Whilst fretting and fuming over the Darcy family’s behaviour, Mama gave vent to her dissatisfaction by interfering further in Mr Collins’ affairs. The Parsonage, she declared, was in need of a great many improvements, which only a feminine hand could properly attend to; the kitchen garden was shamefully neglected. Mr Collins was a diligent shepherd to his flock, but his domestic life was in a sorry state; indeed how could it be otherwise, since he lacked a wife? And how was he ever to secure one, since he did nothing to recommend himself to any of the ladies to whom he had been introduced since his arrival at Hunsford? (I can vouch for the truth of this: Mama had invited several respectable spinsters of the parish to take tea with us when Mr Collins was present, and without exception they were appalled at the company they had to endure, and could not escape the experience quickly enough!)

“He does nothing to help himself by conversing with such tortuous pomposity,” was Mama’s despairing comment. “I am quite at a loss, Anne. Where shall we find a wife for Mr Collins?”

“Could we not just leave him to find his own wife?” I suggested; but she threw up her hands in horror.

“Good heavens, child, that will never do! Goodness knows what kind of a person he is likely to attract if left to his own devices! For he must have a gentlewoman, you know – I could never countenance anyone other than a gentlewoman at the Parsonage – but she must also be an active, useful sort of person, able to live happily on Mr Collins’ income. I have told him all this often enough! But he will never manage it for himself.”

Mr Collins, however, was to surprise us all, for he did manage it for himself, and in the following manner.

“I wonder, your Ladyship – I have been intending to ask – might I have leave to visit my cousins in Hertfordshire next month? Of course I would not wish to put your Ladyship to the slightest inconvenience, but I feel -”

“Cousins in Hertfordshire, Mr Collins? What relatives are these, pray?”

“A cousin of my late father, Lady Catherine – a Mr Bennet. A very respectable gentleman by all accounts, though an unfortunate disagreement between him and my father has prevented our becoming acquainted. I am persuaded, however, that enough time has now elapsed for me to offer the olive branch with equanimity; indeed, as a clergyman, I feel honour bound to do so. Mr Bennet has five unmarried daughters, and -”

“Five!” (I silently echoed my mother’s exclamation, and sat forward in my chair. This could be interesting.)

“Five daughters! What was the man thinking of? And all unmarried, you say – pray, what are their ages? And what is Mr Bennet’s estate?”

“He is the principal resident of Longbourn, Lady Catherine, a village near the town of Meryton in Hertfordshire. He keeps a very respectable house, I am assured. The youngest Miss Bennet is fifteen, I believe, and the eldest – I am not sure – no older than three and twenty. The estate of Longbourn is – entailed upon myself, in default of any male heir.”

Mama was rendered speechless for a moment, and I could not suppress a smile. There was more to our Mr Collins, it seemed, than either of us had supposed.

“Entailed! Upon you! You have never told me, Mr Collins, that you are to inherit an estate! Why, pray, have you never spoken of it before?”

“Well, I – your Ladyship -” stuttered the unfortunate man, “I did not feel it my place – until, that is, I have made my peace with Mr Bennet – I thought it unseemly to presume -”

“Oh, I understand, I understand. No use putting all your eggs in one basket. But this is news indeed! Longbourn, you say, in Hertfordshire; and five daughters of marriageable age! Well, depend upon it, one of them will easily be prevailed upon to accept you, especially as you are to inherit their father’s estate. Indeed, they can hardly do otherwise! A very pretty scheme, upon my word! You shall certainly have leave to go, Mr Collins, and I go so far as to charge you expressly not to return until you are an engaged man!”

“You may depend upon it, Anne,” reflected Mama when the grateful suppliant had been dismissed and we were able to discuss his prospects in private, “If the Bennet daughters do not have the good sense themselves to look favourably upon Mr Collins, their mother will see to it; she will be a very short-sighted woman if she does not! She has her husband’s estate to think of, and her comfort in old age, as well as the possibility that one of so many daughters may end an old maid, and dependent. She will persuade one or other of them to have him, mark my words!”

