve."
"Your thoughtfulness does you credit, but I assure you that it is caused by nothing but idle worry. You heard her as well as myself, I am certain, when she told me that I should consider this kitchen and the contents thereof as if they were my own already."
"That is why I am worried, sir."
Mr. Collins could not quite understand what she meant, but the question became immaterial as she left the bottle on the table and allowed him to pour himself a glass of sherry anyway. It made him feel a lot less queasy and distracted his thoughts from the unpleasantness he had just gone through. He breathed in very deep a couple of times. The air in the kitchen was fragrant and the rich scents reminded him of his mother, busily stirring kettles and pans.
He began to praise the wonderful scent of whatever it was that the cook was frying now, thus giving her a delicate hint that he would not be loath to eat some of that excellent dish. Food was always so comforting. He told her that his mother had made a very similar dish; could it be that the recipe was from Suffolk? According to his humble opinion, some of the best flavours in the country were to be found there, and, although some might say that his estimation was not impartial due to his affinity to his birthplace and that such rural delicacies paled when compared to more sophisticated kitchen artistry, personally Mr. Collins was quite convinced that one's palate could not be but flattered and pleased by the superior quality of straightforward good old English food, where the natural taste of the first-rate ingredients was not spoiled by the overabundance of exotic spices, and not even the queen, or Lady Catherine de Bourgh, could find anything wanting in such a worthy harvest. In short, the food probably tasted equally wonderful and he hoped that she could share the recipe for his own servants to reproduce.
"I am sorry, sir, but there is no recipe. It is just leftovers, sir, chopped and fried, for the servants' meal."
Mr. Collins was astounded that leftovers could have such an amazing aroma. Oh, to have his own leftovers smell so good would be a fine thing indeed. He felt even more convinced that in order to become truly happy he should find a wife with some competence in the kitchen.
"No doubt it is all for the best," he repeated when a steaming plate was before him. "I gathered from Mrs. Bennet's conversation that none of the Bennet girls have ever stepped in the kitchen."
"Well, Miss Lydia and Miss Kitty come in quite often to pick up biscuits or some sandwiches."
"But nobody comes to help with the cooking?"
"No, there is no need, sir. I've taught the kitchen maid to take care of most chores so I'm not alone, although I could manage on my own unless there is a dinner party."
Mr. Collins could believe in her ability to manage, as she looked very efficient. She was wearing a serviceable dark dress and a white apron, presenting a picture of a resourceful woman who knew what she was about. Despite her morning of hard work in the kitchen her attire was free of wrinkles and only her apron was stained with some tomato sauce, another treat for certain. The tidy state of the kitchen also proclaimed her competence.
The aforementioned kitchen maid came back to the kitchen carrying a covered basket and appeared a little out of breath.
"You took your time returning," Martha said. "Did you happen to run into the stable boy on your way?"
Her tone was friendly enough, but the embarrassed maid stammered something about questions that the stable boy had asked. Mr. Collins briefly considered giving her some advice regarding the state of her morals and the fate of her soul, but somehow he let the occasion slip by. Although one should never take one's private concerns into account when the spiritual welfare of one's flock was in question, he had lately been through such tremendous emotional strain that he felt he could be excused his omission. She did have the local parson to advise her, after all, and besides, a small emergency required the maid's immediate attention. The lemons had gone mouldy.
As Mr. Bennet always wanted to have lemon with his fish, the maid was sent to fetch more of that splendid fruit from Meryton. She was firmly told that she had to be back before dinner, and the maid promised faithfully that she would not waste any time on the way. It was clear that Martha Banks tolerated no nonsense in her kitchen and had the authority to make sure her wishes were taken into account.
The opinions of such a capable woman seemed worthwhile, so Mr. Collins asked, "Why do you suppose Miss Elizabeth refused my offer?"
"I dare say she must have had her reasons. But it is not my place to speculate, sir."
