"[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 in Victorian Romance 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.
Marianne Hamilton, Emma Queensbury, and Emma's dead older sister aka Francis and Keith's deceased mother from Ashita no Nadja.
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.
Ed and Al Elric's HotMissing Mom Trisha from Fullmetal Alchemist. In all the flashbacks she is sweet and loving to her kids and willing to wait forever for her husband.
Also, Hughes's wife Gracia and the Armstrongs's little sister Katharine.
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 are this. The series plays around with this trope a lot. Also, 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).
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.
Subverted slightly with Nadia's little sister Marjorie, who, at fourteen, likes to run around naked and is constantly thinking about death/ways to die. She also has a very workable and unabashed knowledge of sex.
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 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:
Sire 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.
Also 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 this in the second part of Little Women before dying. May have taken it after her mother, Margaret aka Marmee, who is this too after having been more Hot Blooded in her youth - but with more emphasis in wisdom and strong will than humility and kindness.
Mrs. Ramsay from Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse.
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 shelives by. Boy, does that bite her and her family in the ass later.
Cersei Lannister is a rare evil example (who resents and rebels against the 'feminine' parts of the job), and Sansa, Cat's daughter, seems to be one in training.
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.
Live Action TV
Lady Marjorie in Upstairs Downstairs 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 to a T.
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.
Also 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.
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.
Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas fits this trope pretty well. She has the modest, feminine personality and attire, and is domestic and sensible. It's kind of subverted by how 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.
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) are encouraged to be more like her.
Many female Catholic saints also qualify, although many others do subvert. Notably, along with Virgin Mary, they actually were an important part in forming this ideal.
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.