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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mr. Collins’s Nothing-Meaning, Harmless, Heartless Civility

When we discussed Letter 17 (dated Jan. 9, 1799) four months ago, Christy quoted the following passage…

“I assure You that I dread the idea of going to Bookham as much as you can do; but I am not without hopes that something may happen to prevent it; Theo’ has lost his Election at Baliol, & perhaps they may not be able to see company for some time.—They talk of going to Bath too in the Spring, & perhaps they may be overturned in their way down, & all laid up for the summer.”

….and then commented as follows:

“Here, it is obvious both sisters are not enamored with certain `plans`, and according to DLF, CEA cancelled the words, "Bookham", "Theo" and "at Baliol" as the Cooke cousins were not held in high esteem. DLF writes: “a study of the rediscovered MS enables the three names to be deciphered beneath the cancellations.”

Today, I realized that the Austen sisters retained their strong dislike in particular for their cousin the Revd. Theo-Leigh Cooke (3 years younger than JA) over quite an extended period of time, because there are two later passages in JA’s letters which demonstrate their continued abhorrence for his company. And once my attention was drawn to this, I realized there was a significant veiled allusion to one of JA’s real life Cooke cousins in one of JA’s most memorable characters.

First, look at the following passage in Letter 64 (dated Jan. 10-11, 1809, and so almost exactly ten years to the day after Letter 17) from JA in Southampton to CEA at Godmersham:

“…the very day of our leaving Southampton is fixed; and if the knowledge is of no use to Edward, I am sure it will give him pleasure. Easter Monday, April 3, is the day; we are to sleep that night at Alton, and be with our friends at Bookham the next, if they are then at home; there we remain till the following Monday, and on Tuesday, April 11, hope to be at Godmersham. If the Cookes are absent, we shall finish our journey on the 5th. These plans depend of course upon the weather, but I hope there will be no settled cold to delay us materially. To make you amends for being at Bookham, it is in contemplation to spend a few days at Barton Lodge in our way out of Kent.”

Great Bookham is where the Cookes all lived, and JA is writing about an otherwise joyous subject, reporting to CEA the plans for the “exodus” of the Austen women from their four years wandering in the “desert” of Portsmouth (or, given that the trip was to begin on Easter Monday, perhaps even more appropriate to refer to the “resurrection” of the Austen women).

However, even reporting such plans which are giving JA and CEA such joy in anticipation, JA still acknowledges to CEA that having to stop Bookham is an evil. That is why JA sardonically suggests that amends be made to CEA by making a much more agreeable stopover, when the second leg of the journey from Godmersham to Chawton was to be made. Clearly JA is hoping (sorta like Lizzy when she comes to Pemberley) that the Cookes _will_ be absent when the Austens reach Great Bookham, so that they can both avoid a dreaded extended visit with unpleasant relatives, and also arrive at Godmersham 6 days earlier. JA and CEA would both be dreading the prospect of spending those six days not only in the company of the Cookes, but, I would imagine, at the home of the senior Cookes.

And last, we have the following passage in Letter 70 (dated April 18-20, 1811), this letter written by JA from London:

"I spent Tuesday in Bentinck St.; the Cookes called here & took me back; & it was quite a Cooke day… [JA escapes the parents with Mary Cooke and goes to the Museum]…I did not see Theo’ till late on Tuesday; he was gone to Ilford, but he came back in time to show his usual nothing-meaning, harmless, heartless civility. Henry, who had been confined the whole day to the Bank, took me in his way home; & after putting Life & Wit into the party for a quarter of an hour, put himself & his Sister into a Hackney coach—I bless my stars that I have done with Tuesday! "

Here we finally get some specificity about why JA and CEA so detest their second cousin—he is a clergyman just like Mr. Collins—(as to whom we see many examples of what is described at the end of P&P as his “parading and obsequious civility”).

And actually, the way JA writes about Theo-Leigh Cooke, who was the second cousin of JA and CEA, reminds me very strongly of the way she writes about another contemporary maternal cousin—the Revd. Edward Cooper (son of Mrs. Austen’s sister). JA mocked Revd. Cooper’s sermons in several letters, and also wrote the following about him: “I have written to Edwd Cooper & hope he will not send one of his Letters of cruel comfort to my poor Brother.”
It is no coincidence, therefore, I claim, that Mr. Collins just happens to be a _cousin_ of Lizzy & Jane Bennet! I think “nothing-meaning, harmless, heartless civility” perfectly describes much of what Mr. Collins says, and, now we can see, also describes not only the real life Revd. Cooke but also the real life Revd. Cooper.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: It is a reflection of the many obstacles which have been thrown in the path of an accurate, unbiased understanding JA’s personal beliefs, attitudes, and opinions, particularly in regard to members of her family, that it was not until 1989 (yes, that’s right, only 22 years ago) that CEA’s theretofore successful attempt to mask JA’s true meaning in Letter 17 was finally undone, and the truth was available to all. Without the crucial context provided by the overt vitriol of the unexpurgated passage in Letter 17, the passage in Letter 64 is too vague to even attract attention, and the passage in Letter 70, while much stronger, is still not sharp enough to raise eyebrows. But taken as a three-headed collectivity over a period of 12 years, these excerpts only then take on their full significance, and make the veiled allusion via the character of Mr. Collins that much more interesting, powerful, and personal.

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