Lady Catherine de Bourgh: A Character Study, by Amanda Kai

Lady Catherine de Bourgh: A Character Study, by Amanda Kai

In my quest to learn more about Lady Catherine de Bourgh for my current work-in-progress, I’ve decided to make a character study of her. While some of the minor characters in Pride and Prejudice get no more than a line or two (indeed, if you look for information about Lady Anne Darcy or Sir Lewis de Bourgh, you’ll find next to nothing about them), in the case of Lady Catherine, there is actually a wealth of detail. Long before we ever meet her in the story, her reputation precedes her in the form of Mr. Collins’ lavish praise and Charlotte’s letters to Lizzy, and even a few lines from Mr. Wickham. Once she enters the stage, we begin to see other sides of her as she is presented from Lizzy’s point of view and we see her in action. Finally, she goes from a humorous side-character to an antagonist when she verbally assaults Lizzy and tries to extract a promise from her that Lizzy will never try to get married to Mr. Darcy. But her efforts to keep the two of them apart end up having the opposite effect. Lady Catherine is then left to decide: hold a grudge forever, or make amends with her nephew.

 

Background

Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine, P&P 1995

Lady Catherine is the daughter of an earl. We know this from several clues in the text. One, Lady Catherine is never referred to as “Lady de Bourgh”. It is always her full name, or “Lady Catherine”. This courtesy title signifies she is the daughter of a peer, and because she married beneath her station, she is allowed to continue using her birth title rather than their husband’s title. Why an earl? In the text, we are told that Lady Catherine’s nephew Colonel Fitzwilliam is the younger son of an earl, whose title is only given as Lord _____. We can presume that the colonel’s father is the brother of both Lady Catherine and her sister Lady Anne, and therefore, their father (whom this brother inherited his title from) was also an earl.

Her maiden name, we can presume, was Fitzwilliam. Why, you may ask? Again, it comes down to clues in the text. While we may not know the earl’s title, the family name is given to us directly as it is Colonel Fitzwilliam’s last name. It cannot be his title, since younger sons would use the family name and would not have a courtesy title. Further confirmation on Lady Catherine’s family name: it was common practice for women to name their son after their family name. What first name did her sister Lady Anne give to her son? You guessed it– Fitzwilliam!

Reputation

Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine, P&P 1940

The first mention of Lady Catherine comes through one of Mr. Collins’ letters, where he tells the Bennets that her “bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish” (chapter 13). It is immediately clear that Mr. Collins considers her to be a generous person, since she could have bestowed the Hunsford rectory on anyone, but she chose to give it to Mr. Collins.

When Mr. Collins arrives at the Bennets house, his praise continues. “Lady Catherine was reckoned proud by many people he knew, but he had never seen anything but affability in her. She had always spoken to him as she would to any other gentleman; she made not the smallest objection to his joining in the society of the neighbourhood nor to his leaving the parish occasionally for a week or two, to visit his relations.” (chapter 14). Here, we see that she does have a reputation for being proud, but she appears to treat Mr. Collins as a gentleman and includes him in her society. He also describes her as displaying “affability”, or having friendly and obliging nature.  Not what we might usually think about Lady Catherine, huh?

We get a different picture of Lady Catherine from the conversation between Elizabeth and Mr. Wickham.

“Mr. Collins,” said she, “speaks highly both of Lady Catherine and her daughter; but from some particulars that he has related of her ladyship, I suspect his gratitude misleads him, and that in spite of her being his patroness, she is an arrogant, conceited woman.”

“I believe her to be both in a great degree,” replied Wickham; “I have not seen her for many years, but I very well remember that I never liked her, and that her manners were dictatorial and insolent. She has the reputation of being remarkably sensible and clever; but I rather believe she derives part of her abilities from her rank and fortune, part from her authoritative manner, and the rest from the pride of her nephew, who chooses that everyone connected with him should have an understanding of the first class.” (chapter 16).

But we know that Mr. Wickham’s opinion of anyone is not to be trusted, right? 😉 Let’s see if Charlotte has anything different to say about her. 

