Mr Collins’ Vulgarity and the Value of Things

Charlotte (nee Lucas), Mr Collins, and Lizzie Bennett, meeting Lady Catherine, from the 2005 film

The other night, I saw the 2005 Pride and Prejudice for the first time, and its Mr Collins repulsed me just as much as I hoped he would. He’s much more directly oleaginous in the film than he is in the novel. At Lady Catherine’s Rosings, Austen gives him only indirect speech, a characteristically tedious observation about the expense of the estate’s windows, whereas the film has him remark to Elizabeth Bennet that “the glazing alone cost upwards of twenty-thousand pounds,” and, once inside, he whispers to her that “the rug alone cost upwards of three hundred pounds.” That latter line, not in the novel, is likely repurposed from one of Austen’s earlier passages, when Mr Collins is at dinner with the Bennet’s and brags to them that the chimney-piece — whatever that is — of one of Lady Catherine’s drawing rooms “alone had cost eight hundred pounds.” But: a rug. Wow.

What this tells us is that Mr Collins is vulgar. It’s not his awareness of how much everything costs that makes him vulgar, nor, for that matter, that he talks about money so freely. For money’s on everyone’s mind. Elizabeth apprehends immediately how much it must have cost to convince Wickham to grant her sister the appearance of a decent marriage: not “a farthing less than ten thousand pounds.” So too does the novel’s own voice tell us, for example, that “Mr. Bennet’s property consisted almost entirely in an estate of two thousand a year.” We must intuit that every character knows how much every other character has a year, because on that number depends what’s owed or received from each in obeisance. Deference due requires constant accounting.

What makes Mr Collins vulgar is, of course, his presumption that everyone shares his interests: he talks as if everyone is as continually attuned as he is to Lady Catherine. What makes him vulgar, too, is his pretense that Lady Catherine’s splendor falls especially on him, that he offers the most direct path to her presence. Like the novel’s other contemptible characters, he doesn’t know his place, for Collins acts as if he belonged as much to Rosings as one of its splendid chimneys. Above all, though, he is vulgar because he talks about how much things cost.

When the other characters talk about money, or maneuver to get more of it, they are looking to buy comfort, position, a future. Only if they are vulgar or foolish do we hear of them buying or assessing things, like Lydia’s spending all of her money at the milliner’s on a new bonnet and needing to borrow from her sister to treat her to lunch. All the homes glow with paintings – at least in the films, they do — but we know of no one commissioning any, nor stooping to pay a painter. The homes themselves have been built, and been spent on, and stuffed with sculpture and furniture, but only Mr Collins is shameless enough to tally in public what each especial element must have cost.

That division between money that must be spent on a life and the money that must be spent, incrementally, on what makes up that life, is the split between money as an absolute number, marking a rank, and money as divisible, which must be whittled at to fill up the life with what its rank requires.

The former meaning of income, the one the novel clearly prefers, operates in many of its thirty-four uses of the word “thousand.” Sometimes it’s attached to a phrase like “a thousand questions,” but it’s far more usually attached to a person: “A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year”; “many young men of four thousand a year come into the neighbourhood”; “the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year”; “a smart young colonel, with five or six thousand a year”; and “he has four or five thousand a year, and very likely more.” These are fixed figures, with no sense of there having been less or more in previous years.

Nearly every use of the word “pounds,” an actual unit of money, has a large number attached to it: a thousand, four thousand (Mrs Bennet’s inheritance), five thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand, a hundred thousand (Bingley’s inheritance!). Pound in the singular never appears, and no one but Mr Collins speaks of pounds in the hundreds. Mr Bennet does tell his unfortunate daughter Kitty “I would not trust you so near [to Brighton] as Eastbourne for fifty pounds,” and this would be the smallest figure in the entire book, were it not for Mr Collins observing that Lady Catherine pays him well enough “so I am not in such circumstances as to make five shillings any object.” The very large numbers are not a number that could possibly indicate a bill, or in any other way attach themselves to something spendable. They are the numbers of a bar graph, where Bingley looms over Mrs Bennet, Darcy over Bingley, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh over all, unshakeably. Only Mr Collins’s inept proposal to Elizabeth Bennet references money as an investment: that’s where the novel’s sole use of “per cent” appears. Otherwise, the various annual incomes just shoulder aside, or give way to, the incomes of others; they are not for spending, because they are nothing but markers of rank.

So, when Mr Collins tells us how much Lady Catherine’s window-glazing costs, or one of her rugs or chimney-pieces, he believes he is speaking of her glory, but, likely without his knowing it, he is speaking of something the novel is otherwise unwilling to acknowledge, and certainly unwilling to acknowledge without blushing. He offers the perspective of a tradesperson, the one who knows that things have to be paid for, and that wealth has no use unless it does what rank cannot do, which is be divided, and put piecemeal into the pockets of others.

It’s a petty concern. Yet without it, everyone of rank would be nothing but a dragon squatting uselessly on an unspendable hoard in a vast damp cave. But if we recognize their annual income as money, and not just as a marker of rank, then we have to imagine them living with bread like us, people whose income subjects them to something more inhuman than the great, fraudulently stable numbers of rank. Because the novel is willing to do only through Mr Collins, we are meant to forget it, and just laugh at the vulgarity of mistakenly thinking money is meant for spending, and remain convinced that an annual income means something more human than just a divisible, sharable figure.