"You'll take no liberties with ME, my good man." "Indeed, madame, that is the LAST thing I should desire!"
The Grande Dame
is the stately old woman — usually of wealth and rank
, though often enough only wishing to appear so — who is very often a large woman of ample physique
, uptight, humorless
, and the butt of jokes
. The Grande Dame
is usually a spinster or widow, in which case she is likely to become an Old Maid
or an Abhorrent Admirer
; if she is
married, it will usually be to a Henpecked Husband
(very often an Uncle Pennybags
), whom she will drag to operas (where she will doubtless wear Opera Gloves
) and ballets because Men Are Uncultured
, though she will more often be a patroness of the arts than The Prima Donna
herself. She will also quite often have some sort of spoilt and pampered (and very often overweight) child or pet, a Persian or a Pomeranian or a parrot, on whom the rest of her dependents must dance attendance. In most cases, any attempt at frivolity will draw from her either a frigid stare of disapproval or sheer, blank incomprehension
. Nevertheless, she will occasionally
turn out to be a sympathetic character as well — very
occasionally she will turn out to have a screwball or eccentric streak herself.
As she sinks down toward the cynical end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism
, she will on uncommon occasions become a Deadpan Snarker
, though if she goes too far, she may turn into the Rich Bitch
; as she rises toward the idealistic end, she may become the more friendly Maiden Aunt
— in very rare cases (like Ellen O'Hara
) she may become the saintly "great lady
". Both extremes are uncommon, however, as in general she preserves the status quo
as a Moral Guardian
— she may well have started out as an Apron Matron
— and her watchword is "Respectability." If she loses this and begins to hit the bottle, there is a good chance she will turn into Lady Drunk
The trope is nearly always a Comedy Trope
, associated particularly with the Comedy of Manners; as such, it serves as a useful device for mocking social pretensions, and dates back to the ancient Roman plays of Plautus
and Terence, where the Grande Dame
appeared as the Matrona
. She was not used much in the uninhibited Middle Ages
, but made a comeback as the humorless, self-important dueña
of the 16th and 17th century Spanish theater (Small Name, Big Ego
Doña Rodríguez is the only one character stupid enough in all the novel to believe that Don Quixote
is a real Knight Errant
) . The prude and bluestocking of the Restoration (such as Molière's Arsinoé
and his Précieuses ridicules
) and Sentimental comedies (for instance, Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan's The Rivals
) have some affinities with the type, insofar as they made pretensions to virtue and culture, but it was only with the Victorian
age that the great era of the Grande Dame
opened. Here, with her fur stole
and her ancestral lorgnette
in hand, the Grande Dame
quashed social climbers, sought advantageous marriages for her daughters and repelled impossible matches for her sons, and maintained the natural order of Society with frigid hauteur for a good hundred years and more. In England, she was generally in Debrett
and was called "Lady" something if she didn't have some title or other ("Countess" was particularly imposing); in the US, she was one of the Brahmins
or the Four Hundred
or the FFV
and was called "Mrs. Van" Whoozis or Miss Firstname. She will still turn up occasionally, to preside over banquets and to be aghast at the excesses of Feminism
or the Youth movement
and to wonder why no young ladies bother to go to the cotillion any more
Her plot function will usually be as an obstruction to the plans of the protagonist, though she will occasionally convert to his side — more rarely, she may assist from the first.
Grandes Dames do not have
to be useless, of course. A Grande Dame can be a noblewoman or tribal elder and act as a Seer
, an Iron Lady
, or The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask
stoutly and cunningly defending her domain. Sometimes she's simply an aged Proper Lady
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Anime and Manga
- In Howl's Moving Castle, the Witch of the Waste acts like this for the first half of the movie, but later on karma bites her in the butt and puts a stop to it.
- Used to be a reliable comedic Stock Character in comic papers such as Punch (whence the page image).
Films — Animation
Films — Live-Action
- P. G. Wodehouse (very likely under the inspiration of W. S. Gilbert, whose works he adored) and his collection of "aunts" may well claim to be the literary patron saints of this trope, on which for well over sixty years he rang the changes of every possible variation imaginable, from the lovable Aunt Dahlia in Right Ho, Jeeves! to the truly horrible Heloïse, Princess von und zu Dwornitzchek, in Summer Moonshine, a Rich Bitch who is not even funny. Perhaps the most typical is the formidable Lady Constance (she is, of course, the sister of the many-sistered Lord Emsworth in the "Blandings Castle" saga), but the most famous is probably Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha, who "chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth."