He could admire her discretion in not discussing the private affairs of her employers, but in this instance some speculation might not have gone amiss. Given the scandalous way he had been mistreated by the Bennets Mr. Collins himself felt no compunction against speculating as much as he wished, so he said, "Do you think she was wrong to refuse?"
"I could not say, sir."
"Would you say no if you were proposed to by a gentleman of excellent reputation, irreproachable morals and superior connections?"
Martha laughed. "If a handsome foreign prince offered his hand and fortune to me I might not say no. But neither is very likely to happen, is it?"
"Likely or not, as a woman of great sense, maturity, practicality, and discernment, you would have to accept, would you?"
"If you put like that, I could hardly do anything else, could I? By refusing I'd be condemning myself as a silly chit."
Mr. Collins was enormously flattered and encouraged by this obvious admiration. She thought that only a silly chit would refuse him, and she was most certainly right. In retrospect it was a matter of great marvel and extremely strange that a man of his wisdom and considerate nature had been so easily misled that he had proposed to silly chits not once or twice but three times. But fourth time would be the charm. He was done with being taken in by elegant females who were holding out for lords and despised good men of character. The Bennets were very sly and scheming people. To think of the nerve of Mrs. Bennet, trying to deceive him into believing that she had five highly marriageable daughters, when in truth none of them were suitable in the least!
But this visit with the Bennets had been most instructive. The next time he proposed he would have his values straight. Now he knew what was important in life and in a wife, and would get a favourable answer to his next offer of marriage.
"Will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?"
"What?" Her exclamation was rather rude, but he could not blame her. His impulsive offer had come as a slight surprise even to himself.
She stared at him in momentary confusion, then took the sherry bottle. "I dare say that you do not want any more of this, sir."
"On the contrary, I like it very much," Mr. Collins reassured her. It would not do to have her think him dissatisfied with anything in her kitchen. "It is the best sherry I have tasted in a long time, with just the right blend of sweetness and bitterness. I must commend you."
"I am glad that you enjoyed it, but there is really no need to commend me, because I have not produced it and am not even responsible for choosing it."
"Yes, well, in any case there is no doubt that you poured it into a glass in an exceedingly sophisticated manner." Her diffidence was rather becoming, he thought. It made it difficult to think of suitable compliments to offer her, but maybe she would be the sort of wife who would not require excessive admiration.
"It is very good of you to approve. Now, I really should be starting to deal with the salmon and the meat, so if you wouldn't mind, sir..."
"I could hardly object to any delicacy you produce," Mr. Collins said gallantly. "But should we not discuss the date first?"
"Yes. When do you wish to be married?"
"Pray, do stop jesting on my expense."
He realized to his dismay that he had been too precipitous in making his proposal, and she would need some convincing after all. But it was all right because she was just astonished, not opposed to marriage with him like Cousin Elizabeth.
She was quite pretty, actually.
"I would not jest about marriage, such a solemn state. I want you as my wife, as my trusted helpmate and my lifelong companion."
"You cannot mean that, sir. I am just the cook here."
"Mmm, yes, and what a cook you have turned out to be." Complimenting Martha's kitchen artistry would never be a problem. "Your special vegetable fares and sweet delicacies are by far the best I have come across in recent years, and you should know that I have been lucky enough to be invited to dine at Rosings, the country seat of the great Lady Catherine de Bourgh, where most exceptional food is always served."
"I may have heard you mention her... But I have not prepared anything that you could not find in any decent kitchen."
"Now, now, my dear," Mr. Collins said benevolently. "Modesty is rendered remarkably ridiculous in the presence of such culinary genius."
"I thank you for your kind words and am pleased that you like what I have done but pray, let us speak no more of it." She seemed flustered. "I have a dinner to prepare, and I am sure that you will enjoy the veal, as I know you have a preference for the peppery sauce."
"I shall tell you what my preference is. I would like to enjoy your veal for the rest of my life. Because every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, praising the Providence for the gifts."
