In what ways is Lady Catherine de Bourgh a complex character?

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What makes a "complex character," anyway? There is no set definition online, but the Chandler Unified School District has promulgated guidelines that can be found in the link below. Basically, they argue that a complex character is multidimensional, with a "variety of traits and different sides to their personality," who "undergoes an important change as the plot unfolds."

It is easy to criticize Lady Catherine from today's perspective as domineering, rude, intrusive, and elitist. But author Jane Austen was criticizing existing societal roles in England for women, and Austen uses a realistic Lady Catherine to comment on, for example, class distinctions. Lady Catherine, as a landed aristocrat and patroness, would have been somewhat responsible for the welfare of all of the families who lived on her large estate, which would have included a parsonage and several villages and not just her household. Think of her as, not just a rich old busybody, but as something like a mayor or even a sovereign of her own little realm. Some aristocrats did not care about their tenant families and other dependents, but it is obvious that Lady Catherine cared enough to try to make sure everything was running smoothly.

Also Austen was commenting on the inertia between classes in the early 1800s, with Lady Catherine's expectations that Darcy would marry her invalid daughter. In fact, these sort of arranged marriages within a closed social circle were the norm rather than the exception among the aristocracy. Moreover, Lady Catherine did receive Elizabeth Bennet into her home and offered to make her piano available for practice, where Lady Catherine was under no social obligation to do so. These are actually signs of openness and liberality for the times. These class distinctions are hard to imagine now, but were prevalent at the time Jane Austen was writing against them.

The fact that Austen can make us feel that Lady Catherine is an antagonist, even though the grande dame was arguably acting with a sort of well-meaning, if intrusive and arrogant, liberality, is one reason why we can say that Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a complex character. Close reading can help find other instances where Lady Catherine acts in ways that are positive and negative at the same time. The change Lady Catherine ultimately undergoes is also a complex one: she finally turns against Elizabeth Bennet because of Darcy, but, because Bennet does not recognize her authority anymore anyway, Lady Catherine winds up losing face.

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I would argue that Lady Catherine de Bourgh is not so much complex as arrogant, self-serving, and rude.

It could be argued that her setup as a woman in charge of her own estate and destiny, wielding enough power to make Mr. Collins weak at the knees, gives her a level of complexity. Her lifestyle is certainly a contrast to the Bennet sisters, for whom the roof over their heads depends on a man in the family.

However, she is known as a haughty and domineering woman—and these are not complex characteristics. Her passionate determination that Mr. Darcy should marry her sickly daughter, Anne, blinds her to logic and what is right. Her interference in the relationship between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, while having the exact opposite effect to what she desired, is testament to her selfish, condescending and bullish nature.

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Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a difficult character to fully understand. Her role in Pride and Prejudice is complex. Yes, she is arrogant, pompous, intrusive and annoying, yet she is also a woman with extensive authority and power in an era when women were as a rule without authority and power. Married women in Austen's era were legally an extension of their husbands; they were in a sense no more important legally than a household domestic, although, when you consider it, even single female domestic workers could enter into contracts, such as their employment contracts (a point illustrated so well by Hardy in Tess of the d'Ubervilles), whereas any married woman could not.

This was according to the English legal principle of couverture which distinguished between feme solo (unmarried) and feme covert (married). The difference between the two designations was that single, feme solo, women could legally own property and enter into contracts while married, feme covert, women could perform neither of those legal activities. The reason is that a woman's identity was legally subsumed under her husband's identity upon marriage.

Then here you have Lady Catherine. Austen's narrator makes a point of informing us that Sir Lewis de Bourgh's family saw no need to neglect the female line of the family and render it powerless: Sir Lewis's will had specified that Lady Catherine de Bourgh was to inherit all his estate and all the power and authority that went with it.

[Lady Catherine says,] "I see no occasion for entailing estates from the female line. It was not thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bourgh's family."

And, yes, she greatly enjoyed the exercise of that power and authority. Remember, though, that, regardless of her abrasive personality, she attempted (successfully or not) to use that power for good amongst her villagers to help them be prosperous and lead peaceful lives.

Elizabeth soon perceived ... [that] this great lady ... was a most active magistrate in her own parish, ... and whenever any of the cottagers were disposed to be quarrelsome, discontented, or too poor, she sallied forth into the village to settle their differences, silence their complaints, and scold them into harmony and plenty.

Austen uses Lady Catherine to make a case for female legal identity and power. Yet by showing that Lady Catherine's unusual power is still exercised in accordance with the cultural prejudices prevalent in their society, as seen during her confrontation with Elizabeth about a rumored engagement to Darcy, Austen also uses Lady Catherine to illustrate the theme of equality of personhood in love and marriage (see Themes Insights: Equality of Personhood).

While Lady Catherine's characterization challenges the legal prejudices against women, her character also shows uncompromising cultural prejudice against people in lower classes, namely Elizabeth's mother, aunts and uncles who are of a lower class:

"True. You are a gentleman's daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts?"

Lady Catherine is a complex character who illustrates (1) Austen's social protest about the legal position of women, (2) Austen's social protest about prejudice against lower classes, and (3) Austen's interesting theme relating to what affects the equality of personhood in family, love and marriage.

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