- Evelyn Waugh also enjoyed this trope, e.g., Lady Circumference in Decline and Fall.
- Mrs. Proudie, in Anthony Trollope's "Chronicles of Barsetshire," is an example of the social-climbing type.
- How wonderful to find a reference to Trollope. How about Glencora's aunts: The Countess of Midlothian and the Marchioness of Auld Reekie.
- Helen, Duchess of Denver is a humourless young woman in Dorothy L Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels; Lady Hermione Creethorpe, in "The Queen's Square," is a more typical elderly example.
- Hector Hugh Munro, aka Saki, was very fond of this type, both in the humourless, unintelligent version (for instance, the mothers in "Morlvera" and "The Schartz-Metterklume Method" and Hortensia, Lady Bevel, in The Watched Pot) and also in its Deadpan Snarker variant (for instance, Lady Caroline Benaresq in The Unbearable Bassington).
- Pretty much the whole female cast of The Picture of Dorian Gray, besides Sybil Vane and her mother, is portrayed in this way.
- Jane Austen features the arrogant Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, who, though she does not seem entirely unaware, is rather humorless.
- Mrs. Van Hopper in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca; du Maurier may have been inspired by her father, George du Maurier, who was fond of portraying the type in his cartoons for the English humour magazine Punch.
- The Comtesse de Tournay in The Scarlet Pimpernel (and in the film of it, too) is a stiffly dignified old lady, implacably opposed to Marguerite — but forced by the Prince Regent to acknowledge her nonetheless.
- Lady Shrapnell in Connie Wills' To Say Nothing of the Dog is a direct allusion to Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell (See Theatre, below).
- William Makepeace Thackeray displayed a number of haughty, humorless old ladies in Vanity Fair — for instance, Miss Pinkerton, Lady Bareacres, and Lady Southdown.
- Lady Alys Vorpatril is an example of the heroic Grande Dame. As chief social mover and shaker of the planet Barrayar, very insistent on Things Being Done Properly and a stickler for Protocol, but definitely on the side of the good guys.
- The author's The Curse of Chalion has the Dowager Provincara. She's a positive and helpful character, though her intense practicality prevents her from properly understanding the mystical nature of the ills plaguing both Chalion and her own daughter Ista.
- The Queen of England in World War Z is another example of the more heroic version of the character.
- As is Lady Sybil Vimes in Discworld, though she's a good deal younger than is typical for this trope, and not all that hung up on Respectability either.
- And her pampered pets are dragons!
- In Nanny Ogg's Cookbook, Nanny claims to be "a grande dame or 'big woman' as we would say here". About the only aspects that apply are the age and, as her translation suggests, the physique.
- Uppah-uppah crust Englishwoman Lady Costanza Lorridale in Little Lord Fauntleroy is the kindlier version of this.
- The Dowager Duchess of Dovedale in The Pink Carnation series.
- Victoria (Vicky), as portrayed by Flashman in the Flashman series of novels by George McDonald Frasier
- Miss Havisham from Great Expectations definitely qualifies; however, she is also completely insane, having deliberately frozen her life around the exact minute and day that her heart was broken. Astonishingly, she still receives the occasional visitor, and her upbringing of Estella certainly qualifies her for this trope.
- The Reverend Mother in Dune. Also the Fremen tribal elderwomen.
- Augusta Longbottom in the Harry Potter series, and Minerva McGonagall would qualify to an extent, if she weren't a teacher and has a wicked sense of humour.
- Small Name, Big Ego Dueña Doña Rodríguez is the only one character stupid enough in all the novel (and In-Universe, in all Spain) to sincerely believe that Don Quixote is a real Knight Errant.
- Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances is a glorious example of the pretentious social climbing version of this trope, complete with Henpecked Husband Richard.
- T'Pau (played by Celia Lovsky), a clan elder in Spock's family in the Star Trek episode, "Amok Time." Compared to other examples here, T'Pau is a deeply commanding figure of respect with unquestioned authority. For instance, she makes sure Kirk does not get into trouble diverting to Vulcan to get Spock for the ceremony.