He sipped the excellent sherry. As good as it had been previously, the taste improved on further acquaintance, so he took another mouthful. Praise be the gifts.
Yes, she looked very fine indeed. Her healthy and blossoming appearance was a great improvement over Miss Elizabeth's pale and indifferent beauty.
"You need not worry about my ability to provide for you materially, and as a husband I intend to be a fair and considerate partner. Do let us have our future happiness settled now."
"Your family would certainly cut you off if you settled your happiness with a servant, sir."
"I have little family left. But what was good enough for my father is good enough for me. He married his cook-housekeeper, you know."
"Your mother was a cook?"
"Yes. She baked the best scones anyone has ever eaten."
"I see." She fell silent and went back to her veal, carving it very carefully.
Mr Collins was slightly uneasy that she might be right about familial trouble. His family now consisted of little more than his Bennet cousins, and they might easily cut him off because of his marriage. It had happened before when the current Mr. Bennet's parents took umbrage with the match his father made. But his father had not seemed overly worried about it, and in any event, it might be uncomfortable to return to the Bennet household considering the way things had gone with Cousin Elizabeth. They could not do anything about the entailment so his inheritance was safe.
Considering that the woman of his choice was so well informed about his another recent proposal, it was perhaps inevitable that he should have to explain it to her.
"You want a gentlewoman," Martha said. "You have just proposed to Miss Elizabeth not an hour ago, sir. Why would you want me instead? You will regret your offer later and thank me for keeping my head upon my shoulders and pointing out the madness of it."
"I suppose that you think that I have chosen you in a fit of pique over Miss Elizabeth's refusal. But let me assure you that it is not so. I do not deny that I may have had plans to marry someone of genteel birth but indeed it is the woman's character than should count more than her family. Honesty and hard work are exemplary qualities in a clergyman's spouse, far more desirable than the frippery follies of a fashionable female. I am positive that you have all the necessary attributes to make a good wife."
"I make a good cook but how could I be a suitable spouse to you? I am a coachman's daughter. I am not educated and I have not been taught gentle manners."
"Possibly so, but unfortunate as though it may be, I am not going to hold your lineage against you when we are married. While your manners are such as not to offend, I am willing to supply you with knowledge about modern etiquette, and I hope that I do not boast in vain when I say that I could improve your understanding of necessary factual information. It is the husband's duty to instruct his wife when necessary."
"Yes, but..." She still looked hesitant. It was regrettable, as Mr. Collins would have liked to seal the engagement in a fast and easy manner. One eloquent proposal a day is plenty and two can be quite tiresome, but at least the cook's objections made more sense than Cousin Elizabeth's.
"In all essentials you are exactly what I require in a wife. You are tidy, respectful, modest and unassuming. You know your duty, work hard and have shown yourself to be most capable in all matters culinary. I especially admire your potatoes, and the treacle tart, and the turkey was excellent. Judging by the efficiency with which you run your domain and keep the kitchen maid on the straight and narrow, you are able to exercise control and have a beneficial moral influence on your dependants. All this makes me think that you would be a very proper choice for a clergyman's spouse."
She pondered upon that for a while. "In effect, what you require of a good wife is rather like what you require of a good cook."
"Yes." It had never occurred to him to think about the question before, but Mr. Collins was pleased with the way she cut straight to the heart of the matter. His father had found a great cook and a wonderful wife in the same person, and one could not deny the definite advantages of such an arrangement.
However, it was not his desire to sound unromantic, so he felt it incumbent upon him to remark that in addition to all the rational reasons to marry, he was sure that the union could also bring them joy and pleasure, and he was not in any way averse to any conjugal, um, comfort.
"Well, that is good to hear, I suppose."
"I expect that you desire children."
She paused before replying, but he thought that he could observe a certain longing in her expression. "Yes, I would love to have a child of my own one day."