Charlotte writes to Lizzy that “Lady Catherine’s behaviour was most friendly and obliging.” (vol. 1, Chapter 26) When Lizzy comes to visit, Charlotte also tells her that “Lady Catherine is a very respectable, sensible woman indeed,” added Charlotte, “and a most attentive neighbour.”  It sounds like Lady Catherine has the capacity to be friendly and nice when she wants to be!

This, of course, is on the heels of Mr. Collins telling Lizzy that “She is all affability and condescension, and I doubt not but you will be honoured with some portion of her notice when service is over. I have scarcely any hesitation in saying she will include you and my sister Maria in every invitation with which she honours us during your stay here. Her behaviour to my dear Charlotte is charming. We dine at Rosings twice every week, and are never allowed to walk home. Her ladyship’s carriage is regularly ordered for us. I should say, one of her ladyship’s carriages, for she has several.” (Chapter 28) 

Mr. Collins’ hopes are realized:  his cousin and his wife’s family are invited to join Lady Catherine for dinner and they will get to see Lady Catherine in all her splendour.

As the guests prepare for this meeting, we are given a few more insights into Lady Catherine’s character.

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my dear cousin, about your apparel. Lady Catherine is far from requiring that elegance of dress in us which becomes herself and her daughter. I would advise you merely to put on whatever of your clothes is superior to the rest—there is no occasion for anything more. Lady Catherine will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed. She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.” 

“While they were dressing, he came two or three times to their different doors, to recommend their being quick, as Lady Catherine very much objected to be kept waiting for her dinner. Such formidable accounts of her ladyship, and her manner of living, quite frightened Maria Lucas who had been little used to company, and she looked forward to her introduction at Rosings with as much apprehension as her father had done to his presentation at St. James’s.”

So it seems that despite Mr. Collins’ admiration of her, she has some classist attitudes and impatience, and Mr. Collins makes her out to be a bit formidable.

Lady Catherine, in the flesh

Judi Dench as Lady Catherine, P&P 2005

At long last, Elizabeth meets the woman whose reputation has preceded her. 

“Lady Catherine was a tall, large woman, with strongly-marked features, which might once have been handsome. Her air was not conciliating, nor was her manner of receiving them such as to make her visitors forget their inferior rank. She was not rendered formidable by silence; but whatever she said was spoken in so authoritative a tone, as marked her self-importance, and brought Mr. Wickham immediately to Elizabeth’s mind; and from the observation of the day altogether, she believed Lady Catherine to be exactly what he represented.” (Chapter 29)

So, Lady Catherine does not come across as warm and friendly, and this reception confirms to Elizabeth the suppositions she has made about her based on her conversation with Wickham. 

We also learn that she seems to enjoy the gratuitous behaviour of Mr. Collins and Sir William Lucas. “ But Lady Catherine seemed gratified by their excessive admiration, and gave most gracious smiles, especially when any dish on the table proved a novelty to them.”

After dinner, she displays her propensity to talk and to give advice on every matter. “When the ladies returned to the drawing-room, there was little to be done but to hear Lady Catherine talk, which she did without any intermission till coffee came in, delivering her opinion on every subject in so decisive a manner, as proved that she was not used to have her judgement controverted. She enquired into Charlotte’s domestic concerns familiarly and minutely, gave her a great deal of advice as to the management of them all; told her how everything ought to be regulated in so small a family as hers, and instructed her as to the care of her cows and her poultry. Elizabeth found that nothing was beneath this great lady’s attention, which could furnish her with an occasion of dictating to others.” 

In the drawing room, Lady Catherine asks Elizabeth a series of questions about her family, growing more impertinent all the time, to the point that she insists on knowing Elizabeth’s age (and we all know it’s rude to ask a lady her age, no matter how young she is!). She is rather astonished that Elizabeth would trifle with her by giving her evasive answers.

