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Today, we’ll address a Pride and Prejudice issue of great importance: Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Of course, we’re talking about the Jane Austen villain who has made an infamous name for herself in the realm of classic literature characters.
But many questions spring up around this obstinate opposer of Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance. Such as:
- How is Lady Catherine related to Mr. Darcy?
- Is she richer than Darcy?
- Who is she to Mr. Collins?
- What exactly is her title?
- Could Mr. Darcy inherit a title from her and become a Lord?
So many great questions. And in this post, we’ll answer them all.
First up, the most basic: Why is she in Mr. Darcy’s life?
What is the relationship between Mr. Darcy and Lady Catherine?
Lady Catherine is Mr. Darcy’s aunt by blood. She is the sister of Lady Anne Darcy, who is Mr. Darcy’s mom.
Lady Catherine and Lady Anne had a father who was an earl (we’ll talk about that in a minute). When their father died, their brother inherited the earldom. So now they have a brother who is an earl.
That brother, the earl, had sons. One of those sons is Colonel Fitzwilliam, who hangs out with Darcy and flirts with Elizabeth Bennet.
So both Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam share Lady Catherine as their aunt.
There were two nephews of Lady Catherine to require them, for Mr. Darcy had brought with him a Colonel Fitzwilliam, the younger son of his uncle Lord ——, and, to the great surprise of all the party, when Mr. Collins returned, the gentlemen accompanied him.Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
So basically, Anne de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy, and Colonel Fitzwilliam are all biological first cousins.
This is important to note. Because not everyone referred to as a “cousin” in Jane Austen’s books is a first cousin. I explain more about that in my video on Five Pride and Prejudice Words to Know.
But in the case of these three, they truly live up to that term of cousins.
So does that mean that throughout Pride and Prejudice many people want Mr. Darcy to marry his first cousin Anne? Yes. Yes, it does.
Is Lady Catherine richer than Darcy?
In short, probably not.
We never hear an actual annual income mentioned for the de Bourgh family in Pride and Prejudice. However, from how Jane Austen describes them in the book, they have money and are part of the upper class of society.
But why is Lady Catherine de Bourgh rich? After all, it seems like she does nothing but sit around and nitpick people all day. The answer has everything to do with the way nineteenth-century, upper-class income functioned. If you want to learn more about that then definitely check out this whole video series on Regency Era economics.
So if the de Bourghs do have money, then how do we know they have less than Darcy?
Because of something that Mr. Bennet writes in a letter to Mr. Collins.
First, Mr. Collins lets Mr. Bennet know that Lady Catherine feels upset about her nephew, Mr. Darcy, marrying Elizabeth Bennet.
In response, Mr. Bennet gives Mr. Collins some interesting advice.
“I must trouble you once more for congratulations. Elizabeth will soon be the wife of Mr. Darcy. Console Lady Catherine as well as you can. But, if I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give.
“Yours sincerely, etc.”– Mr. Bennet writing to Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Did you notice how Mr. Bennet says that Mr. Darcy “has more to give” than Lady Catherine?
This is one of the most direct indicators in the book that Darcy has more land and money than his aunt. Of course, the general description of Darcy and his wealth also tends to point in that same direction. You can watch a whole exploration of Mr. Darcy’s finances here.
Who is Lady Catherine to Mr. Collins?
Put simply: She hired him to be the clergyman at the church he currently preaches at. She also has the power to increase his income if she wants to. So he *really* wants her to like him (and give him more money).
So Lady Catherine owns a lot of land, enough land to own whole towns and villages. And those towns and villages she owns have parishes and churches that need a clergyman to preach at them.
The clergyman makes money from the tithes of the people who live in his parish. This income from tithes is called his “living” (as in the money he lives off). He also gets to a house to live in.
Now, how does a clergyman get hired to a particular parish?
Often, the major landowner of the parish gets to choose which clergyman to hire. So basically, since the Hunsford parish is on Lady Catherine’s land she gets to pick her clergyman.
And she picked Mr. Collins. Her choosing him is something called “patronage.”
To learn more about that, let’s look at this excerpt from the very first letter Mr. Collins sends the Bennet family:
My mind, however, is now made upon the subject, for having received ordination at Easter, I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England.– Mr Collins’ letter in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
So here we see him saying that Lady Catherine hired him for this “valuable” parish. That means he’s making good money off the tithes.
Now, let’s look at when he says “it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her ladyship.”
Why does he endeavor so earnestly to ingratiate himself to her?
First, he feels grateful she hired him. (Now why she chose him is a whole other topic for discussion.)
But second, because clergymen during this era could hold more than one parish. So if Lady Catherine liked Mr. Collins she could appoint him to preside over another parish she owns too. If that happened, Mr. Collins would have two “livings” coming from tithes. Then he’d have more money.