"You need not fear that I could not provide for children, for I have a very good living and you know that I am to inherit Longbourn one day. I do not mean to imply that you are mercenary, but you must admit that it will be a most advantageous match for you. I have a very good living and have been in the habit of interacting with the rich and nobly born. You will be able to make the acquaintance of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter."
"They might not be eager to make the acquaintance of a cook."
"Oh, but they will not. They will be making the acquaintance of Mrs. Collins," he said, as if it ended all argument, and indeed it almost did. He believed that due to his own consequence the future Mrs. Collins would be treated with the dignity and respect due to a clergyman's wife, and he thought that his intended seemed satisfied with this answer.
"So, you are really in earnest? Are you willing to marry me although it must be an unwelcome match among your acquaintances?"
"I am indeed. But I must remind you that you have already agreed. You said that you would marry if you received a proposal from a well-connected, morally upright gentleman of good reputation. So, unless you are willing to state that I am not such a man, you are now honour bound to have me."
It was not often that Mr. Collins made jokes, so he was absurdly pleased to see Martha laugh. It was a good sign for their marriage, he thought.
"In that case I suppose I may as well consent. Thank you, I will marry you."
"It is not enough that he is to rob us out of a house and home; he has to steal our cook too!"
If Mrs. Bennet had been upset when hearing about Elizabeth's refusal to marry Mr. Collins or Mr. Collins's refusal to marry Mary, that was nothing to the shock and distress she felt when she heard the news of that gentleman's engagement. She had been betrayed by her daughter, her cousin, and her trusted servant, all in the space of an hour or two; was it any wonder she was feeling faint? Of these three acts of disloyalty, the last one was probably felt the most acutely, not entirely because it forced them to do without a cook for quite some time. Naturally Mrs. Bennet turned Martha out at once, without references, for who could take such an insult? To be replaced as the mistress of Longbourn by one's own cook! She had started out as a kitchen maid, but now she would eventually preside over the Longbourn dinner table. To think that the treacherous woman had been using Mrs. Bennet's kitchen and Mrs. Bennet's groceries to seduce her guest! For years she had said yes ma'am and no ma'am while plotting Mrs. Bennet's downfall! To be repaid in such an infamous manner for one's own kindness! It was not to be borne. Mrs. Bennet alternated between being completely livid and totally devastated, and while she had to stay prostrate in bed on account of her nerves for days, this author is certain that nobody could blame her. Her distressed seclusion in her room ended only when it became clear that no other servant in the house could properly take care of the meals, and she found it imperative to engage a new cook at once. Mrs. Bennet insisted that it was necessary to go to London to personally interview prospective candidates for the position, as it was essential that the new cook be old, ugly, and preferably pockmarked, and the agencies were sadly remiss in supplying the employers with information about those attributes.
Due to Mrs. Bennet's forceful reaction it became desirable to have a very short engagement, and although Mr. Collins disapproved of whirlwind marriages in principle, thinking that any unseemly haste in arranging a wedding was a sign of sad impulsivity, deplorable impatience and quite possibly indecency, he knew his own case to be completely different and his motives pure. If it occurred to him that another benefit of speedy marriage would be that he could have Martha presiding over his kitchen earlier, it had certainly no bearing upon his decision.
In spite of the constant inconvenience of having to entertain a snack-craving gentleman in her kitchen, Martha Collins was not forced to regret her acceptance of her husband's proposal. Financially and socially the match represented a great advancement for her, and while she was not of a materialistic temperament, she was prudent enough to appreciate the advantages. There was no great romantic attachment on either side, but she had not been brought up to expect any such thing, and wordy though he might be, Mr. Collins turned out to be a perfectly kind and easily manageable spouse. If she occasionally was a bit sarcastic with him he never noticed, and indeed there were many good qualities about him. Keeping him happy was the simplest thing on earth to a cook of Martha's competence. While there were problems, mainly caused by the third party to their marriage, namely his patroness, there was generally no difficulty smoothing over the disagreements provided that one could discuss the matter during a good dinner. She was plainspoken yet knew how to be diplomatic, which stood her in good stead in her interactions with the people of Hunsford. On one or two occasions she was even able to advise a female parishioner in a moral matter, although not quite as often as Mr. Collins might have wished, Martha being of the opinion that it did not behoove her to stick her nose into matters that were none of her concern. As such, her word was perhaps taken more seriously than if she had been in the habit of offending people regularly.
