This weekend, JASNA-NJ hosted a discussion of Pride & Prejudice. There wasn’t a single person in attendance reading the book for the first time, and many of us have it close to memorized. And yet, even so, the text reveals hidden secrets and new readings:
Poor Charlotte! it was melancholy to leave her to such society! But she had chosen it with her eyes open; and though evidently regretting that her visitors were to go, she did not seem to ask for compassion. Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms. –Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 38 (italics mine)
Charlotte Lucas remains one of the most controversial characters in Pride & Prejudice, with some seeing her choice of the obsequious Collins as pragmatic, others as calculating, and still others as tragic. It was in the context of this discussion that the word yet popped out. Charlotte may seem content for now, but will she remain so ten years from now, or fifteen? Or after having several children with a man she does not love and holds in something like contempt? The yet reminds us that even though Charlotte is able to manage her husband after the wedding, life in marriage is not static. She herself, even before Collins’s proposal takes this cynical view of people in marriage: “They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.” (Chapter 6)
Of course, there is a great deal of fan fiction speculating what life for Charlotte and Mr. Collins may bring. I enjoyed The Longbourn Letters, which is an epistolary novel detailing the correspondence between Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins after the events chronicled in Austen have come to their conclusion. But Austen leaves Charlotte in “expectation of a young olive-branch,” which, given Austen’s relentless lack of sentimentality about children and motherhood, is hardly a blissful fate (Chapter 57). Charlotte will be a mother (without ever having really desired a man or matrimony), and independence from her brothers and a comfortable living comes with a heavy price.