Jane Austen's Elegant But Dumb Ladies
by Rachel Lawrence
A character type that appears throughout Jane Austen's writing is a very polite lady who is all surface correctness but little substance. It is a type that may be called Elegant but Dumb. The Elegant but Dumb lady has correct manners and is very civil, but she is not bright, and is sometimes even anti-intellectual. She is also self-centered, and manages to get her own way in the end. Despite these faults, she is at least distinguishable from the Lady Catherine types (such as Lady Greville and Mrs. Ferrars) by her absence of malice.
The first appearance of Austen's Elegant but Dumb lady is in the form of Lady Williams in the story "Jack and Alice". The type reappears in Sense and Sensibility as Lady Middleton. Although the type makes a final, brief appearance as Lady Russell in Persuasion, Austen achieves the height of comedy and thematic weight when she presents the lady as Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park.
In "Jack and Alice", Austen describes Lady Williams as a widow in whom "every virtue met." She even attends a masquerade dressed as Virtue. While there, she flees from a table of gamesters, shocked by the impropriety of gambling. But soon, "the Bottle being pretty briskly pushed about...the whole party not excepting even Virtue were carried home, Dead Drunk." We see here that the Elegant but Dumb lady's notion of propriety is not a very consistent one.
The heroine Alice Johnson determines one evening to seek relief from her worries in the "conversation of the intelligent Lady Williams." But the conversation of Lady Williams reveals her to be not intelligent, but scatterbrained. She cannot finish relating her life story to Alice because she gets sidetracked into a dispute about whether a person mentioned in her tale could have "too much color" in the face:
"How can that be?" interrupted Miss Johnson reddening with anger. "Do you think that any one can have too much colour?"
"Indeed I do, and I'll tell you why I do my dear Alice; when a person has too great a degree of red in their complexion, it gives their face in my opinion, too red a look."
"But can a face my Lady have too red a look?"
"Certainly my dear Miss Johnson and I'll tell you why. When a face has too red a look it does not appear to so much advantage as it would were it paler." [....]
"But Madam I deny that it is possible for any one to have too great a proportion of red in their cheeks."
"What my love not if they have too much colour?"
And so Lady Williams goes on, very politely and elegantly failing to make any sense or to get on with her story. Austen scholars have identified the scene as a parody of a popular poem in which two men debate the color of a chameleon. What is interesting is how Austen takes the idea and uses it to show the intellectual limits of the Elegant but Dumb lady.
As may be gathered from her inconsistent responses to gambling and drinking, Lady Williams does not have the firmest principles. She has a weakness for advocating the "good catch" in marriage. When a seventeen year old named Lucy asks her whether she should accept an offer of marriage from an elderly but rich man, Lady Williams is not able to stand firm on the best advice, which is to refuse him:
"I have enquired into his character and find him to be an unprincipled, illiterate man. Never shall my Lucy be united to such a one! He has a princely fortune, which is every day increasing. How nobly will you spend it!, what credit will you give him in the eyes of all! How much will he be respected on his Wife's account!"
Likewise, Lady Williams never quite advises the young women in the story who sigh for the wealthy but conceited Charles Adams to forget him altogether. The best she can do is to advise Alice never to have a first love at all: "Preserve yourself from a first Love and you need not fear a second."
Austen tells us at the beginning of the story that Lady Williams was herself "too sensible, to fall in love with someone so much her junior" as is Charles Adams. But in a speedy wrap-up ending -- a forerunner of the tidy wrap-ups in the longer novels -- Austen quickly dispatches Lady Williams to the place that her elegance, stupidity, and commonplace principles naturally lead -- marriage to the wealthy Charles. If the only obstacle to the marriage was Lady Williams's being "too sensible" to enter it, then there was no obstacle at all.
