"[The perfect wife] was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed daily. [...] Above all, she was pure."
What is a Proper Lady? Also known as a "real lady", a "true lady", simply a "lady", or an "angel in the house", she's the perfect lady in the Victorian British mindset. The Proper Lady archetype was widely used in Victorian and earlier literature. Jane Austen was one of the first authors that introduced such qualities to heroines that did not fit into the strictest view of what is acceptable of a Proper Lady, beginning the slow death of this trope. The last time it was seen alive was around the 1950's. Modern ones are likely to be accused of being Purity Sues or have some quirk or flaw that sets them apart from their predecessors.
A Proper Lady is a gentle yet strong being, incorruptible and pure like the driven snow and Madonna-like in her virtues. She sacrifices herself for the better of her family, religion, and country. She is intelligent enough to smoothly run a household, and wisely spends her husband's money for the better of her family, never guilty of negligence or selfish frivolity. She possesses the wit, taste and esprit necessary to be a star of Society, and never crosses the border of good taste and civility. She is devoted and loyal, never treacherous or scheming. Her manners are never less than impeccable, and her good will and charity are a beacon to those lucky enough to live around her. She is perfectly groomed, likely beautiful or at least comely (while the female antagonist will be more beautiful and appealing). However, more important than her personal looks is her gentle smile. Because small size is endearing (and allows for protective embraces from her lucky husband or fiancé), she will probably be on the shorter side. Chances are that she is an English Rose, especially with dark hair and fair skin. Parasol of Prettiness is a typical prop.
A Proper Lady might not always be able to defend herself, but should in most cases possess the strength of mind to not panic, and the willpower to never give in to any vile demands.
She is alwaysupper class and nearly always married, often a mother. She might also be a redundant woman, in which case she will not be bitter about never getting married, and will instead direct her motherly instincts for the better of her sister's or brother's family. Lower class women and maidens can have many qualities of a Proper Lady, and should, per this trope and the ideals behind it, aim to be as like her as possible.
There is no upper age limit to being a Proper Lady. Widowed ladies might easily be double-qualify as Determined Widows. If a lady dies at high age, her death will be dignified, probably caused by old age, and if she dies young (of nothing too unsightly), it will be a heartbreaking tragedy. Her absence will leave behind a great void and she will be dearly missed by not only family members and friends, but also by those who only occasionally had the fortune to be graced with her presence.
Related character tropes:
English Rose - another typically British character with similar properties; popular standard for a Proper Lady's looks
Emma starts as a poor peasant girl, becomes a flower girl, a maid, and ends up becoming a gentleman's sweetheart. While her background technically prevents her from becoming a true lady in the society's eyes, her angel-like disposition, good education, eventual marriage (although with Nouveau Riche) and careful grooming should make her one in all but name.
William's mother Aurelia is a weird case. She has the status and loveable nature of a Proper Lady, but also lacks the social and entertaining skills she would have needed to appeal to the London society. Despite everything, she is content to attend social life with her husband to make him appear the best he could even while she silently hates the whole thing. A wearying life filled with social obligations, combined with the strain of having children, made Aurelia physically ill. She is saved from the standard tragic death, but has to leave London and basically abandon her family in order to save their face.
Axis Powers Hetalia has Liechtenstein, basically a Yamato Nadeshiko who comes from West/Central Europe rather than East Asia. She's humble, kind, quiet, deferring yet not completely submissive to her brother Switzerland, very mature for a young nation, and quite competent at housework.
Edo-Cana is even more feminine and soft than Mirajane.
Windaria has Alan's House Wife Marie, a grand example of an honest and wholesome young lady. She also helps him sell their vegetables at market.
A few girls in Revolutionary Girl Utena. The series plays around with this trope a lot. Utena's not one, but once tries to act like one after Touga defeats her and she temporarily loses Anthy... yet not only it's very forced, but she's only using a part of the whole concept (being passive and ladylike, but not applying the Silk Hiding Steel).
The shoujo manga Lady by Yoko Hanabusa takes the concept and makes it central to the plot.
Her paternal half-sister, Sarah Russell, is on her way to become one as well. She got this from herMissing Mom, Frances.
Vivi, Sandra, Nadia, Liliya, and Valentine from A Cruel God Reigns, and oddly enough all of them also fall under the Broken Bird trope, to varying degrees. Each girl is portrayed as sweet, loving, pure, gentle, and fragile.