 Even when the men rejoin the ladies and they play cards, Lady Catherine seems to dominate the scene. “Lady Catherine was generally speaking—stating the mistakes of the three others, or relating some anecdote of herself.”

Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Lena Heady as Lady Catherine, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

There are more meetings that take place over the next few weeks, but Elizabeth manages to avoid them for the most part. That is, until the arrival of Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam. Then, Elizabeth has no choice but to accept the invitation to dine again at Rosings, and it is here that we get another cameo of Lady Catherine. Colonel Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth are having a lively conversation about music, which catches the attention of Lady Catherine across the room, and she demands to know what they are talking about. When they answer, she says, “Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient. And so would Anne, if her health had allowed her to apply. I am confident that she would have performed delightfully.” (Chapter 31)

Despite her admittance that she never learned to play any instrument, she then offers a great deal of advice about practicing.

“I am very glad to hear such a good account of her,” said Lady Catherine; “and pray tell her from me, that she cannot expect to excel if she does not practice a good deal.”

“I assure you, madam,” he replied, “that she does not need such advice. She practises very constantly.”

“So much the better. It cannot be done too much; and when I next write to her, I shall charge her not to neglect it on any account. I often tell young ladies that no excellence in music is to be acquired without constant practice. I have told Miss Bennet several times, that she will never play really well unless she practises more; and though Mrs. Collins has no instrument, she is very welcome, as I have often told her, to come to Rosings every day, and play on the pianoforte in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room. She would be in nobody’s way, you know, in that part of the house.”

And later in the conversation, she says, “Miss Bennet would not play at all amiss if she practised more, and could have the advantage of a London master. She has a very good notion of fingering, though her taste is not equal to Anne’s. Anne would have been a delightful performer, had her health allowed her to learn.” It also tells us that “Lady Catherine continued her remarks on Elizabeth’s performance, mixing with them many instructions on execution and taste. Elizabeth received them with all the forbearance of civility, and, at the request of the gentlemen, remained at the instrument till her ladyship’s carriage was ready to take them all home.”

Lindsay Duncan as Lady Catherine, Lost in Austen

Lady Catherine does not appear in person again until Chapter 37, after Darcy and Fitzwilliam have left, and it is towards the end of Elizabeth’s stay in Hunsford. She sees that Elizabeth is downcast, and without asking the reason, assumes that it must be that Elizabeth is sad to return home. In the course of her attempts to persuade Elizabeth to remain longer, we are given a revealing statement about her relationship with her own father. “Oh! your father of course may spare you, if your mother can. Daughters are never of so much consequence to a father.” This strongly suggests that Lady Catherine was not regarded with much importance by her father in her own youth.

Here also, we are given another glimpse at Lady Catherine’s attempts to appear generous, when she is actually being a bit selfish.

“And if you will stay another month complete, it will be in my power to take one of you as far as London, for I am going there early in June, for a week; and as Dawson does not object to the barouche-box, there will be very good room for one of you—and indeed, if the weather should happen to be cool, I should not object to taking you both, as you are neither of you large.”

An offer to go back to London, but only for one, either Elizabeth or Maria. She’ll only take both if it’s not going to be too stuffy in the carriage and because neither one of them is fat. That’s rich! Either way, she’s making her servant Dawson (who I presume to be her lady’s maid) ride outside next to the driver to accommodate. Real classy, Lady C!

At least Lady Catherine seems to have good intentions most of the time.

“Mrs. Collins, you must send a servant with them. You know I always speak my mind, and I cannot bear the idea of two young women travelling post by themselves. It is highly improper. You must contrive to send somebody. I have the greatest dislike in the world to that sort of thing. Young women should always be properly guarded and attended, according to their situation in life. When my niece Georgiana went to Ramsgate last summer, I made a point of her having two men-servants go with her. Miss Darcy, the daughter of Mr. Darcy, of Pemberley, and Lady Anne, could not have appeared with propriety in a different manner. I am excessively attentive to all those things. You must send John with the young ladies, Mrs. Collins. I am glad it occurred to me to mention it; for it would really be discreditable to you to let them go alone.”

