Jane Austen: The Enterprising Miss Lucas

Re-reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice recently, I found myself wondering why everyone in the Lucas family, calls Elizabeth Bennet ‘Eliza’, rather than ‘Lizzy’, which is what her family call her. Is she a slightly different person when she is ‘Eliza’? And why is she Charlotte Lucas’s ‘intimate friend’, anyway? Jane Austen describes Charlotte as, ‘a sensible, intelligent young woman, about twenty-seven’. Elizabeth is twenty, and we know that she has a close relationship with her twenty-two-year-old sister Jane. Normally, at twenty, one’s friends tend to be one’s own age, for example, Kitty Bennet is a close friend of Charlotte’s sister, Maria, who is more or less her own age, so we are allowed to ask what Elizabeth gets from her friendship with Charlotte that she doesn’t get from Jane.

Mr Collins accosting Mr Darcy at the Netherfield Ball by Charles E Brock

Perhaps the answer is that Charlotte is more down to earth than Jane, who never ever thinks ill of anyone, and maybe ‘Eliza’ sometimes wants to let rip or to hear a home truth she’d never hear from Jane. Then, Mrs Bennet is hardly a mother Elizabeth can look to for advice, so perhaps the older Charlotte fulfils something of that role, too.

So let’s look at Charlotte herself. She obviously loves Elizabeth sincerely. When they meet after the Meryton assembly, she teases Elizabeth about Mr Darcy describing her as only just ‘tolerable’ and refusing to dance with her but she also says later, ‘I wish he had danced with Eliza.’ She feels for her friend.

While the Bennet girls are known beauties in Meryton, all the Lucas girls are, as Mrs Bennet puts it, ‘very plain.’ Elizabeth’s sitting out a dance or two at the Meryton Assembly because of the scarcity of men, obviously happens very rarely, and she can joke about it. One suspects that the plain Charlotte, although intelligent and sensible, has often found herself a wallflower; and, at twenty-seven, she is perilously near being thirty and an old maid.


Charlotte’s future as a single woman will be grim, as she must know very well. Her father, Sir William Lucas, is ‘new money’ and not too much of that, either. He was in trade until he was knighted after making a well thought of speech to the King who visited Meryton during his mayoralty. Buoyed up by the honour, Sir William decided to quit trade, build himself a new house outside Meryton and live as a gentleman. He has a ‘tolerable fortune’ but we gradually realize that, whilst it might enable him to lead a life of leisure, his daughters are almost dowerless and money is a bit tight. Charlotte’s marriage to Mr Collins enables her next sister (probably Maria) to ‘come out’, something the family couldn’t afford while Charlotte remained unmarried.

Any unmarried Lucas daughters will have to rely on the generosity of their brothers, or their father, if he’s still alive, to support them. Charlotte has learnt that,  if she is to find herself a husband, she cannot afford to be anything other than pragmatic. She is plain and she has no money to offset that disadvantage; she must look after herself. When Elizabeth is annoyed by Mr Darcy asking her to dance at the Netherfield ball, (she is half in love with Mr Wickham) Charlotte tells her ‘not to be such a simpleton, and allow her fancy for Wickham to make her appear unpleasant in the eyes of a man of ten times his consequence.’

So what does Charlotte want in a husband? Jane Austen tells us: ‘Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated women of small fortune and, however uncertain of happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.’ But will she ever get the opportunity?

Mr Collins proposes to Elizabeth by Charles E Brock

When Charlotte visits Longbourn shortly after Mr Collins has proposed to Elizabeth and been rejected, Lydia grabs her and cries in a half-whisper: ‘I am glad you are come, for there is such fun here!… Mr Collins has made an offer to Lizzy, and she will not have him.’

Charlotte stays to hear all Mrs Bennet’s complaints and, when Mr Collins enters, Mrs Bennet shoos everyone away, saying that she wants a little private conversation with him. Nosy Lydia stays – and so does Charlotte who stands, unobserved, by the window. She hears Mr Collins withdraw his pretensions to Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. It is clear that he now considers himself free to look elsewhere.

