They were of course very anxious to see a person on whom so much of their comfort at Barton must depend; and the elegance of her appearance was favourable to their wishes. Lady Middleton was not more than six or seven and twenty; her face was handsome, her figure tall and striking, and her address graceful. Her manners had all the elegance which her husband's wanted. But they would have been improved by some share of his frankness and warmth; and her visit was long enough to detract something from their first admiration, by shewing that though perfectly well-bred, she was reserved, cold, and had nothing to say for herself beyond the most common-place inquiry or remark. (6.8)
Lady Middleton is the most proper, "elegant" figure of a society lady that we see – and she's thoroughly dull. If this is being a lady is all about, we're not interested… and neither is Austen.
Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton's mother, was a good-humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy, and rather vulgar. She was full of jokes and laughter, and before dinner was over had said many witty things on the subject of lovers and husbands; hoped they had not left their hearts behind them in Sussex, and pretended to see them blush whether they did or not. Marianne was vexed at it for her sister's sake, and turned her eyes towards Elinor, to see how she bore these attacks, with an earnestness which gave Elinor far more pain than could arise from such common-place raillery as Mrs. Jennings's. (7.5)
Neither of the involved parties are being very ladylike here – while Mrs. Jennings is certainly not an elegant, prim and proper lady like her daughter Lady Middleton, Marianne also puts in her fair share of unladylike rudeness in her offense at the latter.
"Elinor," cried Marianne, "is this fair? is this just? are my ideas so scanty? But I see what you mean. I have been too much at my ease, too happy, too frank. I have erred against every common-place notion of decorum! I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful. Had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared." (10.5)
Again, we see Marianne struggling with notions of what a proper lady does. While she can recognize crimes against convention in others (such as Mrs. Jennings), she always hotly defends her own conduct when it's outside the realm of the ordinary or proper.
Marianne would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all the first night after parting from Willoughby. She would have been ashamed to look her family in the face the next morning, had she not risen from her bed in more need of repose than when she lay down in it. But the feelings which made such composure a disgrace, left her in no danger of incurring it. She was awake the whole night, and she wept the greatest part of it. She got up with an headache, was unable to talk, and unwilling to take any nourishment; giving pain every moment to her mother and sisters, and forbidding all attempt at consolation from either. Her sensibility was potent enough! (16.1)
Here we see Marianne acting hilariously (and embarrassingly) in the correct, tried and true fashion of a tragic, scorned heroine in a romance novel – clearly the basis for her behavior here.
Mrs. Palmer was several years younger than Lady Middleton, and totally unlike her in every respect. She was short and plump, had a very pretty face, and the finest expression of good humour in it that could possibly be. Her manners were by no means so elegant as her sister's, but they were much more prepossessing. She came in with a smile, smiled all the time of her visit, except w hen she laughed, and smiled when she went away. (19.13)
We see another vision of womanhood here. Mrs. Palmer, though less proper and elegant than her older sister, is much more charming. However, Austen makes it clear that she's not the ideal vision of woman put forth by society at the time – quite the contrary, in fact.
This specimen of the Miss Steeles was enough. The vulgar freedom and folly of the eldest left her no recommendation, and as Elinor was not blinded by the beauty or the shrewd look of the youngest, to her want of real elegance and artlessness, she left the house without any wish of knowing them better. (21.17)
Elinor, the best judge of character we know in this novel, comes down pretty hard on the Steeles. They're clearly not the kind of lady she approves of – they've got an air of trying-too-hard, and furthermore, Lucy isn't entirely trustworthy.
The young ladies arrived, their appearance was by no means ungenteel or unfashionable. Their dress was very smart, their manners very civil, they were delighted with the house and in raptures with the furniture, and they happened to be so doatingly fond of children that Lady Middleton's good opinion was engaged in their favour before they had been an hour at the Park. She declared them to be very agreeable girls indeed, which for her ladyship was enthusiastic admiration. Sir John's confidence in his own judgment rose with this animated praise, and he set off directly for the cottage to tell the Miss Dashwoods of the Miss Steeles' arrival, and to assure them of their being the sweetest girls in the world. From such commendation as this, however, there was not much to be learned; Elinor well knew that the sweetest girls in the world were to be met with in every part of England, under every possible variation of form, face, temper, and understanding. (21.3)
This description of the Steeles demonstrates the wide variety of criteria that various members of society take towards judging women. Lady Middleton, typically, is only concerned with the fact that the Steeles praise her and her family, while her husband, bless his heart, is totally indiscriminating – he loves everyone.
Lucy was naturally clever; her remarks were often just and amusing; and as a companion for half an hour Elinor frequently found her agreeable; but her powers had received no aid from education, she was ignorant and illiterate, and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed from Miss Dashwood, in spite of her constant endeavour to appear to advantage. Elinor saw, and pitied her for, the neglect of abilities which education might have rendered so respectable; but she saw, with less tenderness of feeling, the thorough want of delicacy, of rectitude, and integrity of mind, which her attentions, her assiduities, her flatteries at the Park betrayed; and she could have no lasting satisfaction in the company of a person who joined insincerity with ignorance; whose want of instruction prevented their meeting in conversation on terms of equality, and whose conduct towards others, made every shew of attention and deference towards herself perfectly valueless. (22.2)
In this description of Lucy, we see a specimen of womanhood that's almost correct, but not quite. Everything about Lucy is close to perfect, but still off by a few degrees – she's uncultivated and uneducated, and is thus not a totally successful example. Austen's emphasis on women's education and intellectual development shines through here.
Nothing was wanting on Mrs. Palmer's side that constant and friendly good-humour could do, to make them feel themselves welcome. The openness and heartiness of her manner more than atoned for that want of recollection and elegance, which made her often deficient in the forms of politeness; her kindness, recommended by so pretty a face, was engaging; her folly, though evident, was not disgusting because it was not conceited; and Elinor could have forgiven everything but her laugh. (42.13)
Charlotte is almost the perfect hostess, and we see that a more forgiving image of womanhood is starting to emerge here – despite Charlotte's lack of high society polish, she's still recognized as a good woman (with the only exception being her irritating, constant giggles).