Visit any American restaurant or shopping mall, and you are likely to run into her: Karen, the contemporary Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Over two hundred years ago, Jane Austen captured the essence of Karen in the overbearing form of Lady Catherine. Like Karen, Lady Catherine is used to getting her way. Her self-seeking hostility and privileged lack of manners mirror modern Karen’s self-righteous habit of seeking the manager at any minor infraction of her perceived rights. In a darker vein, the twenty-first-century Karen does not hesitate to call the police when people of color enter what she perceives as her territory. Desperate to be taken seriously, both Karen and Lady Catherine make poor decisions, not even pausing before trampling over others in their quest for satisfaction.
It’s hard to know where the term Karen originated; Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary speculate on any number of popular media beginnings from comedy and film to rap. What all sources agree upon is the message: Karen represents presumptuous, entitled, castigating white women. Karens lack empathy with their victims, making racist 911 calls and embroidering the truth in online reviews. According to meme researcher Heather Suzanne Woods, a Karen “demands the world exist according to her standards with little regard for others” and is “willing to risk or demean others to achieve her ends” (qtd. in Tiffany). Of course, this description cannot be applied 1:1 to the million American women given the name Karen at birth (Galanes). It does, however, epitomize both an insidious element of contemporary American society and the fictional character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. During the corona-virus pandemic, it is not hard to imagine either the stereotyped Karen or Lady Catherine being the first to hoard toilet paper, breaking lockdown to protest for their right to get their hair done.
Why does it matter that Austen predicted today’s choppy-bobbed nuisance? Since Aristotle’s Poetics, literary theorists have wrestled with the meaning and effect of narrative. Reader-response scholars argue that the nuanced depictions of human behavior by truly compelling authors trigger similar memories in their readers. Theorist Louise Rosenblatt describes reading as a transaction between the text and the consumer, with all of her “interest(s), expectations, and anxieties” (19). Rosenblatt posits that, reminiscent of Rorschach tests, “a novel or poem or play remains merely ink spots on paper until a reader transforms them into a set of meaningful symbols” (24). For me, Austen’s ability to prompt shared experiences in her readers and, in a way, predict modern expressions of behavior is the cornerstone of her continued acclaim. Despite what some view as antiquated language, Austen remains contemporary because of the human truths she describes.
On the surface, intersections between Austen’s world and our own seem implausible. Marriage, the holy grail of Austen’s heroines, no longer carries the same existential economic weight that it did in the Regency. Contemporary women have career opportunities undreamt in Georgian England. Women can earn and retain their wealth as well as legally inheriting it. Primogeniture is no longer the norm; in 2020, Princess Charlotte is lawfully ahead of her youngest brother in the line of succession to the British throne. Women can choose to have children without a relationship with a man.
Although modern women’s reality seems opposed to Austen’s, her characterizations of female experience appear timeless. Sayre Greenfield and Linda Troost explain that “for any literary work to survive the passage of time, it has to be pre-adapted to cultural conditions that did not exist when it was written.” Austen’s novels, they argue, can elicit different responses depending on the cultural moment. In these very challenging, volatile times, Western society is recognizing women of privilege like Karen and Lady Catherine not for their status but for their failed responsibility to leverage their power for good, not evil.
Status as carte blanche for bad behavior
Like today’s Karen, Lady Catherine believes in her autonomous position in society. As the head of a wealthy estate, she represents a Regency woman in a typically male role. In the manner of landed fathers of the age, she knows that her will must be done: her only child will inherit her wealth. In a patriarchal culture like Regency Britain, it is no stretch to interpret Lady Catherine as unlikely to be sympathetic to other women of her time. Indeed, from the start, Austen describes Lady Catherine in less than feminine terms:
a tall, large woman, with strongly-marked features, which might once have been handsome. Her air was not conciliating, nor was her manner of receiving them such as to make her visitors forget their inferior rank. She was not rendered formidable by silence; but whatever she said, was spoken in so authoritative a tone, as marked her self-importance. (183)
Austen is spare in her description, allowing readers to fill in the blanks. Although the passage withholds specifics, it leaves us with no doubt of the feeling that Lady Catherine conveys.
