Lady Catherine de Bourgh: Character in Pride and Prejudice

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      Lady Catherine de Bourgh belongs to the class of characters like Mary Bennet, who are caricatures. In them, the novelist has abstracted a particular defect and exaggerated it to draw the pointed attention of the readers to it. Lady Catherine is a snob first and foremost. Her snobbery is based on rank and wealth, whereas the foolishness of Mary is based on her fancied literary achievements. Both excite the same contempt when tested in the light of common sense. The pompous lady is introduced to us long before she makes her appearance in the novel. Her devotee, Mr. Collins, takes care to mention her in his first letter to the Bennet's. He is all praise for her for favouring him with a rectory in her parish and declares that he considers himself duty bound to show all deference to her Ladyship. The letter throws as much light on the character of Lady Catherine as on the writer himself. Both Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth are struck by his servility towards the Lady. The impression created about the lady is naturally that she must be an august personage. The account given of her by Mr. Collins in person is more awe-striking and if Elizabeth and her father had not been shrewd judges of character, they would have formed quite a wrong idea of the redoubtable old woman. As it is, the others are kept in awe by what they hear of Lady Catherine from the glowing account of Rosings given by Mr. Collins that Mrs. Phillips would not have resented a comparison between her dining room and the servants’ quarters of Lady Catherine. But Jane Austen takes care that the reader is not infected with the enthusiasm of the clergyman. She makes it clear that all the glory of Lady Catherine is derived through a sort of reflection from her blind worshipper. Mr. Bennet pricks the bubble when he asks his worthy relative whether his words of flattery were premeditated or proceeded from the impulse of the moment. Absolutely unaware of the sarcasm in the question, Mr. Collins replies that they were partly premeditated and partly born on the spur of the moment. This confession makes the reader realize that the clergyman’s goddess has feet of clay.

      Elizabeth realizes this fact in the famous proposal made by Collins to her. One of the reasons which he offers for his decision to marry is that Lady Catherine has advised him to take a partner in life, and that too unasked. He adds further that she has promised to visit his wife, if he married a gentlewoman for her sake. It is with great difficulty that Elizabeth controls her laughter at the kind offer of Lady Catherine to visit her clergyman’s wife. A woman who looks upon her visit as a mighty favour cannot be sensible, and Elizabeth has a complete picture of the character of the patroness of her relative long before she sets her eyes on the latter. Indeed, she uses Lady Catherine herself as an argument against her acceptance of the hand of Mr. Collins. She declares that she is quite sure that her Ladyship would not approve of her at all in the Parsonage.

      Elizabeth is not in the least disappointed in her expectations of Lady Catherine when she pays a visit to Hunsford Parsonage for the sake of Charlotte. Mr. Collins prophesies that the entire party would be invited by her Ladyship within a short time. When the invitation comes the very next day, he is unable to control his joy. He describes her ladyship as the pink of courtesy and graciousness and is itching to make Elizabeth realize what she had lost by rejecting his hand. The interesting point is that Sir William Lucas and his second daughter are terrified at the prospect of being introduced to such a personage by the time they reach Rosings. In fact, Sir William is unable to speak in her Ladyship’s presence and Maria is unable even to sit properly on the chair. It is only Elizabeth who is able to keep her presence of mind. Lady Catherine behaves exactly as Elizabeth expected her to do. There is an air of offensive condescension in her words and behaviour. She gives unsolicited advice to Charlotte about running the household, every word making the other feel that she is inferior to the speaker. She is equally impertinent to Elizabeth with whom she has no right to take any liberty. She makes elaborate enquiries about the age and family of Elizabeth and gives the benefit of her advice to her too. She is shocked that she and her sisters should have been brought up without a governess and boasts about the help rendered by her to numerous families by providing suitable governesses for them. Elizabeth does not give her direct replies and Lady Catherine is a little annoyed at the boldness of Elizabeth. For, Elizabeth was the first creature “who had ever dared to trifle with such dignified impertinence.” Curiously enough, Lady Catherine thinks that Elizabeth is impertinent. It is with the greatest difficulty that the latter is able to control her temper for the sake of her dear friend Charlotte.

