I have to admit, for all the times I’ve read and watched Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, until I encountered Molly Greeley’s new novel, The Clergyman’s Wife, I had never spent a moment wondering what happened to Charlotte Lucas and the Reverend William Collins after their marriage. For people who have somehow managed to avoid the novel in all its forms, Charlotte is the plain, older (twenty-seven, which to me now seems very young!) friend of Pride and Prejudice’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, and William Collins is the fly in the Bennet daughters’ ointment—the little-known heir to their father’s estate, who has illusions of further strengthening his claim by marrying Elizabeth.
But to my amazement, by the time I finished The Clergyman’s Wife, not only was I delighted to have renewed my acquaintance with Charlotte but capable of mustering some sympathy for the otherwise risible Mr. Collins. How Molly Greeley works this miracle you’ll have to discover for yourself, but here are a few insights into what got her started on this project and where she goes with it.
Pride and Prejudice novels are, in a way, the gold standard of publishing dreams, especially if an author can come up with a new take on the Bennet sisters’ story, which you certainly have. Where did the idea come from to focus on Charlotte Lucas and the Reverend Williams Collins?
To be completely honest, I have always found Charlotte’s story even more compelling than Elizabeth Bennet’s, perhaps because it’s (much) less of a fairy tale. Though Lizzy is brave in one way, determined not to compromise her values in favor of security, Charlotte has her own brand of courage, taking charge of her own life in the best way available to her.
Like all of Austen’s novels, there is a lot in Pride and Prejudice about women’s financial insecurity; but because the heroine falls into the arms of a man with ten thousand a year, the actual fallout of the inequalities between men and women during this time period doesn’t fully play out, at least for Elizabeth Bennet. But Charlotte’s story offers an opportunity to explore more deeply what might have happened to women who did not feel comfortable sacrificing their own and their family’s comfort for the sake of romantic love that, realistically speaking, may or may not ever arrive. Lizzy’s story is more palatable to our modern sensibilities, particularly since most modern women don’t face destitution if they don’t marry; but Charlotte’s story is probably closer to the truth of what many women in Austen’s time experienced.
Although Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet’s good friend, Charlotte is a bit player in Austen’s novel. Who is she as a character there, and how have marriage and motherhood changed her in your book, which starts a few years later?
In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte is shown to be by turns playful—urging Lizzy to play the pianoforte, teasing her about Mr. Darcy—and practical to a fault. She thinks that Jane Bennet ought, in order to “secure” the rich, handsome Mr. Bingley, to pretend to a deeper affection for him than she is comfortable displaying until she knows him better; and she herself sets out to seduce Mr. Collins with her sympathy and attention, even while suspecting that she can never truly respect him. We know that she is intelligent and interesting enough to be good friends with Elizabeth, whose wit and love of a good laugh indicate she likely wouldn’t be friends with a bore.
When Lizzy returns home from visiting Charlotte and William after their marriage, she reflects that Charlotte’s “home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry … had not yet lost their charms.” That “yet” seems very telling to me, and so when Chapter One of The Clergyman’s Wife begins three years after Charlotte’s marriage, all of those charms have begun to wear very thin. Her life in Hunsford is very solitary, and in order to slot herself into the role of the good clergyman’s wife according to both William and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, she has lost, or at least buried, much of what would have made her an attractive friend to Lizzy. She is also now mother to a young daughter, and there is a fundamental tension between her realism—she knows deeply how important financial security is for a woman—and her burgeoning understanding that, while important, security simply isn’t enough.
William Collins is, to put it bluntly, not the man of most young women’s dreams. Why does Charlotte make a play for him after Lizzy turns him down?
I love that you said Charlotte “makes a play” for Mr. Collins, because this is exactly what she does, and it’s one of the reasons I love her character so much. She doesn’t set out to seduce him with her body, but by giving him what he really wants: attention. There are so many layers to unwrap here with regards to Charlotte’s character—she is capable of boldness; she is calculating; she is empathic. And then there are the unspoken layers, which Austen may or may not have intended, but which seem, to my mind at least, likely. Layers of fear and insecurity, because, as a woman who lacked both money and beauty, and who was already in her late twenties, her future was precarious. If she didn’t marry, she was going to end up dependent on the charity of her father and, later, her brothers. Depending on her brothers’ (and their wives’) personalities, this could mean a lifetime of being seen as a burden, no matter how she helped in the household. A woman of Charlotte’s standing in society could become a governess, if she were well-educated enough, or a paid lady’s companion; but these, too, were precarious options, and came without the status conferred by being someone’s wife.
