It shows a great deal of charity to think kindly on the odious Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice. Sure, we all feel for Charlotte Collins née Lucas, who, knowing that her marital prospects are not good, accepts his offer of marriage.
(NOTE: There are potential spoilers below, but come on, did you think an Austen continuation would end unhappily?)
William Collins (who even thinks of him having a first name?) is certainly not a villain, but he is such an object of ridicule that we can only think with sympathy of “poor Charlotte” left alone with Mr. Collins and the condescension of his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Jane Greensmith in her story All I Do even has this line: “I’ll accuse you of being a ‘Collins’ if you keep on bowing and scraping.”
But Karen Aminadra in her new book Charlotte — Pride and Prejudice Continues, has seen something in Mr. Collins that the rest of us have ignored and has endeavored to give Charlotte the happy ending she deserved within the context of the bargain she has made. Although the beginning of the book certainly gives no indication that the reclamation of Mr. Collins is possible:
Upon her arrival she found the house and servants in pandemonium, for all his shouting and flapping Mr Collins had not produced the haste which he so desired but had made all about him unable to discern whether they were coming or going.
“My dear Charlotte I cannot express to you how important the patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh is to us and the sovereign importance of performing our duty to her. We are called to dine at the great house this every evening; our presence is required. We must prepare ourselves.”
Soon Charlotte is determined to stand up to the dictates of Lady Catherine, especially after she learns the extent to which their patroness has controlled and ruined the lives of others in the village of Hunsford. That stand comes at a cost, however, when Lady Catherine urges Mr. Collins to take a stronger hand in dealing with his “wayward” wife.
All the while, however, it begins to dawn on Mr. Collins just how lucky he is to have found Charlotte, who fulfills the job of a rector’s wife admirably. Her charm, sense and open spirit make her the ideal companion, but she is not without fault. It also slowly dawns on her that her admission to Elizabeth that she is not a romantic may be untrue and that the bargain she has made with Mr. Collins may leave her very unhappy.
It’s fun that the revelations Charlotte and William experience are not in sync; and when they do sync, they both have a taste of what their lives together could be. Lady Catherine, however, is always there to drive a wedge between them.
Ms. Aminadra also shows great restraint in making her book solidly about Charlotte and Mr. Collins, with few mentions of the main characters of Pride and Prejudice. I almost thought Elizabeth and Darcy would be completely absent, but they do appear at the end of the book and their intervention is both appropriate and necessary.
One character from P&P who does play a major role is Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy’s cousin. He’s often a character in play in Pride and Prejudice continuations, and here he’s a charming snake in the garden, tempting Charlotte from her vow to her husband. He’s no Wickham, of course, but he does show Charlotte what she’s missing in her marriage and ultimately, they’re equally unable to deny their mutual attraction.
I have to admit I don’t read many Austen continuations that don’t have some gimmick: vampires, zombies or a murder mystery. But Ms. Aminadra’s story eschews gimmicks and has the simple plot of one of Austen’s novels: a women who has to make a choice between two men and characters who have to adjust their perceptions of one another. She’s also taken on the more difficult task of asking readers to change their perceptions of one of the most ridiculous characters Austen created.
I fear I give away too much in this review, but be reassured that as in Austen’s novels, it’s the details and the characterization and not the plot that drive the story. You know that the heroine will have a happy ending; what you will enjoy reading is Charlotte’s efforts to secure that ending. The friends she makes in the village not only emphasize her genuine spirit, they also help her see her bargain for what it is. Those same friends are also her allies against Lady Catherine.
My only disappointment in the ending is that Ms. Aminadra ultimately could not find a way to resolve the impasse with Lady Catherine. Her charity does not extend that far and in retrospect, I have to admit the reclamation of Lady Catherine would be too much to expect.