It was Beatrice Nearey, an Edmontonian Janeite, who gave me an auspicious kick start as a Jane Austen Playwright. I had written Austenesque stories for years, but it never occurred to me to try my hand at plays, until Beatrice and her friend Dolores Kohler cleverly adapted a story of mine, “The Courtship of Mrs. Elton,” and gave it a reading in Edmonton. This short play was eventually performed in ten different cities, and I occasionally had the pleasure of playing Mrs. Elton myself, including at the JASNA AGM in Vancouver. It was all so much fun I started turning out more original Austenesque plays, and this led to my exciting teaming with Syrie James and writing two conference plays for JASNA AGMs – “The Austen Assizes” performed in Brooklyn, NY in 2012, and “A Dangerous Intimacy: Behind the Scenes in Mansfield Park” in Montreal in 2014.
But it was Beatrice who started it all, and the most recent Birchall/Nearey collaboration was a reading of my story “Lady Catherine’s Christmas,” which Beatrice adapted for the Edmonton audience, with Juliet McMaster playing Lady Catherine. The group will be doing it again in January. I thought the play text would make a seasonable and suitable post for December, so without more ado – Lady Catherine’s Christmas!
P&P200: Lady Catherine’s Christmas Story by Diana Birchall
Cast: Narrator (4 descriptive lines): Dolores Kohler
Lady Catherine (23 dictatorial speeches or unworthy snippy comments): Juliet McMaster
Mr Collins (24 sermons and obsequious pronouncements): Beatrice Nearey
Mrs Jenkinson (2 remarks she hopes will be acceptable to all): Sheila Dechant
Lady Anne de Burgh (1 unlikely suggestion): Linda Wiener
Props: Glass of wine for Lady Catherine. Optional: table, something to carve, 4 plates, walking stick
Narrator: Christmas makes the strongest demands of any sacred day upon a clergyman, but one might particularly feel for Mr. Collins, whose maiden Christmas sermon he must preach before his formidable patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. All went off well, however, and he was gratified to be invited, after his efforts, to take his Christmas dinner at Rosings. To him this was the crown of his ambitions, and he took his seat at the foot of the table, and followed Lady Catherine’s minute directions for carving the roast of beef, with such alacrity and compliance that her ladyship actually smiled upon him.
Lady Catherine: “I must say, Mr. Collins, you make a better job of carving than our previous clergyman, Mr. Horner, ever did. I never could persuade him to attend to my instructions properly. He would always carve the meat against the grain, and it ended, as it must, in strings. Strings, Mr. Collins!” ….
Mr. Collins: “Strings! Very sad, upon my word,”
Narrator: He answered, looking complacently at the platefuls he was filling rapidly with nice thick rosy slabs.
Lady Catherine: “Yes; and he never would listen to my directions about his sermons, either. Quite indecent, they were. Why, once he preached a sermon about how the sin of pride would keep one out of Heaven, and he looked most meaningly at me for its entire length. Insufferable man!”
Mrs. Jenkinson: “And I do believe,” …, “that he had designs in matrimony – above his station.” [She nods and winks vigorously, so the lace on her specially fashioned Christmas headdress swing, as she casts her eyes on Miss de Bourgh, who blushes and simpers.]
Lady Catherine: [severely]“That is never to be spoken of, Mrs Jenkinson,”. “Never. What the man’s presumptions might be, is no concern of ours.”
Mr. Collins: “Shocking, shocking,”
Narrator: Mr. Collins starts to attack his beef and parsnips with a good will.
Mr. Collins: “A clergyman, of all people, ought to know the meaning of the hymn, ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.’”
Miss de Bourgh: [with the air of saying something very daring] “That might be the subject of your next sermon,”.
Lady Catherine: “Indeed it might. Those fine sentiments cannot be too widely promulgated.”
Mr. Collins: [assertively] “I hope,… that I know my place. A clergyman such as myself, should be very certain to know it. A man of the cloth, educated at Oxford as I was, is of course a gentleman, equal in some ways to any in the land; yet in his calling, he must ever show a proper humility. That is exactly what I did when I cogitated upon the important matter of selecting a companion for my future life.”
Lady Catherine: “And you seem to have done it very well,” …. “Mrs. Collins, that is to be, has no ideas or airs above her station, I collect, but is a modest country woman, who knows how to mend and make do.”
Mr. Collins: “Indeed, that she is; my Charlotte is a very model for prudence and economy. I will warrant, Lady Catherine, that you will find nothing at all in her to disapprove.”
Lady Catherine: “I am sure of that. I know, in fact, that you have chosen where you should, and as you should. It will be well to have a clergyman who is wisely married, and not subject to any preposterous ideas.”
Mr. Collins: [Earnestly] “Oh, I hope I never have any ideas at all, Lady Catherine,” … “That would be most inappropriate – most unfit. To think of your daughter, who might marry anyone!”
Lady Catherine: [She drinks a glass of wine reflectively, and swirls it in its crystal.] “Yes – that is the question. Now that you are so soon to be married yourself, Mr. Collins, and as you are a man of the cloth, after all, I believe I may confide in you.”
Mr. Collins: “Confide – in me?”
Narrator: he almost stammered, and lay down his knife lest he drop it in his excitement.
Mr. Collins: “It would be the greatest honour of my life, and be very sure that you may count upon me, in my sacred office, to keep anything you say, perfectly confidential.”
Lady Catherine: “I am sure you would,” [she nods and fixes him with her penetrating dark eye before proceeding]. “You are an uncommonly intelligent young man, Mr. Collins, with more than ordinary perception, and I suppose it has occurred to you to wonder about my daughter’s marriage, has not it?”
