Lady Catherine really is the perfect villain: calculating, manipulative, and far enough removed from the action of the novel so that her humanity does not impede our picture of her villainy. From her lofty perch she is easy to hate. She judges those she has no right to judge, exerts power where she has none, defines the value others based on outdated and superficial criteria, and perhaps worst of all, operates under the assumption that her position in society is deserving of respect and prestige.
Indeed, Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Rosings Park represents values that, in Austen’s society, were becoming increasingly outmoded: old aristocracy that derived its power from inheritance regardless of personal merit. Lady Catherine’s power is assumed from those who came before her, while Austen advocates for social power like Mr. Darcy’s: inherited authority tempered and enhanced by earned respect by being an active master and gentleman.
However, as much as I am one of the first people to openly express my dislike for Lady Catherine, as much as I would like to fight her in an alley with a sock full of quarters, I’ve come to believe that she deserves a trial before a jury of her peers, or, for lack of several middle-aged aristocratic women from the late 18th century, I myself will have to suffice in their place.
The kind of femininity Austen offers as positive and productive is evinced across several characters in Pride and Prejudice. Both Lizzy and Jane are portrayed as good examples of femininity even though they differ in temperament. They are in different degrees kind, intelligent, articulate, level-headed, self-aware, and while they speak their minds when it is appropriate to do so, they are usually passive when they ought to be. Charlotte Lucas, too, embodies most if not all of these qualities, especially self-awareness.
Lady Catherine, however, is a powerful matriarch. She is a woman who possesses power that Austen’s society typically invested in men. She runs her estate, plans marriages between heirs, and sits as an authority figure within her community as a wealthy property owner. Austen, for all of her proto-feminism, does not seem to be comfortable with a woman who possesses male power. Austen’s ideal women challenge authority but do not necessarily exercise it on their own. (This is also evident in Emma, where we see the titular character fail to exercise authority after several floundered attempts to play matchmaker, only to defer to the truly authoritative Mr. Knightley. Ask Sarah, she practically wrote her dissertation on this subject.) I don’t mean this to disparage or lessen the value of Austen’s work or her heroines; I only mean to demonstrate that the result of imposing modern ideals of feminism on Austen’s heroines will likely leave the reader uncomfortable and dissatisfied.
That said, Lady Catherine can find her champion in the modern feminist. While Lizzy and Jane might be found lacking by today’s standards, but Lady Catherine is not. Austen is hard on her because she is a woman who conducts herself like a man, which makes her seem overbearing, controlling, and–perhaps for lack of a better word–bitchy. It is easier to call her bossy than to give her credit for wanting to protect her daughter’s future and her family’s wealth, lineage, and property. It is less complicated for us to label her a villain than it is to see her for the shrewd, if calculating and mean-spirited, gentlewoman she was raised to be, a position she not only occupies but totally embodies. Perhaps Lady Catherine’s actions are misguided and occasionally cruel, but are they not motivated by her responsibilities as a steward of her family’s wealth and position? As a woman, her confrontational nature and her desire to control would have been out of sync with the feminine ideal of the time, one that still, unfortunately, exists today. I’m of the opinion that even if she was a mean and bitter lady, she was also a victim of her time, made mean and bitter by the circumstances she was born into. Not only does Austen condemn Lady Catherine as a symbol of an aging ideal of gentility and power, she further alienates her by disparaging the authority she has cultivated over her lifetime. Lady Catherine might be rude to her social inferiors, judgmental of the lifestyles of others, and a generally unlikable social companion, let’s put it this way: even though I still want to fight her in an alley with a sock full of quarters, I’d want her to have a sock full of quarters too—make it a fair fight.