That is why Mr. Collins and Charlotte spend so much time befriending Lady Catherine. Elizabeth identifies this as their motivation for visiting the de Bourghs at Rosings in this passage :
Very few days passed in which Mr. Collins did not walk to Rosings, and not many in which his wife did not think it necessary to go likewise; and till Elizabeth recollected that there might be other family livings to be disposed of, she could not understand the sacrifice of so many hours.Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
So here, we see them visiting Rosings hoping that Lady Catherine will give them another parish “living” and make them richer.
What exactly is Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s title?
Characters in Pride and Prejudice consistently call Mr. Darcy’s aunt either by her full name “Lady Catherine de Bourgh” or more commonly by “Lady Catherine.”
Elizabeth was chiefly struck by [Mr. Collins’] extraordinary deference for Lady Catherine, and his kind intention of christening, marrying, and burying his parishioners whenever it were required.– Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Which at first seems simple enough. She’s a lady of some type. But what type? Where does she get her title from? Could Darcy have inherited it if he had married Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne?
On top of all those questions, Lady Catherine’s title has an unusual twist to it.
Her title doesn’t match up with her husband’s title. Which certainly sets her apart from Jane Austen’s other characters.
Sir Lewis de Bourgh’s Title Examined
Did you know that Lady Catherine’s deceased husband has a name? Well, he did, Sir Lewis. Jane Austen only mentioned it in the book three times.
Every park has its beauty and its prospects; and Elizabeth saw much to be pleased with, though she could not be in such raptures as Mr. Collins expected the scene to inspire, and was but slightly affected by his enumeration of the windows in front of the house, and his relation of what the glazing altogether had originally cost Sir Lewis de Bourgh.– Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Now, instead of taking a moment to imagine their married life (did Sir Lewis haughtily command like his wife? or did he grovel like Collins?) let’s continue to talk about the titles.
So, Sir Lewis de Bourgh clearly has the title “Sir.”
Both knights and baronets (who have an inherited knighthood) use the title “Sir.”
And interestingly, Jane Austen never specifies whether Sir Lewis has a knighthood or baronetcy. We simply don’t know.
But when it comes to title usage, it doesn’t matter. Because both knights and baronets use the form “Sir + First Name.”
Sir William from Pride and Prejudice has a knighthood. And normally people refer to him this way: Sir + William Lucas = “Sir William”
Meanwhile, the wife of a knight or baronet traditionally uses the form “Lady + Last Name.”
So, again from P&P: Lady + Lucas = “Lady Lucas”
Combined, we have Sir William and Lady Lucas.
“But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them. Sir William and Lady Lucas are determined to go, merely on that account, for in general, you know, they visit no newcomers. Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him if you do not.”– Mrs. Bennet talking to Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice
Likewise, in Mansfield Park, we hear about Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram.
Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram received her very kindly.– Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
In Sense and Sensibility, Sir John and Lady Middleton graciously host the Dashwoods.
“I dare say we shall have Sir John and Lady Middleton in town by the end of next week.”– Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Even in Persuasion, we have Sir Walter and a scheming Mrs. Clay who wants to become the next Lady Elliot.
that she is a clever, insinuating, handsome woman, poor and plausible, and altogether such in situation and manner, as to give a general idea, among Sir Walter’s acquaintance, of her meaning to be Lady Elliot, and as general a surprise that Miss Elliot should be apparently, blind to the danger.”– Mrs. Smith talking about Mrs. Clay in Persuasion
So, consistently across Jane Austen’s works, we have “Sir First Name” married to “Lady Last Name.”
So, with that in mind, let’s revisit this Lady Catherine de Bourgh topic.
If we went by these knights and baronet rules then technically we should have: Sir Lewis and Lady de Bourgh.
But we don’t have a “Lady de Bourgh.” Instead, we know and fear a “Lady Catherine.”
“Lady Catherine is a very respectable, sensible woman indeed,” added Charlotte, “and a most attentive neighbour.”Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
But why? Why does she use “Lady + First Name” instead of “Lady + Last Name?”
Lady Catherine Outranks Sir Lewis
Simply put, she socially outranks her husband.
You may remember from my video “Why Is Mr. Darcy Not a Lord?” that Lady Catherine is the daughter of an Earl. So from birth, she has had something called a courtesy title.
A courtesy title is a sort of social nicety that the children of English Peers (like Earls) get to use to show their high social position. I talk in-depth about this in my video “What is an English Lord?”
Anyway, since Lady Catherine is the daughter of an Earl, she get’s to use the form “Lady + Her First Name.”
So, since childhood, others called her Lady Catherine.
(I’m just now imagining Lady Catherine Fitzwilliam as a child. Imagine being her governess…)
But what about when she got married?
While the title of knight or baronet sounds impressive, holders of both titles still count as commoners. Society did not think of them as members of the nobility.