“My uncle is to send a servant for us.”

“Oh! Your uncle! He keeps a man-servant, does he? I am very glad you have somebody who thinks of these things. Where shall you change horses? Oh! Bromley, of course. If you mention my name at the Bell, you will be attended to.”

She seems to be the sort of person that usually means well, but is oblivious to the fact that she is coming across as a busybody and a know-it-all. Also, she is apparently unaware of what danger almost befell Georgiana on that trip to Ramsgate, when she was supposedly so well-attended.

On the final night of Lizzy’s stay in Hunsford, Lady Catherine puts her busybody ways to good use once more. 

“The very last evening was spent there; and her ladyship again enquired minutely into the particulars of their journey, gave them directions as to the best method of packing, and was so urgent on the necessity of placing gowns in the only right way, that Maria thought herself obliged, on her return, to undo all the work of the morning, and pack her trunk afresh. (Chapter 37)

“When they parted, Lady Catherine, with great condescension, wished them a good journey, and invited them to come to Hunsford again next year” 

Well! If Elizabeth ever wished to go back to Lady Catherine’s house, at least she would know she was welcome to. A nice gesture, but I doubt that it would have been honored after what happened a few months down the road.

From Caricature to Antagonist

Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice 1980
Judy Parfitt as Lady Catherine, P&P 1980

From our first introduction to her, Lady Catherine is drawn as a caricature of a “great lady”; a well-meaning busybody who has a great deal of pride and self-importance and makes herself look ridiculous by attempting to be an expert on every subject. It is not until the final act of the book in Chapter 56 that she becomes one of the novel’s antagonists.

Rumors spread quickly among those who have nothing better to do than gossip, and it is by this means that a rumor reaches Lady Catherine’s ears that Darcy and Elizabeth will be imminently engaged. This infuriates her, because she had big plans to keep all the money in the family by having Darcy marry her daughter. To stop her nephew from making a big mistake, she goes to Elizabeth’s house to deal with the matter in person. After putting up a show of the usual pleasantries she takes Elizabeth out for a walk and begins her verbal assault.

She declares the rumor to be a “scandalous falsehood”, and expects that Elizabeth will contradict it. But when Elizabeth refuses to confirm that there is no foundation, Lady Catherine accuses Elizabeth of trying to draw in Mr. Darcy and entrap him. 

Lady Catherine is incensed.  

“Obstinate, headstrong girl!  I am ashamed of you! Is this your gratitude for my attentions to you last spring? Is nothing due to me on that score?” (Chapter 56)

Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice 1995
Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine, P&P 1995

But Elizabeth is resilient, and Lady Catherine does not get her way, which apparently is quite out of the norm.  

“I have not been used to submit to any person’s whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment.”

Their argument continues, as Lady Catherine attempts to insist that Mr. Darcy is engaged to his cousin, brags about how the two of them are formed for each other, and disparages Elizabeth’s family.

“The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured!”

 “But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition.”

When Elizabeth finally gives in and admits that she and Mr. Darcy are not engaged, Lady Catherine tries to extract a promise from her that she will never do so. This, of course, is also refused. That brings Lady Catherine to declare the real reason she objects to Elizabeth’s family– the scandal brought on by Lydia and Wickham’s elopement. 

“Not so hasty, if you please. I have by no means done. 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. I know it all; that the young man’s marrying her was a patched-up business, at the expence of your father and uncles. 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?”

Finally, having had enough of Lady Catherine’s insults and attempts to stop her from marrying Mr. Darcy (even though such a thing is not even a real possibility at the moment), Elizabeth shows her to her carriage. 

Lady Catherine drives straight to London, where she gives a repeat performance of this behavior to her nephew, who also refuses to comply. Though we are not told the exact words she said, it is through this conversation that Darcy learns that Elizabeth refused to promise that there could never be anything between her and Darcy– a fact which gives him enough hope that her feelings might have changed for him to take another chance at proposing to her.

