The older I get, the more I like Lady Catherine. This is partly because, as an ageing woman, I have more sympathy for other older women. Older women are often mocked in fiction: dismissed as silly, no longer beautiful, and frequently poor. Even Jane Austen was not beyond ridiculing them – think of Miss Bates and of Lady Bertram – but Austen also treated many with respect, even when her characters do not (Marianne Dashwood is extremely rude to Mrs. Jenkinson, and Emma is impatient with Miss Bates).
Lady Catherine may be proud, but that is something to be expected of a woman who is the daughter of an earl and the mistress of Rosings Park. And she has, in my opinion, many admirable character traits.
Lady Catherine meddles. But she is also interested in everything around her, a quality I find far more commendable than blasé indifference. In chapter 29 of Pride and Prejudice we read: “Elizabeth found that nothing was beneath this great lady’s attention, which could furnish her with an occasion of dictating to others.” Is her attitude not better than Lady Bertram’s of Mansfield Park, who elegantly dozes her way through life? Is her attitude not better than Miss Bingley’s, who has such a superiority complex that she barely speaks with anyone? And certainly her attitude is better than Mr. Bennet’s, who neglected his daughters with respect to their characters and their fortunes.
In her own way, Lady Catherine is generous. The meals that she serves her guests are excellent, and she is happy to find a dish that is new and interesting to serve them. Also, Mr. and Mrs. Collins are never allowed to walk home from Rosings Park. This was an important consideration in an era when if you could not find someone with a carriage and horses – and keeping horses could be very expensive – you were forced to walk or stay at home. Some people, such as Elizabeth Bennet, enjoyed walking, but this was not true of everyone.
Lady Catherine loves her daughter. Miss Anne de Bourgh is described as “pale and sickly; her features, though not plain, were insignificant; and she spoke very little, except in a low voice, to Mrs. Jenkinson” (chapter 29). As Miss de Bourgh bears little resemblance to her mother, we can assume she takes after her father, Sir Lewis de Bourgh, who may have been pale and sickly and possibly bullied out of his own existence by the formidable Lady Catherine. Although Lady Catherine may be a dragon, she is a dragon ready to defend Anne from anything and everything. When she learns of a possible engagement between Elizabeth and Darcy, she hastens to Meryton to confront Elizabeth.
Lady Catherine begins almost reasonably, asking Elizabeth not to marry her nephew. When Elizabeth refuses to makes any sort of promise, Lady Catherine insults Elizabeth repeatedly – and the worst insult is about the behavior of Elizabeth’s sister Lydia.
“To all the objections I have already urged, I have still another to add. I am no stranger to the particulars of your youngest sister’s infamous elopement. know it all; that the young man’s marrying her was a patched-up business, at the expense of your father and uncle. And is such a girl to be my nephew’s sister? Is her husband, who is the son of his late father’s steward, to be his brother? Heaven and earth—of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” (chapter 56).
Elizabeth is deeply insulted especially by the last, and as Pride and Prejudice is a novel about Miss Elizabeth Bennet, we feel her indignation. But let’s step back a little. Elizabeth may not appreciate hearing what Lady Catherine has to say, but she has had almost the exact same ideas herself. When she receives a letter from Mrs. Gardiner describing Mr. Darcy’s efforts to arrange the match between Lydia and Wickham, her own reaction is written thus: “Her heart did whisper that he had done it for her. But it was a hope soon checked by other considerations, and she soon felt that even her vanity was insufficient, when required to depend on his affection for her, for a woman who had already refused him, as able to overcome a sentiment so natural as abhorrence against relationship with Wickham. Brother-in-law of Wickham! – Every kind of pride must revolt from the connection” (chapter 52).
Although Lady Catherine’s attempted interference may be ill-judged – Elizabeth points out that even if she refuses Darcy, there is no guarantee that he will marry his cousin – we must recall the main motivation behind Lady Catherine’s actions. She has done this not because she dislikes Elizabeth, but because she is protecting her daughter. Lady Catherine has had her heart set on Darcy as a son-in-law for Anne’s entire life, ever since Anne was in her cradle. I expect Lady Catherine is also experiencing some nostalgia towards her own deceased sister, for a cherished plan the two of them made together.
I cannot help but admire a woman so frank, a woman who speaks her mind and says what others are thinking but dare not utter. And we have to remember that Darcy respects this quality too – the reproof that Elizabeth gave him during his first proposal only increased his admiration of her.
But the thing I admire most about Lady Catherine is that she is a feminist, at least a feminist for her time. For example, she sees no reason to exclude women from inheritance:
“Your father’s estate is entailed on Mr. Collins, I think. For your sake,” turning to Charlotte, “I am glad of it; but otherwise I see no occasion for entailing estates from the female line. – It was not thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bourgh’s family” (chapter 29).
Lady Catherine is also a champion of women’s education and she is interested in finding women employment (four nieces of Mrs. Jenkinson are “delightfully situated” through her connections). She criticizes the education of the Bennet daughters:
“Then, who taught you? Who attended to you? Without a governess, you must have been neglected” (chapter 29). Lady Catherine’s questions may be impertinent and her manner of expression rude, but there is nothing wrong with her judgment. The education of Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters was neglected, by an ignorant mother and a lazy father.
And even if you do not admire Lady Catherine – if you find her condescending and officious (well-deserved adjectives) – you have to admit that she brings her scenes to life. She is even important behind the scenes. After all, it is her interference – when she goes to Darcy in an attempt to get him not to re-propose to Elizabeth – that Lady Catherine somehow lets him know that Elizabeth has refused to give Lady Catherine a refusal to marry him. As Darcy says: “It taught me to hope,” said he “as I had scarcely allowed myself to hope before” (chapter 58).
Lady Catherine is perceived as tiresome and dictatorial, largely because she is filtered through the lens of Elizabeth Bennet. But Jane Austen’s characters are generally so strong, so well-rounded, that you can take them out and view them from completely different angles. I am constantly awestruck by Austen’s genius: how did she, who never reached old age herself, create such a wonderful older lady? So my appreciation for Lady Catherine is always accompanied by my admiration for Dear Jane.
Victoria Grossack is the author of The Meryton Murders: A Mystery Set in the Town of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, and The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen’s Emma. The Meryton Murders is also available from Audible (narration of The Highbury Murders is in the planning stage). Victoria Grossack is also the author of a whole bunch of other stuff, which you can learn about at www.tapestryofbronze.com.