So by marrying Sir Lewis, Lady Catherine married a commoner below her on the social hierarchy. While they were both in the top social sphere and 1% of society, Lady Catherine came from a higher place in that sphere.
As Sir Lewis’ wife, she had the right to have others call her “Lady de Bourgh.” But that would have been a huge step down for her socially.
In fact, the daughter of an earl outranks the wife of a baronet by twelve levels of precedence. Twelve.
A young Lady Catherine would not have loved that far of a social status fall.
Now, while generally wives take on the rank and precedence of their husbands, the daughters of peers who marry commoners don’t have to according to the rules.
They can choose to continue to use their courtesy titles.
So thankfully, for Lady Catherine, she still had the option of keeping her original courtesy title and precedence. She could stay “Lady Catherine” and not have to lower herself to “Lady de Bourgh.”
Which, is of course, why she is styled that way throughout Pride and Prejudice. It lets everyone know of her noble social standing background.
Anyway, I hope that clears up why we read about a “Sir Lewis and Lady Catherine” rather than a “Sir Lewis and Lady de Bourgh” in Pride and Prejudice.
Which, on this topic, the same reason lies behind why we call Mr. Darcy’s mother Lady Anne rather than Mrs. Darcy. Since she too has the same father, the Earl.
Which then leads to this question that several of you have asked in the comments on my YouTube channel, “Could Mr. Darcy inherit Lady Catherine’s title if he married his cousin Anne?”
Could Mr. Darcy inherit a title from Lady Catherine or Sir Lewis?
The basic answer is no, he couldn’t. No matter whether he married their daughter Anne or not.
First, let us examine Lady Catherine’s title.
Again, she gets a courtesy title since she has the status: “daughter of an earl.”
She can’t pass that status and the courtesy title that goes with it to anyone else, not even her daughter.
Anne simply has the status “granddaughter of an earl” which has no title to go with it. Likewise, Mr. Darcy simply has an earl for grandpa. Another status with no title attached.
So, Lady Catherine cannot pass her title to anyone else.
Second, what about Sir Lewis’ title?
Now let’s talk about why Mr. Darcy had no chance to transform into Sir Fitzwilliam by inheriting his uncle’s title.
Again, we don’t know whether Sir Lewis was a knight or baronet.
But either way, Mr. Darcy couldn’t inherit his title.
Starting with knights
Knights can not pass their title down to one of their children. So for example, while Sir William Lucas gets the title in his lifetime, it dies with him. It’s not heritable.
Meanwhile, a baronet is a heritable knighthood that can pass down the family line. Good examples of baronets include Sir Walter in Persuasion and Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park.
Also, total side note, baronets usually had more money than knights. They also usually held a higher level of social precedence, except for those Knights of the Garter who outranked them.
But who could inherit a baronet title? Well, the vast majority of them could only pass down the male line of the original titleholder.
So what if Sir Lewis did hold a baronet title? Well, then his son could inherit it and become the Sir in the family.
But Sir Lewis had no son. He had one daughter, Anne de Bourgh.
Which means that when Sir Lewis died, one of two things happened to his title.
1: His baronet title went to the next nearest male relation that descended from the original titleholder (whoever was the first baronet in their family).
We see this exact situation happening in Persuasion, where Sir Walter has no sons. So their relative Mr. Elliot will inherit to become Sir William.
[Mrs. Clay] has abilities, however, as well as affections; and it is now a doubtful point whether his cunning, or hers, may finally carry the day; whether, after preventing her from being the wife of Sir Walter, he may not be wheedled and caressed at last into making her the wife of Sir William.– Persuasion, Jane Austen
2: The baronetcy died out and no one in the family gets to use Sir anymore.
We don’t know which of these happened in the de Bourgh family. But either way, Anne could not inherit the baronetcy. And even if Mr. Darcy married her, he couldn’t either. He’d simply be a son-in-law rather than a legitimate male heir of the body of the de Bourgh family.
So either way, Mr. Darcy would not have gained title-wise from marrying Anne nor by having Lady Catherine as an aunt.
Hopefully, that helps clear up the many mysteries of Lady Catherine’s title. I think the subject has many subtleties that easily get lost in modern reading. But here are the important points to remember summed up:
- Lady Catherine uses a courtesy title since she’s the daughter of an earl.
- She outranked her husband, Sir Lewis.
- She continued to use her superior title of Lady Catherine rather than Lady de Bourgh even after marriage.
- Mr. Darcy could not inherit either her or her husband’s title, even if he married their daughter Anne.
Do you enjoy learning more about Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen’s Regency world? Then definitely make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel. Every Friday I post new videos examining life and literature in the 1700 and 1800s. You can subscribe here by clicking here.
- Collins, I. (2003). Jane Austen and the Clergy. London: Hambledon Continuum [Imprint].
- Manners and Rules of Good Society: Or, Solecisms to be Avoided. (1913). United States: Frederick Warne and Company.