Issue 22: Lady Catherine's saving grace


Apart from riding a horse with a modicum of skill, my only claim to fame as a child was the possession of a lively imagination, probably because my nose was always stuck in a book, inspiring said imagination. This resulted in the stories I wrote in my head, committed to paper and thence to the bin. (The best place for those early efforts. Take my word for it!).

I grew up on the Isle of Wight, a stone’s throw from Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s Island retreat - the place where she most liked to spend her time and where she eventually died. I think I must have absorbed the ethos of bygone days by osmosis, accounting for my love of history and eventual decision to make a serious effort to write romantic historical fiction.

A lot of the credit for that choice rests upon Jane Austen’s slender shoulders. Pride and Prejudice has been my favourite book since…well forever, and has had a profound effect upon my subsequent writings. Jane’s ability to bring to life the idiosyncrasies of her characters and the minutiae of daily village life is a true inspiration.

I continually wonder how things worked out for her various characters. They are so real to me because Jane possessed the skill to make me care about them—yes, even the unpleasant ones. What happened to Miss Bingley when she could no longer pursue Darcy? Would she admit defeat, gracefully or otherwise, just because the object of her affections had taken complete leave of his senses and married such an inferior female? What of Lydia and Wickham? Was there any hope for the survival of such an improbable marriage?  Kitty, Georgiana, Mr Collins…they had all become old friends and I couldn’t bear to let them go.

But most of all, Lady Catherine’s autocratic and overbearing manner kept nagging away at me. Could anyone really be so standoffish, so totally disapproving of anything the least bit frivolous? I don’t believe she ever smiled or showed approval for anything that didn’t agree with her own rigid opinions throughout the entire course of the book. An editor once told me that everyone has one or two redeeming qualities. It’s just a question of delving deeply enough to find them.

Lady Catherine, though? Hmm.

Her response to Darcy when he was at Rosings and she insisted upon knowing what he and Lizzy were talking about gives an insight into her mind set, I’ve always thought:

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. (Pride & Prejudice, ch. 31)

Lady Catherine (Dame Judi Dench) and Mr Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen).  Credit: Studio Canal; Working Title Films.

Lady Catherine (Dame Judi Dench) and Mr Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen). Credit: Studio Canal; Working Title Films.

She actually believes what she says and no one takes her to task for making that assertion when she can’t possibly know if it’s true. She could be tone deaf, but that possibility doesn’t seem to have entered her head. As we would say in today’s parlance, she believes her own hype because no one has the courage or cares sufficiently to challenge her views. Lady C goes on to offer Lizzy the opportunity to practise on the pianoforte in Mrs Jenkinson’s room.

She would be in nobody’s way, you know, in that part of the house. (P & P, ch. 31)

Is she secretly lonely in that mausoleum of a house and is this her clumsy way of seeking companionship without actually admitting that she enjoys Lizzy’s strength of character?

‘Pray, what is your age?’

‘With three younger sisters grown up, your Ladyship can hardly expect me to own it.’

Lady Catherine seemed quite astonished at not receiving a direct answer; and Elizabeth suspected herself to be the first creature who had ever dared to trifle with so much dignified impertinence. (P & P, ch. 29)

The deeper one delves, the more enigmatic Lady C becomes. My pesky imagination comes to the fore once again as I contemplate her formidable character. Could her domineering manner be a product of youthful disappointment or—and I hardly dare make the suggestion—indiscretion? Her mother knew best so Lady Catherine put her own aspirations aside and followed parental guidance. But what goes around comes around. Poor Anne! She doesn’t stand a chance. No wonder she’s so sickly. It must be exhausting trying to live up to her mother’s expectations, but if she found the strength to stand on her own two feet, defied her mother’s dictate and followed her heart, Lady Catherine really would be all alone. And so she ensures that her daughter remains downtrodden and never finds the courage to form a single defiant thought. One cannot help but feel sorry for Mrs Collins, who would be left in the direct firing line of Lady Catherine’s lonely spite, were Anne ever to find the strength to rebel.

Fortunately for those authors amongst us who appreciate Jane Austen’s genius, she didn’t write a sequel to her wonderful work, thus leaving us lesser mortals with the opportunity to indulge our imaginations and turn her characters, Lady Catherine included, into whatever we want them to be.


© Wendy Soliman - Author of the Mrs Darcy Entertains series and many others


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