Charlotte Lucas is one of the most tragic and realistic fictional characters in the Western canon. She is a terrible (or intrepid) gold digger who allies herself with an awful man to achieve independence. I use the term gold digger broadly and sympathetically here to include anyone looking for an easier life when selecting a partner. I am a failed (hopefully not tragic) gold digger who both admires and fears Charlotte.
In Pride and Prejudice (1813), Charlotte Lucas is the best friend of the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth refuses a marriage proposal made by her cousin, Mr. Collins, who has a personality as slimy as a used car salesman. The Bennets’ estate is entailed upon Mr. Collins, which means that when Mr. Bennet dies Mr. Collins and his wife will inherit the estate, evicting Mrs. Bennet and her daughters. After Elizabeth’s refusal, Mr. Collins proposes to Charlotte. Charlotte accepts Mr. Collins’ proposal, and this act of betrayal condemns her to a life with one of the most ridiculous men in England.
I have always been fascinated by Charlotte. Her alliance with Mr. Collins haunts Pride and Prejudice with a marriage that provides a frightening foil for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s. Charlotte’s doomed marriage warns readers of the sacrifices that young women of limited means must make to maintain their gentry reputations. And. It. Is. Terrifying!! Northanger Abbey’s gothic castles have nothing on the misery of Charlotte Lucas’ marriage.
I am most saddened by the emotional toll this takes on Elizabeth and Charlotte’s friendship. Austen describes that after the engagement, “Elizabeth felt persuaded that no real confidence could ever subsist between them again.” Those words hit hard when I read them. What woman does not remember the female friendships of her formative years with fondness? (How is that for alliteration?) Charlotte and Elizabeth’s relationship friendship broke in a way that may never be wholly reconstituted. This sacrifice makes Charlotte’s decision all the more puzzling and brave. We know that Charlotte valued that friendship “beyond that of any other person,” but she must have valued her financial independence more.
How, I wonder, would I act in Charlotte’s situation? Charlotte does not have the striking beauty of the Bennett sisters, and she has even less money than them. To make matters more complicated, her father was knighted as a baronet but could provide no other incentive to entice eligible young men to marry his daughters. It is easy for me to say that I would look towards the lower classes if I were in Charlotte’s position, but her family’s status in the neighborhood is at stake, and the weight of the baronetcy rests on her shoulders. Her sisters’ marriages depend on hers; any decision she makes must be considered with them in mind. I am sure Charlotte is the type of sister who thinks this way because she is no Lydia Bennet. My desire for Charlotte to make a love match below her station in life comes from a more contemporary notion of what makes a happy marriage. The sad truth is that Charlotte would have had a very different and less comfortable life as a single woman dependent upon her male relations.
Marriage in the regency era was an important mechanism for preserving familial wealth and prestige, not necessarily an opportunity to find a mutually compatible “soul mate.” In Jane Austen’s society, where everyone knows everyone else’s relative net worths as if the pounds per annum hovered in a neon sign above everyone’s head, marriage can seem like a tally sheet or equation. How many pounds can he expect a year? How pleasant is his estate? How agreeable are his family members which you will have to host frequently? These material considerations do not even account for personal accomplishments like wit, agreeability, willingness and ability to dance at parties, and attractiveness. Elizabeth more eloquently asks, “What is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive? Where does discretion end, and avarice begin?” I think this line between discretion and avarice is still contestable.
Austen’s society is not so different from our own. It may be more difficult to ascertain someone’s net worth, but I would argue that many of us have numbers and class standards whether we acknowledge them or not. I used to have a number. There was a time when I did not seriously date anyone with a salary under the six figure mark. I was living in Boston when I tried my hand with dating apps. $100,000 a year seemed like a good line to draw in the sand if I wanted someone to take me to nice restaurants every now and then. Boston is so expensive that most of these men making six figures still lived with roommates or were paying off mountains of student debt. I would have to set my sights even higher or expand my age category to find someone who could live independently.
Although the men I dated were able to fly internationally at the drop of the hat and enjoy the nightlife without thinking twice about the check, they were not the types who grew up with money. I found myself with a nouveau riche set: young doctors and tech bros. Some of those relationships had the stereotypical question mark of whether the men were looking for a green card, or I was looking for a meal ticket lurking just underneath the surface. Observers might have seen a poor white girl with a “useless” degree in the humanities leveraging some social and cultural capital to enjoy some of the finer things in life. Many of these relationships included playful teasing about these topics.
Some people argue that when you marry someone you are not just selecting a life partner; you are choosing a lifestyle or socioeconomic class. How hard do you want to work to maintain a standard of living? If you want children, would you rather raise them as a stay-at-home parent or balance a job with parenting? These lifestyle questions disproportionately imagine a cis heterosexual because, traditionally, they had more opportunities for social mobility through marriage than queer or trans folks. Or, at least, their social mobility arcs tend to be centered in narratives more than others. Jane Austen’s novels, for all their realism, tend to follow this fairy tale arc, and thus they have become beloved fairy tales in pop culture.