But when Mr Collins, who always did what Mama required of him, returned from Hertfordshire an engaged man, it was not one of the Miss Bennets who was the chosen partner of his felicity. We were surprised to learn that he had instead secured the eldest daughter of one Sir William Lucas, a neighbour and friend of the Bennet family. This gentleman, though formerly in trade, had been distinguished during his mayoralty of the town of Meryton by a knighthood; and his daughter Charlotte was declared by her enraptured lover to be the most amiable, most accomplished and most virtuous young woman of the neighbourhood. Whether she could possibly be of sound mind was a matter of speculation between myself and Mrs Jenkinson; but this was exactly the kind of wife Mama would have chosen for Mr Collins herself, and once she had got over her astonishment at his not having got one of his cousins, she was all affability and approval, and declared that the wedding must take place as soon as possible.

“Miss Lucas is the eldest daughter of her family, you say? Pray what is her age, Mr Collins?”

“She is seven and twenty, your Ladyship.”

“Well! She will not be wanting a long engagement, at seven and twenty! Pray return to Hertfordshire as soon as you like, and arrange the date! And her father is Sir William Lucas, is he? Well, you may tell him from me that he will be most welcome to visit his married daughter whenever he likes, and I will receive him here at Rosings!”

Mr Collins saw nothing untoward in my mother’s giving Sir William Lucas permission to visit his own daughter; he was all effusive gratitude, as usual. I was not paying attention to all that he said, for I was wondering whether all five Miss Bennets had refused him in turn, or whether he had become disheartened after one or two rebuttals and decided to look elsewhere. His description of his cousins was uncharacteristically reticent – ‘they were most pleasant girls; the eldest was likely to be married quite soon; their father and mother had been most hospitable.’ It was not like our Mr Collins to be so economical with words. Something, I suspected, had gone awry in that quarter.

I was aroused from my reverie by the exclamation: “Oh! My dear Lady Catherine, I have omitted to mention a most particular circumstance. Whilst in Hertfordshire I had the pleasure of meeting your nephew – Mr Darcy, of Pemberley!”

I bent my head to avoid the significant glance cast in my direction, while Mama inquired somewhat suspiciously into the circumstances of this meeting.

It transpired that a ball had been given by Mr Bingley at his Hertfordshire residence, to which the Bennets and their guest had been invited. It was there that Mr Collins had encountered William, and taken the liberty of introducing himself – ‘taking advantage’, as he put it, ‘of that privilege which we members of the clergy may claim, in being permitted to lay aside the established forms of ceremony’ – and of assuring him that his esteemed aunt and amiable cousin were both in good health. I was mortified, imagining William’s haughty surprise at being thus approached, and was relieved to hear that Mr Collins believed himself to have been received with ‘most affable condescension.’

Whilst Mama, her displeasure towards the Darcys temporarily suspended, waxed eloquent upon the impeccable manners of her nephew, I experienced an unpleasant succession of emotions as I pictured a flurry of Miss Bennets, Miss Lucases and other importunate female residents of Meryton all vying for William’s attention. The man who had once claimed to find balls so tedious had obviously not been averse to attending this one! And supposing he had already formed an attachment? Mr Bingley’s unmarried sister, for instance – how could I have overlooked that possibility? How long would it take Mama to get around to it? I stole an anxious glance in her direction, and was grateful to see that Mr Collins had the whole of her attention, and that my burning cheeks were safe from scrutiny. I surreptitiously placed a hand upon my heart, in a vain attempt to still its unruly clamour. Accept it, Anne, I told myself; accept the inevitable. Miss Bingley, or someone similar, will soon be mistress of Pemberley.

Mr Collins was married in Hertfordshire early in the New Year, and returned with his bride very promptly to Hunsford to be visited by a great many people, all curious to see how the new Mrs Collins conducted herself. Mama and I were of course among the first to pay our respects, and I was on the whole very favourably impressed. Mrs Collins was plain, neat, and well mannered. She smiled a little too readily, but this could of course be due to nervousness. Her conversation, when her husband’s verbosity allowed her to speak, was sensible, desirous to please but not disposed to flatter. Mama seemed likewise well satisfied with her, and invited the happy couple to dine with us the next day.

The Collinses soon became fairly regular guests at our dinner table, being much more welcome as a couple than Mr Collins had been in the single state. Although they were neither lively nor witty company, the husband was often unintentionally amusing and the wife always pleasant and friendly. I began to admire Mrs Collins for the diplomatic way in which she handled her husband, and for the equanimity with which she bore my mother’s interference into every aspect of her domestic affairs. Her age and situation, I decided, were sufficient explanation for her having accepted Mr Collins’ proposal; and if she did not show much obvious affection for him, neither did she betray any repugnance or regret. She seemed cheerfully determined to make the best of her situation, and I could only wish her well.