Scarlett's dead mother is an invoked example. She's a never-attainable ideal for Scarlett who knows her temperament and pride will never allow her to become like her mother. From how the family and especially her husband Gerald function (they don't, really) when she's gone it's quite clear she was the pillar of the household. Even some of the slaves say they miss her dearly.
Hortense in Small Island thinks this is how all British women of any class act, but takes it to such an extent that British people think she's weird.
Esther Summerson, from Charles Dickens' Bleak House, is a Victorian English specimen. She's kind, modest, sensible, and domestically competent, but too down-to-earth to be a Purity Sue. Esther is also a deconstruction of the trope, as her extreme humility seems to be in part the result of an upbringing that would be considered emotionally abusive by most modern standards. She could also be interpreted as just pretending to be one as a cover for her own management skills: she takes control over situations or exerts authority over people while presenting herself as modest, unassuming, etc.
Amy Dorrit, from another Dickens novel, Little Dorrit, seems to be a reconstruction, since her father is a former gentleman in debtor's prison who insists on his children's "gentility" while mooching and sponging off all and sundry. Despite her father's twisting of the ideal, Amy upholds true nobility of soul, and ends the novel a figure of quiet purity and strength.
Fanny Price subverts this trope in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. She is extremely gentle, passive and the doormat of pretty much everybody around her until they try to force her into marrying the man she doesn't love. Her firmness on this point makes her not quite a true lady, as her uncle spells out:
Sir Thomas: I had thought you peculiarly free from wilfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence. But you have now shewn me that you can be wilful and perverse; that you can and will decide for yourself, without any consideration or deference for those who have surely some right to guide you, without even asking their advice. You have shewn yourself very, very different from anything that I had imagined.
In the Austenverse, Pride and Prejudice's Jane Bennet. She stubbornly believes the best of everyone, everyone loves her for her sweetness, and she's the only one with enough patience to put up with her perpetually querulous mother. But, like Fanny, in addition to being beautiful and kind, she's also intelligent, rational, and sensible.
Elizabeth "Beth" March evolves from a Fragile Flower into Proper Lady in the second part of before dying. May have taken it after her mother, Margaret aka Marmee.
The girls' mother is a Proper Lady after having been more Hot-Blooded in her youth. Her wisdom and strong will are emphasized more than humility and kindness.
Subverted with Maud Lilly from Fingersmith, who is supposed to be this but hides a dark secret.
Lady Catelyn "Cat" Tully-Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire. She is calm and a source of wisdom and advice to others, while maintaining her role in society. The Tully motto is "Family, Duty, Honor," and those are the words she lives by. Boy, does that bite her and her family in the ass later.
Maria Clara de los Santos, the female lead and Love Interest in Filipino national hero Jose Rizal's novel Noli Me Tangere, is promoted as such. Being religious, the epitome of virtue, “demure and self-effacing” and endowed with beauty, grace, and charm, she was promoted by Rizal as the “ideal image” of a Filipino woman who deserves to be placed on the “pedestal of male honor” (and she apparently was an expy or Rizal's real life love, Leonor Rivera). Modern readers and authors, however, have noted the Values Dissonance since poor Maria Clara also was "chaste, masochistic and easily fainting", calling her the "greatest misfortune that has befallen the Filipina in the last one hundred years".
In Death: Played with. Dr. Mira seems to give this off like pheremones. However, it was revealed early on that she had been raped by her stepfather, and she turns out to have flaws. Clarissa Price is a social worker in the story Purity In Death, who is lady-like and beautiful, which seems odd, considering that she works in a job that usually puts lines on someone's face. However, it turns out that she has failed to dot her i's and cross her t's, as well as being a party to murder, but she certainly suffered a Villainous Breakdown when Eve showed pictures of a teenaged girl who was essentially murdered by the terrorists Price was working for. Avril from Origin In Death starts off like this. However, she ends up murdering her own husband and helps in murdering people connected to him. Why? Because she is a clone created by her husband and his father, and while she would have lived with that, she found out that her husband had broken his promise to not clone their children (he was treating them as things to be replaced rather than human beings), and so she decided to go Mama Bear on him and his little science project.