      Elizabeth discovers soon after, that Lady Catherine adopts the same attitude towards Darcy and Fitzwilliam too, though in a modified form. Towards him, of course, she cannot take on the attitude of a patroness. But she tries to be his guide and philosopher. She considers herself to be an authority on every question and cannot bear to be left out of any discussion. She must know what is going on when Elizabeth and Colonel Fitzwilliam are talking by themselves about music. They resent her interference; but she proceeds to give her views on music. She tells in the manner of an oracle that none can play on the piano without practice and asks Darcy to make a special mention of her advice in his letters to his sister. She advises Elizabeth also to practise and is generous enough to allow her to come to Rosings as often as she likes to play on the piano, in the housekeeper’s room, ‘since she will not be in anybody’s way there’. This is the height of ill-breeding and Darcy is ashamed of her. He tells her curtly that his sister does not need such advice and that she does practise constantly. Even after this retort, Lady Catherine does not choose to keep her opinions on music to herself.

      All this officious impertinence proceeds out of her belief that she is Lady Bountiful in the place. She plays patroness not only to the Collinses but to the entire locality. The dutiful clergyman carries reports to her about all the disputes in the area and Lady Catherine rushes immediately to the persons concerned to ‘scold them into amity and prosperity’. In a similar manner, she enquires into every detail of the journey of Elizabeth and Maria to their village and tells them that they will be attended to on the way ‘if they mention her name.’ She seems to have an obsession that she must earn the reputation of being the most generous and influential woman in the land. She worships herself just as Mr. Collins prostrates himself before her. He supplies her with incense in abundance so that her pride is fed to the full. In fact, Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins can be said to be complementary figures. There cannot be a Lady Catherine without her Collins. Unfortunately, the world is never found wanting in its Collinses.

      This fact is made abundantly clear in the last appearance of Lady Catherine in the novel. All her glory vanishes at the slightest rebuff to her selfishness and vanity. She learns with horror that Darcy, whom she has desired for her daughter, thinks of becoming engaged to the upstart girl from Longbourn. All her terrified selfishness rises to the surface and she wastes no time in rushing to Longbourn to warn Elizabeth off her nephew. Elizabeth had never had any respect for her and the impertinence and insolence of Lady Catherine reach their height in the course of their private talk. Elizabeth repays insult with insult and Lady Catherine is baffled by the studied but firm replies of one whom she expects to tremble before her. She is no match for the girl and realizes the fact. When Elizabeth refuses to give her a promise that she would not be engaged to Darcy in the future, Lady Catherine becomes openly offensive and charges Elizabeth with ingratitude. She cannot imagine how a girl who had enjoyed the mighty favour of dining at Rosings could go against her orders. She calls Elizabeth ‘an upstart schemer’ and walks away in anger. Her parting words to Elizabeth are the most amusing of all her vain remarks born out of self-adoration. She does not propose to send her compliments to Mrs. Bennet, since she is seriously displeased. Having failed to cow down Elizabeth, she proposes to tackle her nephew, for ‘she is not accustomed to have her desire thwarted.’ Our attitude to her at that moment is one of contempt mixed with pity for the pricked balloon. For, after all, Lady Catherine is the victim of a dupe. Her self-importance is fed by a host of servile followers until she becomes a goddess in her own eyes. It is but natural that she should be severely upset by the first rebuff received by her. We can detect a resemblance between Darcy’s reaction to the rejection of his hand by Elizabeth and Lady Catherine’s to the rebuff received by her from the same person. We like to imagine that Lady Catherine has been purged of her arrogance when she consents to visit Pemberley though it has been polluted by the entry of Elizabeth into it. But this interpretation seems to be unlikely when we remember that Miss Bingley too makes it up with Elizabeth after the marriage. It is not possible that Jane Austen should have softened towards either of them.

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