Jane Austen, Lady Catherine, and My Grandmother

Today we are revisiting a post by A. Marie Sprayberry, contributing writer, What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!

Jane Austen didn’t tell us whether she had anyone particular in mind when she created Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Indeed, she was “too proud of my [characters] to admit that they are only Mr. A. or Col. B.” But when I first read Pride and Prejudice at age 16, among my first reactions was “My gosh, Lady Catherine is a lot like Moma!”—and this was the main reason I wanted to write Lady Catherine’s backstory for What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!

The name “Moma” had nothing to do with the Museum of Modern Art. My younger, cuter cousins decided on it as a contraction of “Mother’s Mama”—and once Moma decided she liked it herself, there was really no going back to “Grandma.”

Visits from Moma, especially in my early childhood, were dreaded occasions. Once the old-fashioned, bulky suitcases had been carried up to the room she was to occupy, “nothing escaped her observation that was passing . . . during these visits.” (And I mean nothing!) When our household afforded insufficient scope for her efforts, she would take her work afield via her favorite medium, the person-to-person long-distance call. In her own city, she was a holy terror on the local women’s club scene. I still have a yellowing newspaper clipping that describes her installation as president of one club, with the members “pledging allegiance to [her] administration.”

But as I grew older and stronger, and Moma grew older and frailer, I began developing some empathy for her. The eldest daughter of a man whose dreams of a pineapple plantation on Florida’s Indian River foundered when she was a teenager, she made an early, brief, disastrous marriage to my grandfather, and then an even more disastrous marriage to another man. Both she and I were fortunate in her third marriage, to an older man my father always described as “a gentleman and a scholar”: She was fortunate because “Grandpa Bill” had invested heavily in the stock of a certain soap company (the grandson of a founder was a childhood friend), and I was fortunate because Bill’s copy of P&P was the one I picked up at age 16.

And then there was the music. Despite Moma’s inability to sing or play a note herself, she always defended her presidency of the Music Club by insisting on her great appreciation of music. (I laughed aloud when I first read the line “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”) But after Moma’s death, I came across some correspondence indicating that she had indeed tried to learn from her father—a talented amateur musician, if not a successful pineapple grower—and that the lessons had ended as badly as I describe Lady Catherine’s ending in my backstory.

 

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