So William Collins, for all his many failings, seems like a good option to her—really, the best option she has. He has a respectable position as a clergyman, and when his cousin Mr. Bennet dies, he stands to inherit Longbourn estate. When her friend Lizzy doesn’t snatch him up, Charlotte sees an opportunity and takes it.
And what of William himself? Remind us briefly of how Austen characterizes him, then how you went about making him a more sympathetic character—which you do wonderfully, without changing his fundamental personality as Austen defines him.
Mr. Collins is described as a tall, heavyish man, with very stately manners, who talks a lot without ever saying much of interest. He offers compliments fawningly, and whenever he feels he has offended someone his apologies are just as excessive. By turns vain and self-debasing, he is, basically, awkward in almost every imaginable way. He’s a caricature of a certain type of clergyman from Austen’s time, and a certain type of person, one who is over-awed by titles and riches.
Because my story centers on Charlotte, and because Charlotte is married to William, I knew I had to turn him into something resembling an actual person rather than a caricature. We know from Austen that William’s father and Mr. Bennet, Lizzy’s father, had a falling-out, and we know that his father was “illiterate and miserly.” This provided a jumping-off point in my mind for William’s backstory. And I tried to use little moments—his difficulty connecting with his baby daughter, for instance—to show that under his awkwardness lay an essential insecurity; that he wants to connect with people, but has trouble really doing so.
To be honest, Mr. Collins was not too difficult to humanize because he is never portrayed as a villain in Pride and Prejudice, only as ridiculous. And while ridiculous people may be easy targets in comedy and satire, in life there is usually something deeper going on underneath.
No story about Charlotte and William would be complete without mention of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. What is her role in Charlotte’s life?
Oh, Lady Catherine! Yes, she’s overbearing, certain she always knows best, and much more involved in Charlotte’s life than Charlotte would like. Lady Catherine is William’s patroness, which means it was she who offered him the living at Hunsford parish; however, in my research into the ins and outs of Regency-era clergy, it looks like the living, once given, couldn’t easily be rescinded. So it wasn’t so much that Charlotte and William risked losing their home and livelihood if they didn’t dance attendance upon Lady Catherine; rather, they merely risked the ire of a powerful neighbor, a woman who was petulant and very accustomed to getting her own way.
I mean really, it was probably just easier to bow to Lady Catherine’s whims rather than try to stand against them; having her for an enemy, especially living just across the lane, would be unpleasant to say the least. But there was also the matter of William, who genuinely seemed to be in awe of her ladyship; if she stood up to Lady Catherine, Charlotte would also have to stand up to her husband—in a time when the “obey” in marriage vows was literally meant. And of course, there were the societal strictures of the times, by which someone nobly born like Lady Catherine was automatically offered respect based on her bloodline alone, regardless of how distasteful her company and her meddling might be. So Lady Catherine offers Charlotte “advice” on how to keep house and raise her daughter, and Charlotte nods and smiles and inwardly screams with boredom.
But this story is really about Charlotte’s developing friendship with Mr. Travis, which for me is both beautifully handled and believable. What can you tell us about him, as Charlotte sees him?
Mr. Travis is a farmer, a tenant of Lady Catherine. As such, he isn’t someone Charlotte would ever have considered a suitable match for herself, or any woman of her station. But after they have a chance meeting in the parsonage garden, she discovers he has a sly, irreverent humor, and, more than that, kindness, and an ability to connect, not only with her but with her child.
Mr. Travis is someone who truly sees Charlotte, and truly cares about her. William loves the idea of Charlotte as his wife, but she has never fully been herself in his company—and, in all likelihood, he wouldn’t really understand her if she were. But from the first, Charlotte and Mr. Travis share a sort of fundamental understanding of each others’ characters and situations. In some ways, too, he offers Charlotte what she, herself, offered to William, though on a deeper and more sincere level—someone who truly listens to her.
And what of you? This book came out on Tuesday. Are you already working on another novel?
I am! I have another Austen-inspired novel in the editing stages, and I’m starting work on a contemporary story.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Greeley was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where her addiction to books
was spurred by her parents' floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. A graduate of
Michigan State University, she began as an Education major, but switched
to English and Creative Writing after deciding that gainful employment
was not as important to her as being able to spend several years reading
books and writing stories and calling it work.
She lives in
Traverse City, Michigan with her husband and three children, and can
often be found with her laptop at local coffee shops. Find out more
about her at https://www.mollygreeley.com.