Despite all Mrs. Collins's virtues, the rector's choice of wife was not a popular one with his patroness. His defiance greatly vexed Lady Catherine, who had expressly told him to choose a gentlewoman, and was most seriously put out that he had wed to please himself instead of his patroness. She inspected the new Mrs. Collins once, got unfavourable responses for her benevolent advice on all matters kitchen-related, and henceforth refused to invite her parson to attend upon her, to the clergyman's great agony. Lady Catherine let everyone in the parish to know that she was in favour of constructive interaction between all classes of people and it was not her place to deny anyone, however low-born, the benefit of her gracious condescension and superior wisdom, but that Martha Collins was a despicable, impertinent upstart who was not worthy of being a rector's wife, and that if everyone should just keep to their rightful lot in life this world would be much happier place for all. It is not recorded whether the parishioners believed her on these points, but when she went as far as to claim that Mrs. Collins was not much of a cook, she was instantly proven a liar to those lucky enough to sample Mrs. Collins's hospitality.
As regards Mrs. Collins, she was not enchanted with Lady Catherine either. When asked whether she thought that Rosings with all of its chimneys and vast windows was grand indeed, Mrs. Collins informed her husband that in her opinion the old cat had many more windows that were good for her. Startled, he remonstrated that she should not speak of his esteemed patroness in such a rude manner and vaguely reminded her that one should fear God.
"I'll fear Him but if that conceited woman is a deity, that's the first time I've heard of it!"
She told him severely that she could spare no time for high-and-mighty females who put dead birds in their hats, raised their daughters to resemble said birds, and kept their noses where their forehead should be.
This incensed speech came as quite a shock for Mr. Collins, and before he had time to recover enough for a reply, she further incapacitated him by saying, "What's more, she doesn't know a thing about preparing hare for dinner. The meat would be dry as tinder and just about as inedible if cooked for as long as she says."
He spluttered in obvious distress but Mrs. Collins pressed cruelly on. "You don't put egg white in white soup either. Everyone knows that white soup is made of egg yolks."
Everyone except Lady Catherine, apparently.
This fair completed the destruction of Mr. Collins's worldview, Mr. Collins having previously been utterly convinced that Lady Catherine de Bourgh knew everything about everything. But experience had taught him that his wife definitely was an expert on how to cook hare and white soup and thus he was obliged to take her word over Lady Catherine's, although it was a painful process.
As Lady Catherine's satisfying attentions grew scarce, life in Hunsford became nigh unbearable for Mr. Collins, and he sought to make changes. The luck was with him, and with some prompting from his wife, he discovered issues and problems in his parish that demanded his urgent attention almost as much as Lady Catherine had used to, which took his mind off his loss. In any case, a good meal did much more to ensure a man's happiness than discussing the positioning of shelves with an old lady. As a consequence of his charitable aspirations he became somewhat useful to his parishioners, and in due course he found out that they were mostly simple folk who responded better to plain talking than long-winded speeches. His copy of Fordyce's sermons was unaccountably misplaced, and its fate remained a mystery despite extensive searches throughout the parsonage and the church. Due to his inability to quote Mr. Fordyce his sermons were shortened a great deal, and even more so after Mrs. Collins pointed out to him that his normally noisy parishioners in the back row had been unusually quiet during a lecture on self-control, not because they were attentive to his words but because they were asleep. Since his patroness no longer encouraged flattery and excessive adoration of herself, and as even his wife tended to ignore him when he was making no sense, Mr. Collins was eventually forced to try to adopt new methods of communication even in his daily interactions. This was not universally successful, and Mr. Bennet continued to consider him the most absurd character in his acquaintance, but the change in him was great enough that it is fair to say that the chain of events started by his tasting the superior potatoes of Martha the cook proved to be the making of Mr. Collins.