- And in the Next Generation we have Lwaxana Troi, daughter of the Fifth House of Betazed, holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed, who spent her visits to the Enterprise sticking her nose into ship's workings in a stately manner, trying to marry off her daughter and flirting with Picard, to his chagrin.
- Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, on Downton Abbey. Appropriately enough, she is played by an actual Dame, Maggie Smith.
- Also Martha Levinson, Cora's mother (played by Shirley MacLaine). An American example—specifically, a millionaire dry-goods merchant's widow, with an eye to fashion; the Dowager Countess doesn't care for her one whit. Dame-to-Dame combat ensues.
- On Mad Men, Mona in her appearances, and Mrs. Francis in season 4, are examples.
- Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development
- Lancelot Link Secret Chimp had the Duchess, who was part of the evil organization CHUMP.
- Delenn in her widowhood in Babylon 5. Notably when she is snarking at would-be revisionist historians.
- Side note: in the DVD commentary for the episode Interludes and Examinations, as Delenn descends a staircase Bruce Boxleitner says 'here's the Grande Dame'.
- Mrs. Slocombe of Are You Being Served? attempted to affect this demeanor, but she almost always backslid to her working class roots in language and attitude when angry or upset.
- In NCIS Shada, the mother of Mike Franks's daughter in law, is an Arab style Grande Dame who ruled her tribe after all the men had died in battle. She carries a ferocious and atavistic air to her and no one would ever want to mess with her except Mike Franks.
- Lavinia Cremone in Dancing on the Edge.
- Evelyn Harper from Two and a Half Men has shades of this (she certainly seems to think of herself as this).
- Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones. There are shades of this in the book, but it's Rigg's performance (which has been repeatedly compared to Maggie Smith's aforementioned turn as the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey) that brings the character definitively into this trope.
- Margaret Tilden, owner of the Washington Herald in House of Cards (US) gives every indication of being the prim and proper Grande Dame, until that joke.
- Lady Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne, Chummy's mother in Call the Midwife is the spitting image of a Grande Dame of the last era of their dominance. Made even more typical by virtue of being married to a former India Office official (Chummy was born there, and apparently the only lullabies she knows are in Hindi!) and very religious to boot.
- There are moments when Sister Monica Joan (who was clearly born to a wealthy family) gives every indication she would be a Grande Dame were she not a nun in an order that puts God Before Dogma—particularly when she complains about food ("And we are faced with ginger nuts again! Ginger nuts!" "I cannot excite myself about a fatless sponge."). Oh, and she is increasingly senile, but that's another matter...
- Peggy's landlady in Agent Carter is a very mannered, genteel older lady who has no compunctions about imposing her notions of propriety and respectability on her female tenants - enforced through eviction if necessary.
- The "Lady Smith" splicers in BioShock invoke this trope: part Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf??, part Katharine Hepburn. There is a remarkable synergy with the horror setting. It is a credit to the voice actress that the trope is palpable even when the splicers can't be seen.
- Gertrude Dijon in The Colonel's Bequest.
- The "Elegant Lady", Emma, in Ghost Trick.
- Kebabu in The Magic of Scheherazade tests your moral fiber by asking if you'd pick up a girl in a hamburger shop.
- Dowager Lady Mantillon in the Dragon Age series is basically the shadowy puppetmaster behind all things in the Orlesian Empire. She is an elderly noble lady, a former mistress of the late Emperor (whom she is rumored to have had assassinated and replaced with his niece), and only those who have her favor can ever hope to rise to the highest ranks of the modern Orlesian society.
- Cecania's mother from Sore Thumbs is well on her way to becoming Lady Drunk.
- In possibly the most hilariously entertaining subversion in all of TV Tropedom, Girl Genius presents, starring in this role ... Mamma Gkika.
- Elizabeth II was depicted in this manner once on Animaniacs:
Queen Elizabeth II: We are not amused.
Yakko, Wakko, and Dot: But we are!
- In several Classic Disney Shorts, Madame Clara Cluck (herself a parody of noted operatic contralto Dame Clara Butt (yes, we know) was able to pullet off.
