The Complete Jane Austen "Pride and Prejudice" by Seth Cassel
Jane Austen's Lady Catherine
One of my favorite characters in Jane Austen's novel, Pride and Prejudice, is the oft-overlooked minor character of Lady Catherine De Bourgh. Besides her hilarious comments, I love how Austen uses her to elucidate the characters of Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, and Mrs. Gardiner. Lady Catherine's unintentional acts bring Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy together by influencing Mr. Collins to marry and then later by disapproving of the relationship between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.
Lady Catherine's unintentional acts bring Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy together by influencing Mr. Collins to marry and then later by disapproving of the relationship between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.
However, Lady Catherine's proud, status-oriented character primarily helps establish Elizabeth as a strong-willed individual, highlights Mr. Darcy's change in personality, and accentuates the caring nature of Mrs. Gardiner. In a more global sense, Jane Austen uses Lady Catherine as a means of criticizing the social status of young women during early 19th century England, but more importantly, as a way of debunking rank as an indicator of character.
BBC's version of Lady Catherine stays so strictly to the wealthy widow's portrayal, while wonderfully accentuating her status-obsessed and proud nature. One of my favorite moments is when Lady Catherine takes great pleasure in asserting her rank as when introduced to Elizabeth, Sir William, and Maria. In the book, Austen says, "her air was not conciliating, nor was her manner of receiving them, such as to make her visitors forget their inferior rank" (139).
How ironic is it that twice Lady Catherine unknowingly aids in encouraging the relationship of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. The first time occurs when Lady Catherine demands that Mr. Collins must marry. Lady Catherine's request starts a chain of events that leads Mr. Collins to marry Charlotte Lucas. Elizabeth then goes to visit the Collins' while Mr. Darcy is staying nearby with Lady Catherine. This proximity causes the two to meet and starts breaking down the figurative "wall" that has built up between them. However, the most important impact Lady Catherine has on the plot comes when she voices her disapproval of the possibility that Elizabeth might become married to Mr. Darcy. Her desire to break off any possible engagement between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy instead forces Elizabeth to reconsider the idea of a relationship with Mr. Darcy and to admit that he might have obtained her affections. Lady Catherine's objections to Mr. Darcy about his relationship with Elizabeth actually encourage him to propose to Elizabeth a second time. He reasons when speaking to Elizabeth after they are engaged, "had you been absolutely, irrevocably decided against me, you would have acknowledged it to Lady Catherine, frankly and openly" (306).
While Lady Catherine does have a role in the plot of Pride and Prejudice, her primary function is to give us a better understanding of other characters in the novel. Lady Catherine's bout with Elizabeth over her relationship with Mr. Darcy is used to reinforce Elizabeth's character as strong and impertinent. Austen sees Elizabeth's nature in a positive light and sets her apart from the other women in the novel as a type of heroine, standing up to Lady Catherine by saying "I am only resolved to act in a manner which will... constitute my happiness, without reference to you" (298). Another fascinating use of Lady Catherine is how she is used to spotlight the personality change of Mr. Darcy. Lady Catherine and Mr. Darcy have similar amounts of wealth, which puts them fairly close in terms of rank. However, while Lady Catherine disapproves of Elizabeth's "obstinate, headstrong" nature (296), Mr. Darcy relishes Elizabeth's character, which the reader observes in her confrontation with Lady Catherine. Mr. Darcy's differing opinion from Lady Catherine, despite their common rank, helps establish his divergence from the social norm. The juxtaposition of the two characters highlights Mr. Darcy's change from prideful and conceited, which characterizes Lady Catherine, to not being "selfish and overbearing" (308). A minor use of Lady Catherine is to help establish the character of Mrs. Gardiner as compassionate and understanding, as they are both aunts. Lady Catherine's interaction with her nephew, Mr. Darcy, can be clearly identified in her antiquated insistence upon an arranged marriage between Mr. Darcy and Miss De Bourgh. This relationship is contrasted with that between Mrs. Gardiner and her niece, Elizabeth. Mrs. Gardiner simply offers suggestions to Elizabeth, such as recommending the "understanding and opinions" of Mr. Darcy (271). The difference in the way the two aunts offer opinions to their relatives makes the caring and nurturing nature of Mrs. Gardiner apparent to the reader.
In a historical perspective, through the character of Lady Catherine, Jane Austen and the PBS series give the reader an image of the roles of women in early 19th century England. Lady Catherine's suggestions such as "young women should always be properly guarded and attended," characterize how women were regarded as objects to be won and prized (179). However, Jane Austen subsequently suggests that this image is flawed. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth rebel against Lady Catherine's mores by valuing a woman's ability to be "frank... and open..." (306). As portrayed in series, Austen also uses Lady Catherine to put forth her more prominent theme, suggesting that even with limitless wealth and higher rank, one is not superior to those less fortunate. In fact, she implies that true nobility can be found among the working class, such as in the case of Mrs. Gardiner. Austen thus concludes that wealth and rank as a means of ordering society and determining one's character is overvalued and flawed.