According to The Guardian columnist Grace Dent, Karen memes similarly distill “into a single image or loop of video, an obscure yet still universally understood circumstance, often involving emotions that human words cannot quite nail.” Twenty-first-century readers may recognize Lady Catherine in the middle-aged woman who slides into her booth at a restaurant, ready to take umbrage at any false move from the barely post-pubescent server. American eateries, with their gratuity-dependent wage structure, ensure that Karen is treated like a queen if her server hopes to pay the rent. Without looking up, a Karen immediately demands a wedge of lemon for her water, the music to be turned down, the heat to be turned up, or an appetizer with no less than four substitutions. Failure to accommodate results in the dreaded words “can I speak to a manager?”
Austen’s Karen, Lady Catherine, also conveys an almost royal presence, receiving her Meryton guests “with great condescension,” “gratified by their excessive admiration” of her home (183–84). Instead of demanding the sauce on the side or a complicated off-menu entree, Lady Catherine speaks, “without any intermission” (185). She delivers “her opinion on every subject in so decisive a manner, as proved that she was not used to have her judgment controverted” (185) . Like Karen, who does not feel compelled to look her server in the eye, Lady Catherine assumes no need to display traditional Regency feminine accomplishments or civilities. With her wealth—like Karen’s power over the gratuity—Lady Catherine is not required to play nice.
Mary Poovey describes accomplishments as “only thinly disguised opportunities for the display of personal charms” and the “one legitimate vehicle for the indirect indulgence of vanity” for the average Regency gentleman’s daughter (29). By declaring herself a musical expert despite never learning to play an instrument, Lady Catherine asserts her rights. From birth, her wealth and title have meant that she never has had to compete for eligible suitors. For Lady Catherine, it is enough to make ridiculous statements like, “‘If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient’” (194). She does not hesitate to instruct her guest on the subject, continuing “her remarks on Elizabeth’s performance, mixing with them many instructions on execution and taste” (198). Similarly, a Karen does not need to know how to cook or serve in order to leave a bad Yelp! review. Both Elizabeth and today’s restaurant server know to listen to their interlocutor “with all the forbearance of civility” (198). For one, it is a kindness to her friend Charlotte. For the other, it is in silent hope of a tip.
With status comes knowledge?
Both Karen and Lady Catherine see themselves as experts on just about everything. Throughout Elizabeth’s visit to her friend, Lady Catherine swoops down on Charlotte’s household to continue her admonitions. Despite having no practical knowledge of housework, Lady Catherine “enquire[s] into Charlotte’s domestic concerns familiarly and minutely,” giving “a great deal of advice, as to the management of them all” (185). Telling Charlotte how “every thing ought to be regulated,” Lady Catherine instructs her “as to the care of her cows and her poultry” (185). Like Karen with her waiter, Lady Catherine keeps a sharp eye on Charlotte’s servants:
[N]othing escaped her observation that was passing in the room during these visits. She examined into their employments, looked at their work, and advised them to do it differently; found fault with the arrangement of the furniture; or detected the housemaid in negligence; and if she accepted any refreshment, seemed to do it only for the sake of finding out that Mrs. Collins’s joints of meat were too large for her family. (190)
Likewise, Karen does not hesitate to share dubious knowledge acquired on Facebook. She feels comfortable advising others on the deadliness of vaccines or denying climate change despite her lack of scientific qualifications.
Knowing one’s place
Based on their position in society, both Karen and Lady Catherine take it upon themselves to address even “the minutest concerns” (190): “whenever any of the cottagers were disposed to be quarrelsome, discontented, or too poor,” Lady Catherine “sallie[s] forth into the village to settle their differences, silence their complaints, and scold them into harmony and plenty” (190). Like service personnel for a Karen, Lady Catherine’s cottagers were to know their place and (at least appear to) be satisfied with it.
There is a sting to Lady Catherine’s offer that Elizabeth can “‘come to Rosings every day, and play on the pianoforte in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room’” (195). With it, Lady Catherine verbally equates Elizabeth’s status to the level of a servant, passive-aggressively adding that the arrangement is acceptable only because “‘[s]he would be in nobody’s way, you know, in that part of the house’” (195). Likewise, many people of color have sadly learned that the presence of a Karen often means their exclusion from public places, lest she reaches for her cell phone to call the police.