This is Charlotte’s chance – and she doesn’t hesitate. When, later, Mr Collins ignores his cousins and talks almost exclusively to Charlotte, she makes sure that she listens sympathetically and Elizabeth, in particular, is grateful to her. It is a nice ironic touch, considering what Charlotte’s objective is.

The following day, the Bennets are due to dine with the Lucases, and, again, Charlotte listens tirelessly to Mr Collins. Elizabeth thanks her and Charlotte slyly says that the knowledge that she has been useful to Elizabeth amply repays her for the little sacrifice of her time.

Mr Collins proposes to Charlotte by Charles E Brock

But has Charlotte been encouraging enough? Mr Collins is to leave the next day. Fortunately for her, Mr Collins is as anxious to secure a wife as she is to hook him, (his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh has told him to find a respectable wife). The following morning, he sneaks out early and hastens to Lucas Lodge. Charlotte spots him from an upper window and ‘instantly set out to meet him accidentally in the lane.’  (I love that line – it always makes me laugh.) He duly proposes and is accepted.

From a material point of view, Charlotte has actually done well for herself. The living of Hunsford, which Lady Catherine has bestowed on Mr Collins, is a good one – possibly worth £500-600 p.a. As rector, Mr Collins is entitled to a mandatory tithe of 10% of all the farm produce within the parish, as well as the revenue from the glebe, the farmland which goes with the parsonage itself. (Vicars were entitled only to ‘small tithes’, worth far less.) We know that Hunsford has at least two meadows and that the Collinses keep cows and poultry.

Keeping poultry was the traditional preserve of the farmer’s wife and the selling of eggs and surplus hens provided her with a personal income; Charlotte now has the means of earning her own money.

We know that Mr Collins’s father was ‘illiterate and miserly’ (‘illiterate’, according to Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, means ‘ill-educated’ not just ‘unable to read and write’.) Illiterate or not, he was rich enough to send his son to university, even if he kept him very short of money. Once his father died, Mr Collins would have inherited enough capital to give him an income, even if only a few hundred a year.

And, as we know, when Mr Bennet dies, Mr Collins is due to inherit Longbourn and the £2000 p.a. which comes with it. Providing Charlotte produces a son, she will be set up for life. In fact, she and Mr Collins will be richer than Sir William Lucas, Charlotte’s father.

What about Hunsford Parsonage itself? We know that Lady Catherine had a lot of work done to it before Mr Collins arrived but that it was rather small. It doesn’t sound that small to me. There is Charlotte’s sitting room which faces the back; Mr Collins’ book room and the dining parlour which both face the front, and there is also a drawing-room. There would also have been a kitchen, a scullery, probably a walk-in larder, and a wash house, not to mention a probable boot room, a lamp room (both more like walk-in cupboards), and other ‘necessary’ rooms.

Charlotte and Mr Collins at the gate talking to Mrs Jenkinson and Miss de Bourgh by Charles E Brock

We are told that Elizabeth has her own bedroom at Hunsford and presumably Maria and Sir William do as well. Back at Longbourn, Mrs Bennet has her own bedroom and I cannot help thinking that Charlotte would have insisted on her own room, rather than sharing a bedroom with her husband. That’s at least five bedrooms. There would also be attic rooms for the servants.

And, getting more personal, Charlotte and Mr Collins married in November, but we do not hear of the Collins’s prospective ‘young olive branch’ until at least the end of the following September. Charlotte has obviously also been successful in seeing that any marital activity is curtailed as much as possible – no sex during Lent was not be unusual.

What about servants? Mr Collins has a gig, which means he has a horse and stable, and probably young John looks after both and maybe gives a hand in the garden when needed. There would be a female cook and a couple of housemaids, one for the kitchen and the other to clean the house. A washing woman probably comes in once a fortnight to deal with the laundry.

We know that the Collinses do not live in a style that enables them to visit many of the nearby gentry’s houses. Apart from Rosings, their social circle is fairly restricted but Charlotte will surely be busy becoming acquainted with her husband’s parishioners and setting up her little poultry concern. But, once the ‘young olive branch’ appears, things may change. Lady Catherine may be persuaded of the necessity to add a nursery wing and there’s nothing like small children for increasing one’s social circle.