Mr. Collins: “It is not my place, madam…,” .
Lady Catherine: [Interrupting him] “What you may not be aware is that my late sister, Lady Anne Darcy, and myself, destined her to be the bride of her son and my nephew, Mr. Darcy. You have met that gentleman, I believe?”
Mr. Collins: “Why yes, I have indeed – I told you he was at Netherfield, the home of some neighbors of my cousins at Longbourn. They – the Bingleys, I mean – perhaps had hopes that he would become attached to Mr. Bingley’s sister, but I never saw any sign of it.”
Lady Catherine: “Naturally not.His hand and heart are both intentioned to be the property of my daughter.”
Mr. Collins: “Oh!” [Mr. Collins clasped his hands together with an ecstatic smack. ] “That will be a marriage such as has never been seen before between Kent and Derbyshire. What an alliance of family and fortune, to say nothing of the abundant personal qualities of gentleman and lady!”
Mrs. Jenkinson: [tipping her head affectedly.] “They will be a most handsome couple,”
Mr. Collins: “When is the wedding to be?” …. “You know I am engaged to bring my Charlotte into Kent only a scant few days after these Christmas festivities. I hope we will be in our little nest at Hunsford before the middle of January. As I will be traveling to bring her to her new home, I probably ought not to offer to be available for the ceremony before the fifteenth, or perhaps the twentieth, of that month. But I need hardly tell you how honoured, how gratified, I would be, to perform these distinguished nuptials. Unless,”[ a thought distracted him], “you mean her to be married in Derbyshire?”
Lady Catherine: “No, no, Mr. Collins, you mistake me.” [Lady Catherine’s dark brows beetled together and she looked thunderous, so that Mr. Collins quailed.]
Mr. Collins: [with compunction, trembling a little.] “Have I said anything – “
Lady Catherine: “Certainly not. It is only that I have not made myself clear. There is no engagement as yet.”
Mr. Collins: “No engagement? But I thought the match was planned, between you and Lady Anne Darcy.
Lady Catherine: “So it was, and Anne is docile and obedient in this matter, just as she ought to be. The difficulty is the gentleman himself. He is more than of age, and yet he has never come forward to fulfill the pledge made by his mother.”
Mr. Collins: “That is bad – very bad,” …. “What do you suppose is the reason for this hesitation?”
Lady Catherine: [Grimly]“I am afraid,” …. “that he has a spark of self-will, my nephew. It is difficult for us to conceive, but he may consider that a promise made by his mother, and not by himself, is not a necessary one to keep.”
Mr. Collins: [Horrified] “Oh, surely that could never be!” …. “That would hardly be possible. Mr. Darcy is a byword for proper thinking and behavior, he is a very fine gentleman, from all I have ever heard, and seen with my own eyes. I have had quite a bit of conversation with him, too. You know I consider myself a judge of gentlemanly behavior, as is only proper and becoming to my position.”
Lady Catherine: “Have you conversed with him, indeed? Then you may have seen something of his pride and self-will.”
Mr. Collins: “He was all graciousness and condescension to me, I assure you, Lady Catherine. My cousin …“[he pronounced her name with a little embarrassment that his patroness did not miss,] Elizabeth – “she wanted to check me from speaking to him; but I told her I must know better than a young lady like herself, and I was right.”
Lady Catherine:[Suspiciously] “Miss Elizabeth,” …. “Is she one of your cousin’s daughters?”
Mr. Collins: [he speaks shortly/ abruptly]“Yes, she is. The second,”.
Lady Catherine: “Is she a pretty girl?”
Mr. Collins: “Some might say so. I prefer, I confess, the looks of my own dear Charlotte.”
Lady Catherine: But this Miss Elizabeth – she is acquainted with Mr. Darcy?”
Mr. Collins: “She is indeed. They danced together at Netherfield, and it was the talk of the neighborhood.”
Lady Catherine: [silent for a moment, then with a tone of extreme anger.] “So! This is where the mischief lies!” [she ponders a little longer]. “Wait – that letter you wrote to me, announcing your engagement to one of your cousin’s daughters. This girl is the one?”
Mr. Collins: Stammering in confusion] . “Yes – no – it was all a mistake. I never had any serious thought but for anyone but my Charlotte,”
Lady Catherine: “So, this girl is a minx and a vixen, and she is causing trouble.” [Nods emphatically to herself]. “I knew there was something amiss somewhere. It is well. I thought things were awry when we were not invited to Pemberley this Christmas.”
Lady Catherine: [She drums her fingers on the lace-covered mahogany table. Everyone is silent as she considers.] “I know what I must do,” [she said at last.]
Mr. Collins: [awed]“Wh – what?”.
Lady Catherine: “I will go to Pemberley this minute. Yes, and take Anne, and you may accompany us, Mrs. Jenkinson. Summon the maids to pack, and tell Harris to inform the coachman to make ready for a long trip with the best horses. If we leave immediately after breakfast tomorrow, we will be only one night on the road, and be at Pemberley by this time tomorrow night.”
Mr. Collins: [Nervously]“What will you do there, madam, if I may ask? Am I to remain here?
Lady Catherine: [impatiently] “Certainly you are to remain here,”… “You are not going into Hertfordshire yet, and we will return well before it is time for your own wedding-journey. No, I am going to see Mr. Darcy,” [she stands and raps her mahogany stick sharply on the shining floor,] “and make him see what is his duty.”