Like the victims who capture Karens on film, Elizabeth is not intimidated by Lady Catherine. When asked her age, Elizabeth playfully equivocates. At this, “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” (187). In his psychological analysis of Austen’s work, Bernard Paris aptly explains that Elizabeth steels herself to “maintain her sense of equality with Lady Catherine,” arguing that “her composure is a form of triumph. When she discovers that Lady Catherine is a fool, she becomes completely at her ease and even toys with her adversary by refusing immediately to disclose her age” (121). Similarly, birdwatcher Christian Cooper, a black man, remains calm, videotaping, as a hysterical Karen, Amy Cooper (no relation), threatens him with police intervention for asking her to leash her dog in Central Park (Maslin Nir). His composure, like Elizabeth’s, only kindles his opponent’s fury.
Sources of superiority
Video evidence proves the baselessness of Central Park Karen’s claim that Christian Cooper was threatening her life. Instead, it shows her actions as menacing. Although the United States does not have a rigid peerage system like the United Kingdom, it has its own ways of ranking human value. Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author Isabel Wilkerson argues that America was built on a race-based caste system. In Caste: The Lies That Divide Us, Wilkerson outlines the unspoken rules that “people in the dominant caste,” such as Amy Cooper, come to rely on (273). Meeting a Black man in a public park, Cooper expects him to cede his rights and the area. When he refuses, she does what Wilkerson claims white Americans have historically viewed as their role: to “be ever vigilant to any rise or breach on the part of those beneath them” and to “correct, direct, discipline, and police the people in the lowest caste” (273). Cooper calls the authorities, taking care to describe her opponent as an African American man, her voice becoming increasingly hysterical as her victim watches from afar. Educated white women like Amy Cooper know very well that their words are not harmless. For centuries, such allegations have inspired the tragic lynching of countless black men. Today, they result in death sentences of a different kind, whether shots to the back or knees to the neck.
In contrast, Elizabeth’s unwillingness to bend to Lady Catherine’s demands during the matriarch’s surprise visit to Longbourn seems harmless. In the terms of evolutionary psychology, this exhibition of dominance is only socially allowable in women with high status like Lady Catherine. According to researcher Joyce Benenson, “high-achieving women have little incentive to invest in other women, so most women benefit from punishing striving peers” (2). Hoping to hear Elizabeth deny an engagement to Mr. Darcy, Lady Catherine arrives “too early in the morning for visitors” (389). Not bothering with niceties, she enters the room “with an air more than usually ungracious,” making “no other reply to Elizabeth’s salutation than a slight inclination of the head,” sitting down “without saying a word” (389). Despite Lizzy’s attempts, “no request of introduction” was made to the Bennet family (389).
Austen describes Lady Catherine’s behavior in unflattering terms. After an awkward moment of silence, Lady Catherine deigns to ask the names of the persons before her. Unbidden, she proceeds to criticize the room, declaring it “‘most inconvenient’” (390). Declining a gracious offer of refreshment “not very politely,” Lady Catherine is “more than usually insolent and disagreeable” (390-91). Presumptuously, she allows herself to open doors throughout the home, making pronouncements on their suitability.
Similarly, “California Karen,” Lisa Alexander, felt it her business to admonish a Filipino man for chalking “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on a retaining wall (Froelich). Based on appearance alone, Alexander assumed that her victim could not belong in the leafy neighborhood. She saw it as her role to school the adult man, whom she had never before met, on proper behavior. While accusing him of defacing private property, California Karen patronized her victim, peppering her interrogation with the saccharine use of “sir,” while making it clear she held him in contempt.
Both Alexander and Lady Catherine warn their victims that they “‘are not to be trifled with’” when demanding information (391). Alexander attempted to raise her level of authority by falsely claiming acquaintance with the building’s owner. Likewise, Lady Catherine relies on her status to get what she wants. She repeatedly reminds Elizabeth of her position, asking, “‘Miss Bennet, do you know who I am?’” and stating that she has “‘not been accustomed to such language’” and is “‘entitled to know’” all of Darcy’s “‘dearest concerns.’” Repeatedly, she emphasizes Elizabeth’s “‘presumption,’” “‘inferior birth,’” and being of “‘no importance in the world’” (393). Elizabeth attempts to remedy the older woman’s prejudice, reminding her that she is a gentleman’s daughter. Immediately, Lady Catherine rhetorically demands, “‘who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition’” (395).