- Lady Richington from Sheep in the Big City, whose Catch Phrase is "Well, I never...!" is a Grande Dame.
- A recurring character displaying most of the classic characteristics of the type appears on The Simpsons; Martha Quimby and Lady Bouvier also show similarities to this type. Krusty identified her as the "Wealthy Dowager" in the Clown College episode (paraphrased):
Krusty: So, a Wealthy Dowager shows up, the party's over, right? Wrong! Hit her in the face with a pie!
(Krusty throws a pie in her face so hard she gets embedded in the wall)
Homer: (taking notes) ...Kill...Wealthy...Dowager...
- Eleanor Sherman from The Critic
- One appeared in an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures, where she was tasked to assess the performance and good behavior of students in the Acme Looniversity to determine whether or not Yosemite Sam will be promoted to Vice Principle. Babs, Buster, and Plucky try everything they can to mess up the Grande Dame's examinations beneath Yosemite Sam's notice, often leading to Amusing Injuries for the unwitting mustached man. The abuses continue up until they Body Swap her with a potato, breaking her composure and causing Sam to lose the promotion he so desired.
- Mrs. Astor from Futurama. Even nitroglycerine is intimidated by her.
Zoidberg: Where's the exploding?
Hobsy: One does not explode in Mrs. Astor's face.
- Wormaline Wiggler from Mirthworms.
- Socialist Liverpudlian MP Elizabeth Margaret ("Battling Bessie") Braddock (who bore a striking resemblance to the page picture) was the heroine of a famous passage-of-arms with Deadpan Snarker Winston Churchill:
Bessie Braddock: Winston, you are drunk, and what's more, you are disgustingly drunk.
Winston Churchill: Bessie, my dear, you are ugly, and what's more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.
- This exchange was confirmed to Richard Langworth by Ronald Golding, a bodyguard present on the occasion as Churchill was leaving the House of Commons in 1946. (Note that in the 1934 movie Its A Gift, W.C. Fields' character, when told he is drunk, responds, "Yeah, and you're crazy. But I'll be sober tomorrow and you'll be crazy the rest of your life.")
- The actresses Florence Bates◊, Symona Boniface◊, Constance Collier◊, Gladys Cooper◊, Marie Dressler◊, Margaret Dumont◊, Edith Evans, Hermione Gingold, Edna May Oliver◊, and Helen Westley◊ specialized in this sort of role, but in most cases the actresses themselves were noted for having a keen sense of humor.
- It was claimed by Groucho Marx throughout most of their lives that Margaret Dumont never understood what was supposed to be funny about the The Marx Brothers' comedy; however, Dumont was a long-time veteran of the comedy stage herself, and well understood that the more unamused she herself seemed, the funnier the jokes would be for the audience.
- Margaret had married a millionaire, and was this in real life. She commuted to the studio by air from her mansions in Palm Springs and Paris (back when air travel was for the very rich only).
- Dame Edna Everage
- Victoria is generally portrayed this way. The page quote is said (on rather slim evidence) to have been provoked by the Hon. Alexander Grantham ("Alick") Yorke, one of her grooms-in-waiting, who had a reputation as a funny man among the Queen's retainers, and, when commanded by Her Majesty to demonstrate, either told a risqué anecdote or performed an imitation of Victoria herself. Queens Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, and other queens such as Catherine the Great, are also occasionally depicted in this manner, with rather less justification.note
- According to someone who was there, it was a risqué-bordering-on-crude anecdote told in a roomful of prepubescent girls. Victoria had good cause not to be amused.
- Incidentally, there are more photographs of Queen Victoria laughing than there are of all nine of her children laughing combined. She could, however, be a Grande Dame when necessary; her genius was knowing when that was.
- Bertrand Russell's parents died young, and he was raised by his grandfather and grandmother, the Earl and Countess Russell. Because the Earl was near death and died two years after Bertrand's parents, he spent the longest time under the rule of his grandmother, who, although quite broadminded and indulgent, was also famously formidable and insisted—against her deceased son's wishes—on raising the children as devout Presbyterians. (It didn't stick.)
- Among some tribal societies in the rural Philippines, women have a traditional role as clan diplomats. Naturally one who gains a great reputation in this field would be considered a Grande Dame and would likely act like it.