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'sArsinoé 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.
Grande 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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Used to be a reliable comedic Stock Character in comic papers such as Punch (whence the page image).
Mrs. Van Hopper, played by Florence Bates, in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is a full-fledged Rich Bitch.
Inverted in The Rebel Set by the rich, snobby woman who desperately wants to be a Beatnik.
Very common in The Three Stooges, as for instance, "Society Mugs," in which Muriel Allen needs an escort to Alice Preston's dinner party, and her maid mistakenly places a telephone call to Acme Exterminators instead of Acme Escorts; Hilarity Ensues.
The faded actress Miss Luther in Stage Door — and, indeed, most parts played by Constance Collier.
In Titanic Rose's mother is a tragic variation on the character, while "Molly" Brown is a subversion.
The elderly noblewoman who summons the brothers Grimm in Ever After is identified in the end credits as "Grande Dame," though she avoids all of the negative aspects of the trope. Her exact title (or name, for that matter) is unclear, except that she is a direct descendant of the French royal family according to her ending narration.
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).
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.
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.
Queen 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.
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.
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.
Evelyn Harper from Two and a Half Men has shades of this (she certainly seems to think of herself as this).
Diana Rigg as Oleanna 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...
The matrona parts in the plays of the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence (possibly taken from the Greek Menander) are the Ur Example of this trope, which may ultimately have been suggested by the goddess Hera/Juno. The character as developed certainly seems more Roman than Greek.
Thomas William Robertson's "epoch-making" (according to George Bernard Shaw) play Caste appeared in 1867, featuring the character of the Marquise de St. Maur, who forbids the marriage of her son to the lower-class heroine.
Albert Herring has Lady Billows, a fiercely Puritanical and exacting old solon who sings in florid Handelian coloratura.
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.
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! Homer:(taking notes) ...Kill...Wealthy...Dowager...
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.
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 SnarkerWinston 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 It's 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.")
It was claimed by Groucho Marx throughout most of their lives that Margaret Dumont never understood what was supposed to be funny about 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).
Queen 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 Namely, Elizabeth I was very savvy and was known to be cool with Shakespeare's bawdy sense of humour; Elizabeth II, although the very model of propriety, is also the very model of the Cool Old Lady; and Catherine the Great was...well...she was Catherine the Great. Read her page.
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.
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.