Jane Austen, Mr. Collins, and Rape Culture

What we call “rape culture” is nothing new, and its roots go deep. The “no means no” campaign on first glance seems to be too obvious to need saying. Except that it’s unfortunately not. This statement is probably the one thing from the whole Nice Guys of OK Cupid thing that stuck with me the most:

A No is just a Yes that needs a little convincing!

To be honest, this is frightening to me. And maddening. The idea that I could tell a man “no” and have him see that as a challenge rather than an answer? Yeah, that freaks me the heck out. And not just for me. For Sally.

But I promised you Jane Austen and I started out by saying that this inability to accept that a woman’s no means no is nothing new. Well, every single time I think of this issue a crucial passage from Pride and Prejudice comes to mind. It’s the passage where Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth – and then refuses to accept that her “no” actually means “no.”

On finding Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth, and one of the younger girls together, soon after breakfast, [Mr. Collins] addressed the mother in these words:

“May I hope, madam, for your interest with your fair daughter Elizabeth, when I solicit for the honour of a private audience with her in the course of this morning?”

Before Elizabeth had time for anything but a blush of surprise, Mrs. Bennet answered instantly, “Oh dear!—yes—certainly. I am sure Lizzy will be very happy—I am sure she can have no objection. Come, Kitty, I want you up stairs.” And, gathering her work together, she was hastening away, when Elizabeth called out:

“Dear madam, do not go. I beg you will not go. Mr. Collins must excuse me. He can have nothing to say to me that anybody need not hear. I am going away myself.”

“No, no, nonsense, Lizzy. I desire you to stay where you are.” And upon Elizabeth’s seeming really, with vexed and embarrassed looks, about to escape, she added: “Lizzy, I insist upon your staying and hearing Mr. Collins.”

Elizabeth would not oppose such an injunction—and a moment’s consideration making her also sensible that it would be wisest to get it over as soon and as quietly as possible, she sat down again and tried to conceal, by incessant employment the feelings which were divided between distress and diversion. Mrs. Bennet and Kitty walked off, and as soon as they were gone, Mr. Collins began.

Believe me, my dear Miss Elizabeth, that your modesty, so far from doing you any disservice, rather adds to your other perfections. You would have been less amiable in my eyes had there not been this little unwillingness; but allow me to assure you, that I have your respected mother’s permission for this address. You can hardly doubt the purport of my discourse, however your natural delicacy may lead you to dissemble; my attentions have been too marked to be mistaken. Almost as soon as I entered the house, I singled you out as the companion of my future life. But before I am run away with by my feelings on this subject, perhaps it would be advisable for me to state my reasons for marrying—and, moreover, for coming into Hertfordshire with the design of selecting a wife, as I certainly did.”

The idea of Mr. Collins, with all his solemn composure, being run away with by his feelings, made Elizabeth so near laughing, that she could not use the short pause he allowed in any attempt to stop him further, and he continued:

“My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish; secondly, that I am convinced that it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly—which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness. [...]”

It was absolutely necessary to interrupt him now.

“You are too hasty, sir,” she cried. “You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without further loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them.”

“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”

“Upon my word, sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is a rather extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so. Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation.”

“Were it certain that Lady Catherine would think so,” said Mr. Collins very gravely—”but I cannot imagine that her ladyship would at all disapprove of you. And you may be certain when I have the honour of seeing her again, I shall speak in the very highest terms of your modesty, economy, and other amiable qualification.”

“Indeed, Mr. Collins, all praise of me will be unnecessary. You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say. I wish you very happy and very rich, and by refusing your hand, do all in my power to prevent your being otherwise. In making me the offer, you must have satisfied the delicacy of your feelings with regard to my family, and may take possession of Longbourn estate whenever it falls, without any self-reproach. This matter may be considered, therefore, as finally settled.” And rising as she thus spoke, she would have quitted the room, had Mr. Collins not thus addressed her:

“When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on the subject, I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.

“Really, Mr. Collins,” cried Elizabeth with some warmth, “you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as to convince you of its being one.”

You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these: It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”

I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart.”

You are uniformly charming!” cried he, with an air of awkward gallantry; “and I am persuaded that when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail of being acceptable.”

To such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; determined, if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as to be decisive, and whose behaviour at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female.

Mr. Collins was not left long to the silent contemplation of his successful love; for Mrs. Bennet, having dawdled about in the vestibule to watch for the end of the conference, no sooner saw Elizabeth open the door and with quick step pass her towards the staircase, than she entered the breakfast-room, and congratulated both him and herself in warm terms on the happy prospect or their nearer connection. Mr. Collins received and returned these felicitations with equal pleasure, and then proceeded to relate the particulars of their interview, with the result of which he trusted he had every reason to be satisfied, since the refusal which his cousin had steadfastly given him would naturally flow from her bashful modesty and the genuine delicacy of her character.

This passage was unsettling when I read it as a teen, and every time I reread it as well. I could feel Elizabeth’s anger and consternation.

The first point to be made, of course, is that Mr. Collins refused to simply accept Elizabeth’s “no” and move on. In the face of this refusal to listen, Elizabeth tries again and again to make it perfectly clear to Mr. Collins that she really truly meant no. In the end, Elizabeth actually gives up on convincing Mr. Collins that she really really won’t marry him, and concludes that the only thing she can do is appeal to her father to make it clear to Mr. Collins that her “no” really means “no.” In other words, Mr. Collins will only accept the word of a man. When it comes to women, for Mr. Collins, “a no is just a yes that needs a little convincing.”

Second, of course, there is also Mr. Collins’ suggestion that for a woman to simply say “yes” without first saying “no” would be immodest and shameful. This idea that a true lady always turns a gentleman down the first time, even if she really actually wants to accept him, and has decided she will eventually. It strikes me how much we see this same line of reasoning when we talk about “rape culture.” There’s this idea that girls who are too “easy” aren’t any good, and that the goal is to find a “conquest” – a girl that starts out demurely saying “no” and is eventually worn down. In other words, women who simply speak directly or exercise their agency in the area of romance or sex rather than remaining passive and shy are portrayed as somehow of less worth.

And there’s a third point to make. Mr. Collins genuinely thinks that many women say no even when they have actually already decided that they will ultimately say yes. In other words, Mr. Collins is not simply refusing to take Elizabeth at her word, he’s suggesting that Elizabeth is playing some sort of game with him. Elizabeth’s retorts are excellent – she points out that it would be foolish to risk her happiness on the hope that she would be proposed to a second time, and that refusing the first offer when she meant to eventually accept would amount to “tormenting” a respectable gentleman. Regardless of whether this was just a cultural trope or whether women did generally refuse the first time, the result is that Mr. Collins not only won’t accept Elizabeth’s no but also genuinely thinks that Elizabeth would say no even when she really meant yes.

Can you say rape culture?

I have no idea when this toxic cocktail of ideas first developed, but it’s seriously time we ended it. If you’re a woman, don’t play coy. Just don’t. Say yes if you mean yes, and no if you mean no. And if you’re a man, accept a woman’s no and don’t assume it’s just a yes in the making. Don’t be that guy. Seriously people, enough.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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