In the Regency days of the 19th century, on the lawns at the Longbourne estate in England, 5-year-old Lizzie Bennet was prancing about when she tripped and hit her head on the ground. She was quite alright, but the accident left her noticeably deaf. Now a feisty 22-year-old, she gets ready to deal with Mr Collins, who comes to her with an offer. NOW READ ON . . .
Artwork: John Veeken
“No mother, I will not use that. I will not.” Lizzie swatted at the thing her mother was brandishing at her. She stepped back. Mr Collins noticed the movement through the window as he was opening the side gate to the Longbourne estate. He gathered in his frock-coat and twinkle-toed across the lawn, reaching the window of the morning-room where he spotted Lizzie. He intended to make Lizzie his intended. Lizzie had no knowledge of this intention, but she was beginning to wonder.
“Lizzie, for the third time,” Mrs Bennet shouted. “Mr Collins is about to call. It will be vital you hear what he has to say. This ear trumpet will help you.” Lizzie grimaced at the trumpet, which resembled the product of a mating between a saxophone and a ship’s foghorn.
“Mother, that man is a tosser. What can he possibly want with me?”
Watching through the window, Mr Collins sighed with happiness. He belched a little, fanned his breath and tiptoed to the front door. Mrs Bennet started at the sound of the doorbell. She thrust the ear trumpet into her daughter’s hand. “And take that chewing gum out of your mouth,” she called as she hurried to the door.
“My dear Mrs Bennet, so lovely to see you,” gushed the cleric. Mrs B gave a knowing smile. “I would crave a moment for a private audience with your daughter, on a matter of grave import, and if I may say, of much benefit to all parties concerned.”
It was doubtful if Lizzie heard any of this, and not just because she was deaf. Here, the expression ‘to fall on deaf ears’ was perfectly true, both physiologically and metaphorically.
“Mr Collins, of course, and you may see her,” Mrs B wittered with delight. “Lizzie,” she called with feigned surprise, which fooled no-one, least of all Lizzie and her sister Kitty. “You are wanted.” She ushered out Kitty, who was pretending to do her sewing and sniggering audibly. Lizzie shoved the ear trumpet under a sideboard just as Mr Collins hurried into the morning room in his short little steps.
Alone with Lizzie, he beamed, pirouetted about, and fluttered his thick bejewelled fingers. “My dear Miss Elizabeth! My dear dear Miss Elizabeth! My dear —”
“Thank you Mr Collins. I am quite sufficiently deared. May one enquire as to the purpose of your visit?”
“Truly I am blessed! To your many amiable qualities may I add your proper and rightful courtesy that bespeaks not only a sound upbringing of your blessed mother, but equally complements your charm and your beauty.”
“And your maidenly reserve, Miss Elizabeth, is a good and proper thing in the weaker sex, and confirms in my mind the wisdom of my benefactor, the most noble Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who urged me to ‘chuse wisely’ when I make the selection of a wife. Allow me, Miss Elizabeth, to discourse on the noble subject of matrimony, and to present you with my reasons for making you a most worthy offer of marriage, and for my intentions of leading you to the altar ere long.”
Oh fuck, thought Lizzie. Mr Collins’ little voice piped like a piccolo. The only words she could work out were “weaker sex”, “matrimony” which she mis-heard as “parsimony”, which she and Kitty had thought a word most excelling to describe the union in marriage of two parsnips, and “Lady Catherine the Bore”. Which was how she and Kitty referred to the local titled lady.
Lizzie was a particularly modern young woman, and found herself wondering whether the state of holy parsimony applied equally to parsnips which had declared themselves same-sex attracted. Mr Collins intruded on this pleasing reverie.
“Miss Elizabeth! Miss Elizabeth! I crave your indulgence!”
“Yes Mr Collins. I am all ears. So to speak.”
The irony went right over the suitor. “Your infirmity, far from detracting from the abundance of your admirable qualities, merely enhances the many excellent qualities that I seek in a wife. These esteemed qualities of observance of duty, a wholesome keeper of home and hearth, an assistance to my many duties within the parish, obedience and humility, may I say, Miss Elizabeth, just how much your infirmity is a sign from God, nay, a calling –”
Hold it right there Fatty, Lizzie wanted to scream. “Mister Collins,” she shouted, in a bid to say anything to stem the flow. “Mister Collins. I do thank you for your kind offer, but it is one that I cannot possibly accept. You are an older man, with all his faculties intact, whereas I . . . ”
“Miss Elizabeth,” cried the suitor. “Such a divine reply! Such maidenly reserve is common in the weaker sex, yet convinces me of the righteousness of my choice. Incumbent upon me, Miss Elizabeth, is devotion and care of my future wife, and your infirmity behooves me in this direction, one that I shall gladly . . .”
“What?” Lizzie was a bit desperate by now. “You said something about cows, did you?”
“Miss Elizabeth? Cows? No, I did not refer to cows, not in the least.”
“But Mr Collins, you did. You said something about moos. Cows moo. Or was it hooves? Cows have hooves you know.”
Lizzie got up out of her settee, folded her arms, stood akimbo, and peered into his eyes with a most unladylike directness. Mr Collins took a step backwards. “So that’s what you think of me. You think I’m a cow.”
“My dear Miss Elizabeth! I think nothing of the sort. Miss Elizabeth! I think, perhaps, for this confusion afforded by your infirmity, perhaps the ear trumpet of which your blessed mother spoke might prove to be of assistance in this important matter.”
Alas, that was precisely the wrong thing to say.
“I think I have heard enough, Mr Collins. Obviously, a man who has just demonstrated that his genuine affections lie with the beasts of the field has no room for my affections, or indeed, for any wife he may find. Your conversations of this nature may be better directed to Farmer Giles over yonder. He has a most choice dairy herd, and indeed, that is where I am sure you will find a congenial response. Good day, Mr Collins.”
Lizzie gathered in her skirt and strode off in the direction of the sewing room, where she knew she would find Kitty. She did. A hurried conversation with her sister left the latter in tears of laughter. Still sniggering, Kitty guided Lizzie out towards the park, just as the clamorous lamentations of Mrs Bennet could be heard in the pale afternoon sun.