Study Guide

Lady Britomart in Major Barbara

By George Bernard Shaw

Lady Britomart

Sharing a name with one of English literature's most famous female knights, Lady Brit is one tough mama-jama—and she's definitely not afraid to say what's on her mind. Her motto seems to be "Opine early and often." Of course, her family—and most especially her husband—ends up totally ignoring her wishes by the end, but you can't deny she's a forceful personality throughout the play.

A Doting Mother

Lady Brit cares a lot about what is going to happen to her kiddos, so she takes a, shall we say, active role in their affairs.

Did that sound diplomatic? We hope so.

She seems particularly fond of pretending to be open-minded even when she is forcing her own opinion down everyone else's throats.

For example, when Stephen squawks at the fact that she's simultaneously asking for his advice and bullying him, she's indignant:

Treat you as a child! What do you mean? It is most unkind and ungrateful of you to say such a thing. You know I have never treated any of you as children. I have always made you my companions and friends, and allowed you perfect freedom to do and say whatever you liked, so long as you liked what I could approve of. (1.55)

Um, Lady Brit, letting people have their own opinions as long as they match your opinions isn't exactly letting them have those opinions . . .

But hey, kudos to Lady Brit for having strong convictions—and being willing to stand up to the criticism of others when she feels strongly about something. Case in point: Despite her class position, she doesn't seem to mind that Barbara's fiancé is an Australian Greek professor (i.e., not exactly a lord), even though others in her class would probably look down their nose at him.

When Stephen suggests that perhaps she should care a bit more, she dismisses him:

Oh, Adolphus Cusins will make a very good husband. After all, nobody can say a word against Greek: it stamps a man at once as an educated gentleman. And my family, thank Heaven, is not a pig-headed Tory one. We are Whigs, and believe in liberty. Let snobbish people say what they please: Barbara shall marry, not the man they like, but the man I like. (1.33)

It's very typical Lady Brit—even as she's being supposedly open-minded about Barbara's choices, she's really putting all the emphasis on what she chooses.

A Formidable Sparring Partner

Some of the greatest dialogue in Major Barbara occurs when Lady Brit is telling off Charles, her daughter Sarah's future husband. She makes no secret of the fact that she thinks Charles is a fool, and when she gets annoyed at his "drivel," she has no trouble telling him: 

LADY BRITOMART: In good society in England, Charles, men drivel at all ages by repeating silly formulas with an air of wisdom. Schoolboys make their own formulas out of slang, like you. When they reach your age, and get political private secretaryships and things of that sort, they drop slang and get their formulas out of The Spectator or The Times. You had better confine yourself to The Times. You will find that there is a certain amount of tosh about The Times; but at least its language is reputable. 
LOMAX [overwhelmed]: You are so awfully strong-minded, Lady Brit—
LADY BRITOMART:. Rubbish! […]
(3.49-51)

As you can see, Lady B can be a bit of a bulldozer—and that fact isn't totally lost on her. When Bilton, Andrew's foreman, prevents her from going into the gun cotton shed, her response indicates some awareness of how others must see her:

BILTON [barring the way] You can't take anything explosive in here, sir. 
LADY BRITOMART. What do you mean? Are you alluding to me? 
BILTON [unmoved] No, ma'am. Mr Undershaft has the other gentleman's matches in his pocket. 
LADY BRITOMART [abruptly] Oh! I beg your pardon. [She goes into the shed].
(3.388-3.391)

You can't say she's not amusing, right? Even if she doesn't quite realize why.

Moralmart

You probably won't be shocked to hear that Lady Britomart has very firm ideas of right and wrong, which often bring her into conflict with her thoroughly immoral husband. Toward the end of the play, when Andrew is making his case for continuing the family tradition of leaving the Undershaft company to a foundling (rather than his own son), Lady Brit tells him off for his wacky ideas about family and tries to micromanage his clothing all in one breath:

Andrew: you can talk my head off; but you can't change wrong into right. And your tie is all on one side. Put it straight. (3.92)

Then, when she loses that battle and Andrew decides he wants to leave the company to Barbara's fiancé, she tries to impose her own morals on Dolly in advising him about how to run the company:

There is no moral question in the matter at all, Adolphus. You must simply sell cannons and weapons to people whose cause is right and just, and refuse them to foreigners and criminals. (3.290)

Of course, by virtue of his gender and money, Andrew basically gets his way in everything that really matters, effectively bulldozing over what Lady Brit wants (with a smile of course), and her kids end up outwardly defying her and siding with their dad/his company. So, despite winning a lot of her battles, she loses the war…when you're up against an arms manufacturer, though, what do you expect?