Lady Catherine has played the antagonist well, but in doing so, has unwittingly been the means of exposing Elizabeth and Darcy’s feelings to each other. As Darcy says of her, “Lady Catherine has been of infinite use, which ought to make her happy, for she loves to be of use.” (Chapter 60)

Epilogue

Lady Catherine in Death Comes to Pemberley
Penelope Keith as Lady Catherine, Death Comes to Pemberley

As we all know by now, Elizabeth and Darcy do get engaged, and Darcy is not remiss in letting his dear old aunt know straight away. Her fury is so strong that even Mr. and Mrs. Collins flee to Hertfordshire to escape it.

“The reason of this sudden removal was soon evident. Lady Catherine had been rendered so exceedingly angry by the contents of her nephew’s letter, that Charlotte, really rejoicing in the match, was anxious to get away till the storm was blown over.”  (Chapter 60)

Lady Catherine’s reply to Darcy’s engagement announcement was no less insulting than her visits had been.

“Lady Catherine was extremely indignant on the marriage of her nephew; and as she gave way to all the genuine frankness of her character in her reply to the letter which announced its arrangement, she sent him language so very abusive, especially of Elizabeth, that for some time all intercourse was at an end. But at length, by Elizabeth’s persuasion, he was prevailed on to overlook the offence, and seek a reconciliation; and, after a little further resistance on the part of his aunt, her resentment gave way, either to her affection for him, or her curiosity to see how his wife conducted herself; and she condescended to wait on them at Pemberley, in spite of that pollution which its woods had received, not merely from the presence of such a mistress, but the visits of her uncle and aunt from the city.”

Well, I guess after all is said and done, Lady Catherine, bad as she may be, is still able to let go of a grudge. Maybe she does have a little bit of good in her after all. 

She’s an interesting character, to say the least. A strong mixture of the laughable and the despicable who, through her role as an antagonist, becomes the plot device that brings the hero and heroine together. 

P.S. Last month I mentioned my NaNoWriMo writing goals. While I didn’t hit 50k, I did manage to knock out 23k words on my work in progress before getting sick with a bad cold and my goal falling to the wayside. Not too bad, considering this was my first attempt at a challenge! Also, my new Christmas short story is now out as part of the “Christmas Celebrations” anthology. You can download your free pdf copy here on my website! 

Happy Reading!

-Amanda Kai

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6 COMMENTS
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Mirta Ines Trupp
AuAu
December 17, 2021 12:04 AM

Thoroughly enjoyed this post! Good job! I hope you’re feeling better. Happy Holidays!

Gianna Thomas
AuAu
December 12, 2021 1:46 PM

Interesting post, Amanda. Lady Catherine is a character indeed. Unfortunately, I have my doubts about there being anything nice about her. Possibly she might do something nice but only to make herself look good. I get the impression that she would run everybody’s lives if she had the chance. That kind of person is always right, and everybody else is wrong. I did like the way Austen turned her comments around to where Darcy and Elizabeth got back together. Lady Catherine definitely is something else. 🙂

Riana Everly
AuAu
December 10, 2021 1:27 PM

That was a great analysis. She’s a fabulous character, isn’t she?

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
December 10, 2021 10:10 AM

I’m so sorry you didn’t make the goal in your challenge. However, look how well you did in spite of being ill. I hope you are better. Just remember, the first time you try something new is always a fact-finding venture. Next year, you will know what to expect and can charge ahead full-steam.

Your post on Lady Catherine was very interesting. I’m always surprised at how authors handle our dear Lady. She has been the best and the worst of characters… from being sweet to being truly insane, I think I’ve read it all until something new arrives that completely surprises me. She is quite a versatile character. Blessings in the new year. Happy Holidays in the manner in which you celebrate.

DarcyBennett
DarcyBennett
December 10, 2021 9:11 AM

Thank you for sharing your findings on this character. I enjoyed reading your analysis.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
December 10, 2021 7:33 AM

Nice post! I think Judi Dench is my favorite Lady Catherine! Lady Catherine is a force to be reckoned with!

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