Hopscotch: Gekrepten, Oliveira's wife/girlfriend/whatever back in Argentina. She immediately accepts him after running away to Paris and never complains the fact that he stays all day at her place, never working. Heck, she even takes care of him after the trap incident. Subverted in that, no matter what she does, Horacio will never respect, care or love her because she isn't as intelligent/interesting as La Maga or Talita.
Comes up in A Brother's Price, a Romance Novel with inverted gender roles. As a noble and a cousin to the royal princesses, Cullen Moorland is expected to be one of these, and he plays the part well, but he finds the expectations for being a proper young man to be boring and stifling, and he desperately envies Jerin.
Adele Ratignolle from Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening. Her submissiveness and devotion to her family and husband make her a foil to The Protagonist Edna. Adele is extremely sweet, feminine, and fragile. However, Adele Ratignolle's open-minded Creole ways help Edna to unleash her inner self and the artist in her.
Sidonie "Sido" De Ville Duval from The Red Necklace. Sido is a shy, compassionate girl who is very loyal to her father even though he ignores and mistreats her constantly. Her sweet nature wins over most anyone.
Lady Marjorie is adored by her husband and servants, and a Proper Lady through and through. Her saintlikeness is tarnished only by a short affair she was quick to regret. Also gets a tragic death. Of course, after she dies, everything starts to slowly fall to pieces.
Hazel Bellamy is a steel core lady, very refined and composed, although not of genteel pedigree. A rare example of a Proper Lady who has ever actually done working class work.
Queen Guinevere and Princess Mithian from Merlin. Subverted in the sense that Guinevere was originally a servant girl, and Mithian has a touch of the Tomboy Princess about her, but in terms of their personalities, they fit this trope.
Dina Araz from 24 season 4 is a charming, dutiful wife and mother who is also a stone cold terrorist.
Tom Jones' "She's a Lady" seems to describe this sort of woman. She's got style, she's got grace, always something nice to say and so on.
Hera/Juno's sister Hestia/Vesta, virgin goddess of households and families, seems to be more of the real deal.
Queen Alcestis, the only one brave and loving enough to offer her own life in exchange for her husband Admetus'. Luckily for her, Admetus happened to have an old friend named Heracles, who offered to bring her back from the Underworld... and did so by wrestlingThe Grim Reaper.
The Virgin Mary is presented as the epitome of this trope, she being the perfect mother figure (indeed, the mother of Jesus Himself and spiritual mother to all His followers) and all. She's presented as beautiful and graceful, humble, chaste, wise, and altruistic. She is held up as the perfect woman, and many Christian girls (especially Catholic ones) as well as Muslim girls, are encouraged to be more like her. Many female Catholic saints also qualify, although many others are subversions. Notably, along with Virgin Mary, they were an important part of forming this ideal.
Female protagonists tend to follow the ladylike ideals if they are peasant girls. Princesses might need to go through a humbling procedure before they can be Princess Classic.
Pygmalion and the later version My Fair Lady are about attempting to groom a poor girl into a lady. It works rather well — except that the girl also gains enough dignity and self-respect that she walks out. In Pygmalion, she never comes back.
Victoria from Corpse Bride is a rare clean-cut modern example without parody or deconstruction. With the Perfectly Arranged Marriage, you just know how devoted a wife she will be for lucky, lucky Victor. She seems nothing but a sweet young girl, determined to help him when he's troubled. Emily the Corpse Bride is her more enthusiastic counterpart.
Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas fits this trope pretty well. She has the modest, feminine personality and attire, and is domestic and sensible. She's a leaf-filled patchwork doll with stitches all over her body and puts deadly nightshade in her creator's food and drink to get out of the house, which gives her shades of being more determined and shows she has a great desire to be free.
Rarity from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic insists that she is a lady and must be treated as such. She is very polite and gracious, though not afraid to tell someone off if she feels it's warranted. She doesn't seem to feel above giving someone a well needed hoof in the face, but she has to be severely pushed.
Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine, the beautiful and pious sister-in-law to Czar Nicholas II. When her husband Sergei was brutally assassinated, she didn't hold a grudge to his killers and pardoned them publicly before becoming a nun and selling all of her jewellery to use the money on charity. But after the Russian Revolution... her taledidn't end well.
An agency in London gave lessons on how to be a Proper Lady called the "Princess Prep" workshop.