Friday, 15 May 2009

The perils of the past 'ladies'

The link in the title is to my essay on Chaucer's Prioress. She is SUCH a lady... or is she?

One of the more delightful parts I played in musicals during my younger days was Widow Corney in Oliver! - not that the character is delightful in any fashion, but because the actor playing Mr Bumble (with whom I appeared in several different productions) not only was extremely talented but was someone with whom I had wonderful 'stage chemistry.' (Thankfully, as is not true in all productions of that musical, I was permitted to sing in my natural voice, operatic though it was - too often, Bumble can sing and Widow Corney growls off-key.) Since the character - who hasn't a trace of compassion, for example, and watches someone drop dead in front of her whilst she is thinking only of how claiming Oliver's mother's locket can be to her advantage - is nothing like myself, and, being post-Method, I have to 'get into' parts, I shall admit how I managed to assume her identity. It all was simple, really. I am working class, and I had often viewed the sad truth that, when one is on one of the lower rungs of the ladder, it somehow is always possible to find someone on a rung that is lower still. Widow Corney can assume her affected ways (well, at least attempt to do so - she doesn't know, since it isn't shown in the musical, that Bumble's counting even her spoons) because at least she isn't a pauper - and, though, as the locket incident shows, she is not of a high moral standard, she can be smug in thinking that she just has to be far above those so wicked as to end up paupers.

Fear not, dear readers (heavens, did I get Victorian for a moment...) - I am not about to expound here on society's ills and how these often produce unfortunate paupers. I'm being mildly silly and a bit naughty today. I may not refer to sexism bluntly all that often, but I had an odd thought which has some relation to how women and men were viewed differently (and not without reason.) When it comes to the quality of the 'lady' or 'gentleman" (in the figurative sense - no one I knew in youth would have had the slightest chance of knowing any lords or ladies, or the gentry, unless they were carrying mops), there were notable differences. One, of any class, who was called a true 'gentleman' would, then or now, have been courteous, well mannered, of high moral standards, generous in any way possible, kind, considerate in his speech. All of these, of course, are traits I would applaud, and which I seek to foster in my own life.

Then there were the 'ladies.' Sadly, I knew quite a few - to whom I could apply none of the adjectives I just did to the gentleman.

For this to make sense, especially to my younger readers (as I mentioned in an earlier post, those in my mother's age group were raised by genuine Victorians - and many born during that era were very much alive when I was a child), there were huge extremes in common (no, not that meaning of common, though that often applied as well... I mean wide-spread) standards of behaviour between my childhood, when I was a young woman, and my middle age. Much of the formality, which I saw as distancing people from one another, needed to be modified - I, for example, am very glad that my friends' children can regard and treat me as a friend to them as well. That doesn't mean I am fond of the extremes one may observe today!

I'll explain this further in a moment, but first I must give some attention to why some of the quasi-'ladies' I knew years back were ridiculous and irritating in my view, where traits which I would consider laudable (similar to those I just mentioned in regard to the gentlemen) weren't illustrated. Courtesy, just as an example, is a wonderful and important trait. It is built on respect for others, and I see such regard as essential to charity, compassion, justice and so forth. The sad condition of the 'ladies' was not based on true courtesy at all. It certainly did not mean respect - their pretended shock when some ill bred character (or so they thought) coughed would give the sense that they thought someone choking was doing it only to annoy them. Overall, their affected, artificial, often smug ways had no element of virtue - it was based only on wanting to impress others.

I certainly am a modest woman, and would consider being virtuous (here referring to sexual morality) to be a very important matter. I am not pleased or amused (blasted Victorian again...) when I walk past girls who are having highly audible mobile phone conversations, punctuated with Anglo Saxon terms which are effective only when used sparingly and with humour, regarding the most intimate details of their relationships with their current flames. Yet the extremes the affected went to when I was a child (though the women almost always were quite chaste) somehow were nearly as offensive, because they took what was not suggestive in the least and, with euphemisms, pretended shock, and embarrassment, made it prurient. It may be hard for the young to believe, but the word "bed" could not be uttered - even if one was referring only to buying a duvet. (If use of the word was unavoidable, it had to be spelt out, as in, "I need a new pillow for the b-e-d.") Pregnancy, surely one of the most joyous events on the planet, could lead to one not even telling the news to her own mother or siblings - when the condition became obvious, she'd have to become very silent and keep her eyes down. (One prayer book aimed at married women, produced in Ireland in the early 20th century, and which ended up in my hands as legacy from a priest, considered it a sin of immodesty to speak of a pregnancy when the birth was months away. I can only imagine that such an announcement would make the hearer - assumed to have a really filthy mind - picture how the conception took place. My finding this deplorable does not mean I like the current trends, where one would be likely to have a photograph sent on a mobile showing just how the conception did take place...)

Some of the 'ladies' I knew, who were like characters in the first draft of a really bad novel by someone trying to imitate Jane Austen, would have been comical were it not so sad. Even with friends whom they saw regularly, there could be no sharing of the genuine. They had twittering little voices. It was apparently vulgar for a woman to ever laugh - unless it was a high-pitched, phony sound usually in the context of mocking someone else. Ladies did not eat - at most, they could take a finger sandwich, and 'make like a mouse' taking tiny bites over the course of an hour.

My scant knowledge of the history of fashion had given me the impression that corsets were intended to set off women's figures (while distorting them - at least the 'ladies' I knew had the torture of elastic but not the agony of whale bone). By the time I walked the earth, the 'lady-like' (who, by the time the tight knits of the 1960s were the fashion, resembled rubber figures with material pulled tight over them) seemed to think that a woman's flesh must not be seen to be ... skin. It had to be immovable. I think they'd begun to picture girdles as some sort of chastity belt - where my impression is that I'd thank the guy who relieved me of those dreadful things...

Certainly I'd never known anyone who had servants, and I suppose that the very 'dainty' sorts (who couldn't cultivate the 'air of mystery' that was supposed to be alluring, because they were in living situations where they'd be lucky not to trip over one another, and were most fortunate to have an indoor toilet and water) must have read too many etiquette books aimed at the wealthy. Long after laundromats and even home washing machines were readily available, the 'ladies' (who had never possessed hand-made silk lingerie from Paris, to be sure) feared someone might find out they washed underwear by machine. Perhaps this dates to some reticence - thinking underwear too 'personal' to leave for the laundress (even though a servant carried away the chamberpot.) It becomes ridiculous when the laundress is oneself.

As for speech in social situations - there I've seen huge extremes as well. It went from 'politeness' that had no content whatever, to the 'openness' of my young adult years, to today, when people post every last detail of their lives on the Internet yet fear a live person who says "Good day" is telling them what to do, and that the person who smiles is violating their boundaries. It was tragic that 'ladies' could know each other for decades, yet fear being open (or even abandoning the phony voice and laugh) with their closest friends. (Then again, today one cannot say one feels a bit tired without busy-bodies chiming in recommending therapy, acupuncture, nutritionists, training in self esteem...)

What was saddest was that this affected manner, only intended to raise one's stock with others, was off the mark because it did not involve anything genuine. There are many times, Lord knows, when one is not feeling especially charitable or respectful - and acting with courtesy is not fake, but aimed at cultivating the attitude. (Over time, it does work.) But such courtesy is aimed at honouring the other, not on acclaim for oneself. The pathetic attempts at 'refinement' were begging to be thought better than one actually was - and tended to foster suspicion, anger, and the like towards family or truly old friends who knew otherwise.

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