I have gradually learnt to admire Charlotte, perhaps more than Jane Austen herself would agree with. When Mr Collins tells Elizabeth, shortly before she leaves Hunsford, ‘My dear Charlotte and I have but one mind and one way of thinking. There is in everything a most remarkable resemblance of character and ideas between us. We seem to have been designed for each other,’ I realized that Charlotte has also been kind, as well as clever, in how she deals with her husband.

Mt Collins had a miserable childhood, by all accounts, and developed an irritating mixture of humility, coupled with self-conceit as to his own worth, probably to cover up deeply-hidden feelings of inadequacy. The result is that most people don’t want anything to do with him – with the exception of Lady Catherine de Bourgh who finds his obsequiousness towards herself perfectly natural.


Jane Austen, after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

However, Sir William, Charlotte’s father, plainly likes his son-in-law, (he is also over-awed by Rosings and Lady Catherine) and he is grateful to Mr Collins for giving Charlotte such a good home. We note that Mr Collins takes him out in his gig every day to see the countryside. OK, he probably talks at his father-in-law rather than to him, but, all the same Sir William appreciates Mr Collins and such approbation must be music to his son-in-law’s ears after his horribly mean father.

Charlotte herself is well aware of Mr Collins’ failings but she allows him to think that she agrees with him whilst, at the same time, manoeuvring herself into being in charge of her own life. She ensures that he won’t interrupt her in her small back room, she encourages him to be out in the garden for his health’s sake, and she’s learnt not to hear his more embarrassing or stupid pronouncements. I think she’s kind to him – a virtue I value highly. It’s not showy but it can make a lot of difference to the recipient’s life. And Mr Collins’ life, so far, has been very short of kindness.

Charlotte never says anything to Elizabeth about her marriage, but she must be aware that her life has opened out considerably: she now has the status of a married woman, she will shortly be a mother, and she has some money of her own. For a plain, poor woman in Regency England, that’s not nothing.

Elizabeth Hawksley



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12 thoughts on “Jane Austen: The Enterprising Miss Lucas”

  1. I think you are completely right about Charlotte. She is far more pragmatic than Lizzy, and her temperament enables her right from the outset to see how she can make the best of things. I have always understood her, but I hadn’t taken the point before about her being kind to Mr Collins. Yes, she is, isn’t she? And because he has convinced himself that they have but one way of thinking, she will almost certainly be able to subtly alter his own mindset over certain things. That’s a lovely way to think of her.

    1. Thank you, Jan, that’s very reassuring. I have the feeling that Jane Austen herself is far more on Lizzy’s side in this and, naturally, I have qualms about going against her views! As for kindness, it’s a quality it took me many years to appreciate fully. I think that must be why Jane Austen’s novels appeal to people of all ages. One finds different thing in her novels at different points in one’s life.

  2. A very well reasoned argument. Women in Charlotte’s position certainly had to have an eye to the main chance. And I agree she did very well for herself. She is, as you say, pragmatic enough to find ways to lead her husband in such a way that he will be convinced he has thought of everything for himself. In fact, I suspect that a few years on, they do in fact grow quite fond of one another. Propinquity can have two results, and Charlotte will be at pains to ensure a peaceful and happy life for herself, which means making compromises. She is, after all, repaying Collins for what he has giving her. It’s a good bargain in many ways.

    As far as Lizzy being friends with Charlotte goes, I don’t think it was unusual. Girls who went to school rather than having a governess or being taught at home, would have been all in the same classroom, and likely of all ages. As I understand it, there was a division of subject rather than age as there is now. So friends were probably made of quite disparate ages all the time. Jane Eyre’s friend Helen was a few years older, if I remember rightly.

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth – I hadn’t thought about girls at school all being in the same classroom. You are right about that, I’m sure. Though the age difference between Charlotte and Lizzy would mean that they couldn’t have overlapped for long.

      I suspect that Lizzy’s rather prissy disapproval of Charlotte’s acceptance of Mr Collins springs from the fact that she (Lizzy) simply doesn’t understand how it feels never, ever to have attracted any man. Charlotte may be intelligent and sensible, but her chances are almost totally scuppered by her being plain. No wonder she thinks so lowly of men.