In Sense and Sensibility, the Elegant but Dumb lady appears as Lady Middleton. Lady Middleton's elegant dumbness is established in an early scene where she chides Sir John for talking while Marianne is playing the piano: "Lady Middleton frequently called him to order, wondered how any one's attention could be diverted from music for a moment, and asked Marianne to sing a particular song which Marianne had just finished." Lady Middleton is quieter than her gossiping mother, but her reserve is "a mere calmness of manner with which sense had nothing to do." She prefers the company of the Steele sisters, who flatter her and fuss over her children, to the company of Elinor and Marianne, who do not. The Dashwoods, with their interest in books and music and art, are a bit of a threat to her elegant dumbness: "[B]ecause they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical: perhaps without exactly knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not signify. It was censure in common use, and easily given."
Lady Middleton's commonplace principles have landed her in a "good" marriage to a property-owning man with whom she has nothing in common. Sir John's hobby is hunting, Lady Middleton's hobby is spoiling the children; and so they compulsively organize parties to prevent any chance of having to spend time together. As Sir John says in issuing one invitation: "You must drink tea with us tonight... for we shall be quite alone -- and tomorrow you must absolutely dine with us, for we shall be a large party." Despite the hollowness of her position, however, the elegant Lady Middleton's status remains secure.
In Mansfield Park, Austen gives us Lady Bertram, a woman so elegant and so dumb that she is dangerous. She spends her days "in sitting nicely dressed on a sofa, doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty." Even her sofa duties are too much for her; she is so prone to dozing that Henry Crawford observes that Lady Bertram "might always be considered as only half awake." She has to have a companion at all times because she cannot perform simple tasks for herself:
"Sir Thomas, stop a moment -- I have something to say to you.... Mrs. Grant has asked Fanny to dinner! ... Edmund wants her to go. But how can I spare her? ... But can I do without her, Sir Thomas? She always makes tea, you know, when my sister is not here."
Fanny must read to her, finish her sewing for her, entertain her: "Fanny, you must do something to keep me awake... Fetch the cards -- I feel so very stupid."
Everyone is very polite to "her ladyship" -- she gets all the privileges that attend her position, without there being the least substance to it. The limited work of being the mistress of a household of servants falls to others. The entire household works round the clock to prepare for the big ball, for example, while Lady Bertram sits serenely in the midst of the bustle repeating that she is sure the ball will be no trouble at all. She is famously self-centered, sending her maid to help Fanny dress for the ball only after the maid has dressed Lady Bertram herself. And her conversation is leagues beyond Lady Williams's in insipidity and self- involvement: "Fanny, William must not forget my shawl, if he goes to the East Indies... I think I will have two shawls, Fanny."
Like Lady Williams and Lady Middleton, Lady Bertram shares the common view that women should make a "good catch" in marriage. She advises Fanny to accept Crawford because he is rich: "And you must be aware, Fanny, that it is every young woman's duty to accept such a very unexceptionable offer" from "a man of such good estate" as Mr. Crawford. Fanny is silenced by this advice, because it is the only advice that Lady Bertram has ever bothered to give her. If Fanny is to be saved from Crawford, she will have to do it herself.
In this way Austen raises the stakes from "Jack and Alice". Unlike Lady Williams and Lady Middleton, Lady Bertram is actually the mother or guardian of the young women in the story, and is therefore in a position to do them serious harm. Her materialistic views about marriage, her inattentiveness, and her selfishness form a dangerous combination, turning her inaction into almost the pivotal action in the story. For example, there is a moment when it looks like Edmund might be able to persuade Maria not to perform in the theatricals (and thereby save herself from the entanglement with Crawford). Edmund argues that the role she is to play is not proper for a young lady. Lady Bertram, alert at least to the concept of impropriety, wakes up enough to say, " Do not act anything improper, my dear.... Sir Thomas would not like it." She then adds, immediately, "Fanny, ring the bell; I must have my dinner." Lady Bertram's self-involvement and inability to sustain rational argument carry the day. Maria and Mrs. Norris leap into the vacuum, and Maria wins her argument with Edmund -- and sets off on the road to ruin.
