Thursday, September 15, 2022

Literary Month Church Adaptations Volume 3: Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice

Most pastors tire of hearing variations on, “So, you only work one day a week, right?” When I read Jane Austen novels (and other novels of the Georgian era in Great Britain) I wonder whether the clergy in those books even work one day a week. All they seem to do is study and sometimes have tea with people in their parishes.

One would think Austen, whose father was a rector at All Souls College, Oxford, would write kindly of the clergy, and she wrote favorably of Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park. But in what is perhaps her most beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice, the Reverend Mr. Collins is an utterly ridiculous figure. He is pompous with a tendency to make long-winded, self-aggrandizing speeches. He’s willingly under the thumb of his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Most important to the story, he is also heir to the estate that's the home of the book’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. He, in fact, intends to make Elizabeth his bride.

When filmmakers adapt the story, Mr. Collins continues to be a most silly character. Probably the most beloved version of Austen’s novel was the 1995 BBC miniseries, but sadly, we do films rather than television here.

I find it very interesting though that in MGM’s 1940, star-studded version of the story, Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper) is no longer a clergyman. He instead refers to himself as Lady Catherine’s librarian and seems to act as a steward of some sort. When he proposes to Elizabeth, instead of referring to himself as a clergyman who would be prudent to marry (as he does in other adaptations and in the novel itself), he calls himself, “a gentleman of easy circumstances.”

So if this 1940s Pride and Prejudice was all we had to go on, we here at Movie Churches would be out of luck. We need a church and/or clergy to write about. Aside from the dastardly Mr. Wickham’s likely false claim that he had hoped to pursue the taking of orders (how the Church of England at the time referred to becoming a clergyman), there is no reference to the people and institutions that feed this blog. So much for that film. 

Happily for us, in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice directed by Joe Wright, Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander) is most certainly a clergyman. And a pompous fool, just as he is in the book.

He comes to visit the Bennets to find a bride (as his patroness, Lady Catherine, advised him to do). He refers to himself in the third person when he introduces himself, and compliments everyone and everything, including the cooking of the boiled potatoes, which he wishes to credit to one of the Bennet sisters. 

“We have a cook,” Mrs. Bennet informs him, offended that he thinks her daughters were working in the kitchen. 

After dinner, he offers to provide the evening’s entertainment, “I would like to read to you all an hour or two. Are you familiar with Fordyce’s Sermons, Miss Bennet? It has excellent teaching on morals.” The Bennets decline.

Mr. Collins's idea of entertainment isn’t limited to a good sermon. At a ball, he is willing to dance, asking Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) to be his partner, “Perhaps you will do me join me. I do not think it incompatible with the office of clergyman to indulge in such an innocent diversion. In fact, several people, Her Ladyship included, have complimented me on my lightness of foot.” And Collins admits, “It is my intention, if I may be so bold, to stay close with you throughout the evening.”

Unhappily for himself, Mr. Collins makes the social faux pas of offending Mr. Darcy, finding that Darcy is Lady Catherine's nephew.

Mr. Collins continues his social awkwardness when he proposes marriage to Elizabeth. “Firstly, it is the duty of a clergyman to set the example of matrimony to his congregation. Secondly, it would add greatly to my happiness. And thirdly, that it is at the urging of my esteemed patroness to select a wife.” It's not a proposal that exudes love or passion. To Mr. Collin's great embarrassment (and disbelief), Elizabeth refuses his offer.

Within a few days, he proposes to Elizabeth's best friend, Charlotte. They marry soon after. When Elizabeth asks her friend how she could think of marrying such a man, she responds, "I'm 27 years old...Not all of us can afford to be romantic. Don’t judge me, Lizzie, don’t you dare judge me.”

We see (and hear) Mr. Collins preaching, and he seems to be just as tedious in the pulpit as in conversation. There is no reference to God or His grace, just moral preening. The congregation seems exceedingly bored.

Collins is a silly little man, but he doesn’t seem to act intentionally with malice. Unlike the Apostle Paul who spoke in Galatians 1 of the importance of pleasing God rather than people, the Reverend Mr. Collins seems to consider his most important duty to please Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Judi Dench). Therefore he receives a lowly Movie Churches rating of Two Steeples.

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