Part Four of the Gothic Tropes series looks at a specific type of character: the stately older woman whose watchword is ‘Respectability’. There’s one in The Crows, but she’s a bit of a subversion of this trope. Let’s get to know this kind of lady better…
Who Is The Grand[e] Dame?
I’ll have to do this backwards this time, and start off by explaining what the trope is with some examples, then introduce you briefly to “Mrs” Beverley Wend.
TVTropes has a fun assessment of the Grande Dame, where they cover a lot of possibilities for this kind of character and her function in the story. Essentially, regardless of her role in the story, she is rich and respectable, dresses well, and has Opinions.
Lady Catherine De Bourgh is a classic example of a Grande Dame, and one who plays an antagonistic function in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Despite her rigid adherence to the social order, she’s also rude, opinionated, in love with her own status and the sound of her own voice, and is both a foil for Lizzie and an aristocratic parallel to Mrs Bennett. Mrs Bennett herself is not a Grande Dame, because she doesn’t quite have the social status to pull this off, and, next to Lady Catherine, certainly lacks the gravitas.
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest features another comedic and antagonistic Grande Dame, Lady Bracknell. If you’re not familiar with this gem of a character, the Top 10 Lady Bracknell quotes can be found here. She is sometimes portrayed on stage in the style of a Pantomime Dame, that is, in drag.
The Grande Dame is not often comedic in Gothic Fiction, but she could be. Mrs Montague, wife of Dr John Montague in The Haunting of Hill House, is one such example, and her grand entrance (or should I say, intrusion) into the doctor’s experiment, insisting that she knows best, made me laugh out loud and dissipated the tension beautifully. Ms Brigitte’s Mild Ride has a brilliant, detailed review on this book, with some interesting insights into the characters and their roles in the novel.
So: while not always comedic, a Grande Dame is usually the self-appointed guardian of morals and respectability, however that looks for her society. She is usually in a high social position (or has aspirations in that direction), and can be a maiden aunt, or a mother, or a widow. She can be stern and antagonistic, or undergo a shift and align with the protagonist to help bring about their goals.
Other memorable Grande Dames, both comedic and more serious, include:
Lady Tremaine (Disney’s Cinderella)
Miss Havisham (Great Expectations)
Aunt Prudence (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries)
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Downton Abbey)
Olenna Tyrell (Game of Thrones, as portrayed in the TV series)
The Grande Dame in The Crows
Beverley Wend in The Crows is one of my favourite characters to write. She is something of a subversion, in that while she performs the same kind of function in the novel and acts in an antagonistic way, she’s also from solidly working-class stock, and this is the reason for her emphasis on maintaining her now lofty position in the middle-middle-class. (Yes, the micro-levels within the middle class matter very much).
Her family, the Pendles, were gamekeepers on the old Fairwood estate, when it was owned by the Sauvant family. The Pendles were, essentially, petty criminals who poached on their own boss’s land, particularly after one of the Sauvants tore their cottage down to re-use the stone for his new kitchen extension. They were given a new place to live (Bramble Cottage), but they had lost their old hearthstone which generations of Pendles had used to practise their magic.
Beverley, the oldest of three sisters, was eighteen in 1888. She and her sisters were drawn into a Weird dalliance with some sort of entity from another dimension (the details are hazy), and ended up impregnated with its spawn. They took on made-up ‘married’ names and started calling themselves ‘Mrs’, and spawned several times, each time with multiple births. This is part of the joke/subversion: no matter how inbred the family become, Beverley insists on them at least appearing to be married, even if the union isn’t legal.
Despite having a shrine in her cellar to the entity simply known as “Mr Wend”, who has never been seen but, judging from the mutations of ‘his’ spawn, that’s probably just as well, Beverley lives in a beautiful detached house with matching curtains and expensive blinds, is a prominent figure in the Women’s Institute and Mothers’ Union, paints in watercolour and oils when she’s not baking, and makes clothes for her mutated offspring, their spawn, and their legions of cousins. She is always well-dressed, stylish, and wouldn’t dream of leaving the house or receiving visitors without looking her best. Despite her excessive longevity, she doesn’t look a day over 75 and claims she’s in her 80s.
She has some very strong Opinions, particularly about maintaining the status quo, and is an expert puppeteer, pulling the family’s strings. Beverley steers them in various directions, and ensuring access to the shrine – and the additional gifts and favours the channelled energies can bestow – are kept back for her ‘favourites’, the family members who please her, and the non-related ‘friends’ in the town who will do anything for her just to get a taste of Forbidden Cosmic/Arcane Knowledge.
A coup is coming, slowly but surely… but who in the family has the power (or the guts) to challenge her?