Unfortunately for him and his wife, those exemplary vegetables were also his undoing. Never having been one to waste food, he ate huge portions of his wife's cooking on each meal, which quickly showed in his midsection. The excess weight made it difficult for him to walk and finally contributed to his untimely demise one Sunday, when he had a fatal stroke in church while reading a poignant, strangely convincing sermon on the sin of gluttony. However, his last years had been happy and satisfying, and had someone been able to ask, he would have reported no regrets, although it was a bit unfortunate that he died before he had time to eat his wife's excellent Sunday luncheon.
Sadly Mr. and Mrs. Collins had not been blessed with a child. Since Mr. Collins died before siring a son, there were no remaining male heirs to succeed Mr. Bennet as the owner of Longbourn, and the entail could be broken. The property was to be inherited by his daughters and no one would have to spend any considerable time in the hedgerows once Mr. Bennet died. This gave Mr. Bennet a more optimistic outlook on life, which enabled him to live to a very ripe old age. It also improved the state of Mrs. Bennet's nerves tremendously, although she kept carrying a bottle of smelling salts with her out of habit. Although she could never think of Mrs. Collins in quite cordial terms after the way that odious woman had schemed to seduce Mr. Collins, she sent her a very civil letter of condolences upon the gentleman's death, and was even able to feel genuine sympathy for her, albeit more for losing Longbourn than for losing her husband.
Despite being deprived of that magnificent estate, Mrs. Collins was left quite well off, and was able to realize her life-long dream of visiting the restaurants of London where she would be diligently waited upon instead of waiting upon others. She found that the taste of food was improved when one did not have to toil for it, but the size of the portions served there seemed rather stingy for her, so one could not live on restaurant fare forever. After a decent mourning period she married again. Her affectionate second husband liked her food as much as the late rector, but was more capable of practicing moderation and was thus able to avoid obesity and early death. They employed servants enough that Martha never had to cook again unless she wanted to, which she did often enough to keep her husband from starving.
Mrs. Bennet had been adamant that her favourite daughters Jane and Lydia must accompany her to London to select Martha's replacement. Thanks to Mrs. Bennet's matchmaking efforts Jane returned from the cook-hunting expedition engaged to Mr. Bingley, but unfortunately Lydia was forced to decline Mrs. Forster's invitation to stay with her in Brighton and missed a great chance to catch an officer. She threatened to be forever desperate about it, but as it happens, new bonnets and the theatre can quite comfort a desperate girl. Mrs. Bennet held a grudge against her second eldest daughter for refusing Mr. Collins, but the resentment was short-lived, as it later became apparent that Mr. Collins was neither the only fish in the sea nor the biggest, except in circumference. She did blame Lizzy for driving away another of her suitors, a handsome lieutenant called Wickham, but the truth of the matter was that his ardour cooled off after Mr. Collins's marriage, as he was apparently too fastidious to think of marriage to someone connected with a cook, and he was never heard of again.
Elizabeth did not grieve her wasted chance of becoming the mistress of the Hunsford parsonage for very long, and although she never had the opportunity to live in such close proximity to the famous Lady Catherine de Bourgh as Mr. Collins had offered, later on she could not avoid forming a slight acquaintance with the woman, and the loss of Lady Catherine's constant society was not felt very deeply by her afterwards.
As Charlotte Carter later remarked, things turned out quite happily for everyone concerned, although I must regretfully tell you that Mrs. Bennet was never lucky enough to find a cook who was both hideously ugly and knew the trick of preparing boiled potatoes aux herbes.