Claims of contamination
Lady Catherine’s appeal, “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?’” reflects her incredulity at an alliance between Elizabeth’s family and her own (396). Not only of lesser economic status, they also bear the disgrace of Lydia’s botched marriage to a steward’s son. In modern terms, Lady Catherine’s choice of words evokes chilling analogies with the darkest aspects of the American caste system. For centuries, the “one-drop rule” in America suggested that any trace of non-white blood renders its owner Black: adulterated and unequal (Hickman 1163). So extreme was the American definition of racial purity before the Civil Rights Movement that even the Nazis considered it too harsh, preferring a more lenient interpretation of whiteness when determining whom to exterminate (Wilkerson 87). Regardless of equal rights legislation, the one-drop rule remains in the minds and hearts of many Karens, who continue to patrol local pools and parks, calling the police on people of color who they feel are inappropriately enjoying themselves in what should be a white space (Hauslohner, Noori Farzan).
Ultimately, both women’s aggression leads to their downfall. Jane Austen is kinder on Lady Catherine than society is with Karen. Lady Catherine’s hostility towards Elizabeth secures the very marriage she hopes to prevent. In 2020, Karen’s comeuppance arrives with her notoriety. Uploaded to Twitter, Facebook, and the like, her videotaped tirades lead to public outcry and demands for her ruin. Central Park Karen, Amy Cooper, whose false alarm could have cost a black man his life, has since lost her job (Maslin Nir). Customers of California Karen, Lisa Alexander, have cut all ties with her skincare business (Froelich). Making headlines in the weeks following the tragic death of George Floyd, these Karens’ phony alarms are inspiring national conversations about making it a criminal misdemeanor to call the police on people of color for merely living their lives (Jaweed).
For her part, the fictional Lady Catherine loses only power and face. She must relinquish the notion of Darcy as a son-in-law and any hopes she had of becoming the de facto mistress of both Rosings Park and Pemberley through her passive daughter. The world is changing for Lady Catherine. It is not hard to imagine her in her youth, pursued by many men for her pedigree and purse. No longer dangling her wealth and patronage before eager suitors of her own, she can sense that no one is listening to her. As a widow, she is side-lined along with her sickly daughter, left to reign over “superlatively stupid” conversations between her daughter and Mrs. Jenkinson (188).
Joseph Carroll accuses Austen herself of “a certain streak of brutality” in her treatment of Miss de Bourgh, to whom “no one but her own mother and her governess pays . . . any regard” (99). Referring to Darwin, Carroll claims that Austen “sacrifices Miss de Bourgh on the altar of the ruthless principle of fitness”: “the only sensation Elizabeth or Austen herself expresses toward this poor sick girl is that of vindictive contempt; there is no hint of pity” (99). Could it be that Austen herself had a bit of Karen in her?
Readers sense that Lady Catherine will never believe in Elizabeth’s right to become Mrs. Darcy. In true Austen fashion, Pride and Prejudice does not end with her ultimate comeuppance. Instead, like a disgruntled real-life relation, Lady Catherine returns to Pemberley after Elizabeth convinces Darcy to “seek a reconciliation” (430). Despite her riches, Lady Catherine is emotionally impoverished. When she eventually “condescended to wait on them at Pemberley,” it was not from a sudden warming of her heart but instead to satisfy “her curiosity to see how his wife conducted herself” (430).
Karen, our modern-day Lady Catherine, faces a steeper learning curve. Austen indicates that her type has been self-righteously meddling in the affairs of others for at least two centuries, never really knowing a happy end. In 2020, it is simply not enough for Karens to extend an olive branch only after being publicly shamed and not sufficient for members of the upper castes to claim their outrage at her behavior without acting on it. Eradicating the American caste system will not happen overnight and not without the engagement of everyone on the pyramid. Wilkerson explains that it is utopian to believe that Blacks alone can improve the system. As “the bottom caste,” they “did not create the caste system,” although they bear the brunt of it (380). Society must proactively play the part of Elizabeth Bennet, fracturing the oppressive order by calling out Karen’s damaging behavior and attempting to rehabilitate her.