You only have until this Sunday to enter my blog’s annual birthday contest, gentle reader, and already I have received a number of entries that show some of you “get” Count Castiglione’s concept of sprezzatura very well. Yet let us continue our exploration of that concept today, taking the opportunity to consider the ladies among us. For although a gentleman always upholds the honor of the ladies in his party, the truth is that sometimes the ladies make us laugh, as well.
In a classic episode of the well-known BBC comedy “As Time Goes By”, the character of Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer) is contacted by his ex-wife, who wants to see him and catch up, during her brief visit to London. Lionel naturally asks his new wife Jean (Dame Judi Dench) to accompany him to the reunion, and Jean becomes very flustered when she realizes she will only have a couple of hours to get ready. As they are awaiting his ex-wife’s arrival, Lionel and Jean discuss the fact that the latter changed outfits five times before they left the house. And this gives Lionel cause to ask one of those eternal questions which men always find themselves asking the fairer sex: “Why is it that women always feel the need to impress other women?”
Of course, Jean is not the only female figure in British comedy to become flustered around another woman whom she feels may upstage her. One thinks of Sue Brockman (Claire Skinner) in the more recent BBC sitcom “Outnumbered”, for example, who is always being shown up by the woman next door and her seemingly perfect life. Penelope Keith made a career out of playing the type of woman who always tried to get one up on other women, on programs like “The Good Life” and “To The Manor Born”. And of course British literature is full of women engaging in one-upmanship with each other, from Jane Austen to Mrs. Gaskell.
One author with whom my readers may not be familiar in this regard is E.M. Delafield, the pen name of Mrs. Edmee Dashwood. Delafield was the eldest daughter of the Comte de la Pasture, whose family had emigrated to England after the French Revolution, and Elizabeth Bonham, from a British family long involved in colonial affairs and diplomacy. Raised a Catholic, at one time she discerned a vocation to a very strict religious order in Belgium, where she was accepted as a postulant. However she later left, decided to marry Col. Arthur Dashwood, and settled down to country life in Devonshire, where her husband was the manager for the Bradfield Estate; she became a mother to two children.
Beginning in 1930, Delafield began to write a semi-autobiographical account of her experiences as a bourgeois housewife in the country, resulting in her first and probably best novel,” The Diary of a Provincial Lady”. There would be several more novels before Delafield’s premature death in 1943. While all are amusing, the spark and wit of the first provides a classic example of the sometimes very unsubtle battle between women to see who can do things more effortlessly and perfectly.
Delafield’s narrator, the “Provincial Lady” of the title, is almost always on the losing end to her neighbor and “frenemy”, the glamorous Lady Bowe, whom the narrator often refers to as “Lady B.” An excerpt from her diary provides a good example of how Lady B. seemingly excels at sprezzatura, while the Provincial Lady does not:
Hear that Lady Boxe has returned from South of France and is entertaining house-party. She sends telephone message by the butler, asking me to tea to-morrow. I accept. (Why?)
Insufferable behaviour of Lady B. Find large party…Lady B. wears an emerald-green leather coat with fur collar and cuffs. I, having walked down, have on ordinary coat and skirt…Lady B. asks me at tea how the children are, and adds, to the table at large, that I am “A Perfect Mother”. Am naturally avoided, conversationally, after this, by everybody at the tea-table. Later on, Lady B. tells us about South of France. She quotes repartees made by herself in French, and then translates them.
This is just one example of the endless, running battle between the Provincial Lady and her nemesis-neighbor.
Of course, Castiglione’s concept of sprezzatura means not only doing something well, but also doing it so well that it seems effortless. The irony that goes unperceived by Delafield’s Provincial Lady is that Lady B. is, in fact, utterly lacking in sprezzatura. She tries to put on airs and snobbery, but she makes colossal mistakes in manners, planning events, and giving back-handed compliments. She is a combination of bad faith and underachievement, rather than a paragon of accomplishment and grace, but appearances blind the Provincial Lady and others to Lady B’s shortcomings as a courtier.
In fact, Castiglione goes through a long list of women in his “Book of the Courtier” whom he expects his female readers to try to emulate as they search for that goal of sprezzatura in their way of living. Some of these ladies are powerful and famous, yes, but some are ordinary women of ordinary or reduced circumstances. Toward the end of his list, Castiglione mentions the recently-exiled Queen of Naples,
who, after the loss of her kingdom, the exile and death of her husband King Federico, and of two children, and the captivity of her first-born, the Duke of Calabria, still shows herself to be a queen, and so endures the grievous burdens of bitter poverty as to give all men proof that although her fortunes are changed, her rank is not.
I refrain from mentioning countless other ladies, and also women of low degree; like many Pisan women, who in the defense of their city against the Florentines displayed that generous daring, without any fear of death, which might have been displayed by the most unconquerable souls that have ever been on earth; wherefore some of them have been celebrated by many noble poets.
Thus, Castiglione holds feminine virtue, of showing courage in the face of difficult circumstances, and acting out of love at all times, as embodying the ideals of womanhood. These qualities give him, as a mere man, encouragement to try to do the same, but also to protect women, who very often are in need of protection. In the present, topsy-turvy world in which we live such a notion will no doubt be rejected by many.
Yet throughout the centuries it is the ladies who have shown us how to act with that sprezzatura, that effortless grace, which is a hallmark of someone making the most of their circumstances, great or reduced as they may be. Should they decide to occasionally compete with one another, it is only because all human beings are flawed, regardless of their sex. Castiglione would hold that it is their favor, and their example, which makes not only sprezzatura, but civilization itself, possible.