Questions about income levels sound so cold, but they are wonderfully illustrated in Jane Austen’s novels which portray the calculus young women must do when forming a marriage. And Charlotte is one of the best mathematicians. Charlotte Lucas, wise and wonderful friend that she is, warns Lizzie not to favor Mr. Wickham when Mr. Darcy shows interest in her. Austen writes, “Charlotte could not help cautioning her in a whisper, not to be a simpleton, and allow her fancy for Wickham to make her appear unpleasant in the eyes of a man ten times his consequence.” Charlotte speaks her truth and looks out for her friend’s best interests. I honestly cannot imagine a better wingwoman, and she is my wingwoman role model. Charlotte is like a more genteel version of Patti Stanger, the delightfully blunt yenta of the Bravo TV Show “Millionaire Matchmaker.”
That is Charlotte’s tragedy, though. She is the perfect wing-woman, a supporting character who allows the main character to shine. Like many of the best matchmakers, she is better at helping others find love matches than finding one for herself. In another moment of prescience, Charlotte points out that Jane should display more affection than she feels for Mr. Bingley, not less. She advises, “In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better show more affection than she feels.” Charlotte relies on mathematical reasoning to guide courtship, an approach that makes sense given her proclamation that “I am not romantic, you know; I never was.” Charlotte embodies the eighteenth century age of reason, while the other characters move more towards the nineteenth century age of feeling.
Charlotte continues to act prudently in her marriage by encouraging her husband to spend time in the garden as she chooses a sitting room out of his way. Scholars and more casual readers have speculated about the more intimate details of Charlotte’s marriage for hundreds of years, but one of the most provocative answers to this question is Ruth Perry’s article “Sleeping With Mr. Collins.” The article focuses on what Perry calls “the invention of sexual disgust” in the latter half of the eighteenth century which coincided with shifting discourses surrounding marriage and sex. Prior to the late eighteenth century, marital couples were not expected to love and esteem each other. Sex was also seen as a physical act not so different from other bodily functions. By the end of the century, however, more novels idealized romantic couplings where there was mutual compatibility; therefore, women forced into relations with awful men contained more hints of sexual disgust. Perry argues that Charlotte and Mr. Collins’ marriage is a remnant of an earlier era, a form of cultural residue, while Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s marriage exemplifies the growing preference for marriages based on love and mutual attraction.
I wonder if Charlotte’s terrible marriage is supposed to be a ridiculously low bar to make readers forget about the less savory aspects of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s. Mr. Darcy’s eccentricities, paternalism, manipulative tactics, arrogance, social awkwardness in mixed company, and disgusting wealth are all red flags at the very least. (As a rule, I assume anyone this extravagantly wealthy is exploiting others. Theoretically, I also have an upper limit on how much wealth is too much wealth in a romantic partner.)
None of Austen’s couples are perfect. I know these are fighting words, but I don’t see either leading couple as ideal. Does Elizabeth really want to marry someone as manipulative as Mr. Darcy? Does Jane really want to marry someone so easily duped by his friend and sisters? The vast estates of these men make these questions seem irrelevant. I can hear Charlotte hissing, “Good enough! Take the money and run, girls.”
Charlotte ends up with an embarassing husband and too frequent visits to Rosings Park, but she gets a lovely estate when Mr. Bennet dies. My future is in some ways more and less complicated. Growing up during several recessions has made me both repelled by wealth and attracted to its stability. At this point, I have stopped worrying about it because, as a millennial, I know I will probably never have enough money to retire or afford a large medical operation if I need one. My biggest monetary dreams for the distant future include maybe owning a small condo with enough room for a cat. A tiny house or a trailer is probably more attainable.
I no longer have a number I’m looking for in a partner. Now I look more towards the future and whether that person shares similar approaches to politics, religion, and education. These days, I’m happily dating a Marxist, and we are both penniless in different ways. I resist romanticizing the exploitative structures like colonialism, enslavement, and tenant farming that maintained the wealth of men in Mr. Darcy’s social sphere. I bemoan the lack of employment opportunities for women that causes Charlotte to marry someone she does not love. I love Jane Austen’s characters and her literary genius, but I despise the structures that make these stories possible.
Charlotte, you are a heroine in your own right and deserve more respect. You took one for the team, and your family will forever be in your debt. When I think of you, Charlotte, I will call you Miss Lucas—not Mrs. Collins—and treasure you among my favorite characters in literature.
Yvonne Medina is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Florida where she researches children’s literature and critical disability studies. Her writing can be found in Children’s Literature in Education and her account on Medium.