  3. What an interesting insight into Charlotte, Elizabeth, thank you for that. I find myself agreeing with you, Charlotte does appear to be a kind and sensible young woman, doing her best in a harsh world.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Melinda. I have the feeling that Jane Austen was somewhat ambivalent about Charlotte. Lizzy’s opinion of her is lowered by the realization that Charlotte does not have the feminine delicacy she thinks she should have – ‘she had sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage.’But, actually, Charlotte has behaved perfectly rationally – given the few options open to her – and secured herself a comfortable future.

      1. Jane put enough information in P&P to show she understood why Charlotte acted as she did, but I think that Jane Austen was a romantic at heart. And maybe (here’s another thread to follow up some time, perhaps!) Jane herself had decided that she would never marry without love and couldn’t quite forgive Charlotte for doing so.

        1. I think you are absolutely right, Melinda. After all, Jane herself could have married Harris Bigg-Wither – she was engaged to him for a few hours – but she decided against it. Marriage would have given her financial security but without love …

  4. Jane Austen was terrifically astute regarding people and gives the impression of observing them with a clear eye. I don’t myself think she particularly disliked Charlotte. What she has done in all their scenes together is to show Lizzy’s character through her interactions with her friend. Charlotte has to be this way in order to highlight Elizabeth’s initial prejudices.

    1. You could be right, Jan. On the other hand, if you read Jane Austen’s letters, especially those to Cassandra, she can be pretty cutting, not to say uncharitable about people at times. How one wishes that Cassandra had not seen fit to burn a large number of Jane’s letters about 3-4 years before her own death. And I think her niece Fanny burnt some more. I get the impression that the letters we have have been pretty heavily censored with bits cut out and so on, which is a huge pity.

  5. A few random thoughts triggered by your very interesting take on this: I think that Jane Austen, like Elizabeth, believed that Charlotte would ultimately be unhappy and dissatisfied in the marriage. “Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry…had not yet lost their charms” suggests that inevitably they will. But still, it is her best chance for a comfortable, independent life, and perhaps that was what Jane Austen was pointing up—the limited choices women have. I don’t think she dislikes Charlotte at all—she dislikes the situation of women in the world, where a woman has to marry a fool in spite of not thinking highly of men or of marriage.

    I’m not convinced that kindness is Charlotte’s main motivator: I think she is sensible enough to realize that she will have an eaier time managing her husband if she makes him happy and seems to respect hm…if she can keep it up. (In this she is wiser than Maria Bertram who, being much younger and also passionately in love with another man, has a much harder task.)

    I don’t think that Maria Lucas is held back from coming out because of the lack of money—it was the custom (perhaps an older one now shifting?) to keep the younger girls back until the elder was married, witness Lady Catherine’s shock at hearing that all Lizzie’s sisters were out, and Lizzie’s opinion on the subject.

    The one way a young woman could really show courage and independence was in refusing the offer of an advantageous marriage because she didn’t like the man, (or accepting an unsuitable man in the teeth of family opposition). Lizzie does this twice. But Charlotte shows a different kind of courage and independence, as well as real psychological intelligence in choosing her husband—certainly the best chance she will ever get at an independent life. She understands how humiliated Mr. Collins feels and how desperate he is, She knows that a woman needs to be encouraging, and she acts on that knowledge. I think once she has her child she is going to be happier than Lizzie imagines, and certainly far more comfortable than if she had stayed at home to be a burden on her brother.

    1. Re: ‘The Enterprising Miss Lucas’ post, 4th August, 2019

      Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting comments, Alexandra. On the whole, I agree with you. However, with regard to Maria Lucas’s debut in Society being held back by the lack of money, I refer you to the Lucases’ reaction to Charlotte’s engagement in Chapter 22: ‘The whole family in short were properly overjoyed on the occasion. The younger girls formed hopes of coming out a year or two sooner than they might otherwise have done…’ I suspect that Sir William may have underestimated the cost of bring up a large family, especially one with a number of girls to get married off.

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