Lady Bertram, the supposed mother of the house, is asleep at the wheel. Any schemer can take hold of the controls from her, as she unwittingly acknowledges when Mr. Crawford manages her hand of cards during the game of Speculation: "A very odd game. I do not know what it is all about. I am never to see my cards; and Mr. Crawford does all the rest." In Mansfield Park, with Lady Bertram, Austen dramatizes the Elegant but Dumb type fully, showing her in her natural habitat -- the sofa -- and showing her in all her vacuity and danger.
In Persuasion, Lady Russell, although far more sensible than Lady Bertram, is another elegant lady who gives commonplace advice that could permanently injure the heroine: Don't marry that sailor who has no prospects. At one point Lady Russell literally fails to see the worthy hero on the streets of Bath, because she's busy looking at window curtains! While less of a scatterbrain than Lady Williams and Lady Bertram, Lady Russell has her limitations, too: "There is a quickness in perception in some, a nicety in the discernment of character, a natural penetration, in short, which no experience in others can equal, and Lady Russell had been less gifted in this part of understanding than her young friend." But a clear sign that Lady Russell is not quite as dumb as Lady Williams is that she is never silly enough to marry Sir Walter.
Who were Austen's models for these Elegant but Dumb ladies? Austen biographer Park Honan sees "Jack and Alice" as Austen's way of replacing standard literary "monsters of perfection" with real and funnier people with flaws. Honan sees Lady Williams as being young Jane's beloved friend Mrs. Lefroy, and Alice Johnson as being Jane herself, but with a drinking problem added for fun. Referring to a Lady Elizabeth Finch-Hatton that Jane had met and found insipid, Honan writes, "A hundred Lady Elizabeths or wives of the Tory elite up and down the nation seem caught up in Lady Bertram...." Significantly, this Lady Elizabeth was a descendant of the first Lord Mansfield, who as Chief Justice issued the famous legal decision that ended slavery in Britain, and who inspired the name of the house, and novel, in which Lady Bertram lives.
In addition to these speculative real-life models for Austen's Elegant but Dumb ladies, there was also one self-confessed Lady Bertram look-alike. According to Austen's "Opinions of Mansfield Park," one admirer of the novel, a Mrs. Bramstone, "thought Lady Bertram like herself" -- which is really evidence that Mrs. Bramstone probably was too perceptive and had too good a sense of humor to have been like Lady Bertram at all.
What did the real-life Elegant but Dumb ladies think of Jane? Austen's relationship with her refined teenaged niece Fanny Knight is interesting in this regard. Fanny was great friends with her aunts Cassandra and Jane. When she married she became Lady Knatchbull, and as a Lady she would later write to her sister this remembrance of Aunt Jane: "Yes my love it is very true that Aunt Jane from various circumstances was not so refined as she ought to have been for her talent...." She went on to state that what little refinement Jane and Cassandra had was owing to the generosity of Mrs. Knight (the benefactress of Fanny's father Edward Austen), without whom "they would have been, though no less clever and agreeable in themselves, very much below par as to good society and its ways."
Talented but not refined! Clever but below par as to good society! If becoming a Lady could turn Austen's own niece into such a critic of "satirical" Cassandra and Jane, it is likely that the Elegant but Dumb ladies of Jane and Cassandra's acquaintance felt about the Austen sisters the way that Lady Middleton felt about the Dashwood sisters: "Though nothing could be more polite than Lady Middleton's manners to Elinor and Marianne, she did not really like them at all." And judging from Austen's creations Lady Williams, Lady Middleton, and Lady Bertram, the feeling was mutual.
Copyright © 2002 by Rachel Lawrence
Rachel Lawrence became interested in Jane Austen in 1999 after reading Bridget Jones's Diary and borrowing videotapes of the BBC Pride and Prejudice from the library. She joined JASNA in 2000 and JASNA NorCal in 2001.