It’s one of Pride and Prejudice‘s pivotal and iconic scenes. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who’s incensed at “an alarming report” about her nephew’s likelihood of marrying “a young woman without family, connections, or fortune”, travels to Longbourn to confront Elizabeth, confident of being able to persuade or bully her into dropping any matrimonial ambitions in Darcy’s direction.
However, she has underestimated our protagonist. Lizzy is not having any of it, and the conversation gets… heated.
Lady Catherine pulls out all the stops. Elizabeth has used her “arts and allurements” to seduce her nephew against his better judgment; their whole families are against the match; she will lead him to ruin and disgrace. Finally, she even plays the W-card, and reminds Elizabeth of her sister’s recent elopement with a certain misbehaving former militiaman, who just so happens to be the son of a former steward on Darcy’s great estate. Shocking!
None of this goes down particularly well, as we all know, and actually has the opposite of its intended effect: it finally manages to unite the two sparring lovers in their overwhelming mutual desire to thwart Lady Catherine. Or at least, that’s probably how she interprets their engagement.
But what is it – apart from her innate dislike of the word “no” – that’s really bugging Lady Catherine about the (frankly, not very surprising) prospect of her wealthy, independent, grown-up nephew wanting to make his own choice about who to marry?
Bear with me for a bit; I’m going to knit together a possible version of Lady Catherine’s backstory from a few quite flimsy scraps of exposition.
Let’s recap. How exactly does Lady C justify her assertion that no, Darcy actually definitely wants to marry my daughter, he just doesn’t realise it yet?
The engagement between them is of a peculiar kind. From their infancy, they have been intended for each other. It was the favourite wish of his mother, as well as of hers. While in their cradles, we planned the union: and now, at the moment when the wishes of both sisters would be accomplished in their marriage, to be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family!
I think we need to backtrack a little and work out who the players are here. Darcy’s mother, who has been dead for quite a few years, was Lady Anne Darcy – Catherine’s sister. The two sisters also had a brother who is an earl, identified in the book as “Lord –“. This gentleman must still be alive, because we meet his younger son, Darcy’s affable cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam, and through him we discover that his unnamed elder brother has not yet inherited the title. That tells us that Lord Blankety Blank must still be kicking around, although we don’t hear anything else about him.
The older generation of Darcy’s family must, therefore, have had (at least) three siblings – Catherine, Anne (deceased), and Blank. And their birth surname, presumably, must have been the same that Lady Catherine’s nephew now holds: Fitzwilliam.
Lady Catherine’s description of the various branches of this family offers a few more clues to the family history, not least of which is why poor Mr. Darcy was saddled with Fitzwilliam as a first name.
My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended, on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and, on the father’s, from respectable, honourable, and ancient—though untitled—families. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses…
“Respectable, honourable, and ancient—though *COUGH*untitled*COUGH*—families”. Anne and Catherine’s respective husbands – Mr. Darcy Senior and Sir Lewis De Bourgh – may not have been quite as blue-blooded as the Fitzwilliams, but they’re still just as good! Nearly. Almost!
So, the facts are that we have a very high-born aristocratic family here, in which there is a son and two daughters. The son, Lord Blank, has inherited the title, and his own elder son will presumably follow suit, but his younger son Col. Fitz (as he tells Elizabeth quite frankly) is suffering from a distinct lack of money. In fact, his finances are in such a poor state that he is forced to rely entirely on his much wealthier cousin Darcy’s travel arrangements, in order to make a visit to his aunt. Perhaps the family of Lord Blank, despite possessing the title, are a bit strapped for cash?
Here is my reconstruction of the situation. The three Fitzwilliams are born (around the mid-1740s, by my reckoning) into a very proud and very ancient house, whose proud and ancient coffers are, sadly, almost empty. Son Blank inherits the title and probably the estate, whatever there is left of it, but the two daughters are sent out to marry into money. Which they do, with remarkable success: Anne Fitzwilliam marries the (apparently kind and generous) Mr. Darcy Senior, owner of the vast Pemberley estate, and Catherine Fitzwilliam marries Sir Lewis de Bourgh and becomes the lady of the equally extensive (if less delightful) Rosings Park.
We know next to nothing about Sir Lewis, except that his chimney-piece cost the disgustingly enormous sum of £800, so it’s possible that his taste in interiors may not have been the most restrained. It is intriguing, however, that (as Lady C informs us) his family did not believe in entailing property away from the female line, meaning that in the fullness of time, Anne de Bourgh will be getting a much sweeter deal than some of the other ladies in the novel. (There’s an interesting discussion of the financial details of Anne’s inheritance in this blog post.)
Lady Catherine, we see, is really very interested in money matters – and in other people’s business, in general.
Not only does she enjoy quizzing Elizabeth about her family’s finances and micromanaging the Collins’s household affairs (and how exactly does this great lady know anything about the keeping of chickens??!), but we’re told she also spends a lot of time giving pithy advice to her tenants and the local cottagers. This, to me, suggests someone who was born into a considerably less luxurious lifestyle than the one she currently enjoys. And – reading a little bit further into an apparently throwaway remark – it’s also possible to argue that her early experiences have coloured some of her other hopes and expectations, particularly those regarding her daughter.
“…There can be no occasion for your going so soon. Mrs. Bennet could certainly spare you for another fortnight.”
“But my father cannot. He wrote last week to hurry my return.”
“Oh! your father of course may spare you, if your mother can. Daughters are never of so much consequence to a father.
It seems likely that Lady Catherine did not enjoy the sort of bond that Elizabeth has with her beloved and doting, if ineffectual, father. Instead, I’m going to suggest that the defining relationship of young Catherine’s life was with the woman she named her daughter for: her sister, Anne.
Anne Darcy (nee Fitzwilliam), we’re told – by her son, who may be somewhat of a biased observer – was essentially a good person, but perhaps was a little on the prideful side. This is implied in a very subtle way, but wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has encountered her sister. It’s also underscored by the fact that she chose to name her son not after his father, Mr. George* Darcy, but after the noble family that she was born into: Fitzwilliam.
So what are we left with, then? With their brother inheriting the title, all that Anne and Catherine have in the world is their proud family name, and their close bond with one another – a bond which Lady Catherine continues to feel strongly, even years after her sister’s death. Perhaps this faithful devotion to the wishes of her lost sister is the reason why she is so dead set on a marriage between her nephew Fitzwilliam Darcy and her daughter Anne de Bourgh – and why she flies into such a rage upon discovering that Lizzy is the fly in the ointment?
If so, this makes Lady Catherine out to be less of a harridan and more of a tragic figure, despite her lack of manners and her antagonistic stance towards our favourite characters. And it’s quite possible that this is an example of Jane Austen’s typically complex and layered character development, where there’s more going on beneath the surface of the text than is revealed.
It’s equally possible, however – and I’m willing to concede the point – that Lady Catherine is just a monumental snob.
*Why George? Well, this is another guess, but we’re told that Mr. Darcy senior was godfather to young Wickham. It’s very likely that the Wickham parents followed the old tradition of naming their son after his godfather. Meanwhile, as Dr. Margie Burns suggests in “Symmetries and Antitheses in Pride and Prejudice“, the Darcy parents elect to combine their two names – George and Anne – in order to name their younger child, their daughter Georgiana. Neat, huh?