Leap Day and The Ladies

In the superb 2007 BBC television production of “Cranford”, based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian novels about a fictional town of that name in the English Midlands, there is a scene in which Miss Deborah Jenkyns, the local Emily Post, and Miss Mary Smith, her young houseguest visiting from Manchester, have a conversation about the latter’s assistance during a complicated emergency surgery which took place the evening before. “Dr Harrison was full of praise for you; he said you were the equal of a man,” Miss Deborah recounts to a surprised Mary. “And I corrected him. No woman is the equal of a man: she is his superior in every single case.”

Despite her assertions, those familiar with the novels or the series know that Miss Deborah generally preferred to stick to the proprieties, and only deviated from them when she felt it absolutely necessary. Today of course is Leap Day, since this is a Leap Year, for those of us using the Gregorian calendar.  And one wonders what her views might have been on the practices of this day, in light of her aforementioned opinions on both propriety and on the role of women.

There are various Western folk traditions of dubious origins surrounding today, but what most had in common was the idea that Leap Day was an occasion upon which a young lady might assert herself somewhat more than what society normally allowed.  For example, she might propose marriage to a man, rather than waiting for him to do so, or she might wear trousers instead of a skirt, and so on.  Since today Western women can propose marriage to men or wear trousers if they feel like it, these traditions do not seem to have much meaning, anymore.

Those of us in our 20’s and 30’s cannot imagine what our grandmothers could and could not do, based on what was considered proper in society. For example, at one time it was once considered incredibly vulgar for a well-bred lady to smoke a cigarette on the street, presumably because she could be mistaken for being ill-bred, or worse. Our grandparents’ generation may have begun the significant changes, beginning with young ladies cutting their hair and their dresses short, or later participating in the war effort during WWII, but our parents’ generation really threw out the idea that there were definite ways in which all ladies ought to behave or appear in public.

One can debate the point as to whether the change has been entirely beneficial. Certainly it is a good thing that the ladies in the room can make their own decisions without seeking permission. It is also a good thing that they are no longer required to obey their male peers as to how they are to think, act, and so on. We are all creatures with free will, and to be constricted into being unable to exercise that free will is something no one, regardless of their sex, truly wishes for themselves.

On the other hand, when generally accepted standards such as behavior and dress are abandoned, we end up with something utterly unappealing. Today when you go to a public place such as the grocery store or the train platform, the general impression is that one has accidentally stumbled into the ladies’ locker room at the local gym, such is the level of déshabillé which one is forced to witness. This is not to say, of course, that the men are any less guilty of crimes against cleanliness and propriety at times, but I suspect the eyes of both sexes are drawn more to the offending female, rather than the male.

As to why this is the case, one could certainly chalk this view up to the often-blamed residual attitudes from the past, though I think this is something of a canard. I doubt that most of us who grew up in the West in the 80’s or 90’s lived in households where our mothers never once wore a pair of jeans or dress trousers, for example, or never saw a lady dressed in such attire, unless we happened to live in some very isolated community where such things were strictly prohibited. Nor does our generation generally have the hang-ups of some in our parents’ generation with respect to the role of women asserting themselves, such as being our bosses in the workplace.

Yet I do think that on the whole, there is something permanently, infinitely laudable about a lady who does value herself highly, enough to demonstrate it by the way she looks and behaves in public. No matter how much society may change, we are pre-programmed to be able to recognize a woman’s respectability at a glance, which has nothing to do with how much money she has spent on her wardrobe. Rather, this has to do with the question of whether the lady thinks about the impact she will have on others.

By no means am I suggesting that women ought to go back to a no-choice choice of being the drudge in the kitchen, or the china doll in the curio cabinet. Yet as much as men are rightly chastised for the myriad of things we do incorrectly, the ladies do not get off scot-free merely because they are the fairer sex. They are very much aware, even if they choose to deny it, that it is they who draw the eye, and they who set the standards.

While admittedly it is far easier for men to pass unnoticed, whether because our choices in plumage are considerably more limited, or because we are simply uninteresting and have little to say or do, let the ladies among us remember: the power to set standards for how we ought to look and behave toward others is firmly in their hands.  It is not limited to Leap Day, Leap Year, or any other holiday.  One hopes that they may use that power for good.


Miss Deborah (Eileen Atkins) considers how best to consume an orange

Sprezzatura Wednesday: Lest We Forget The Ladies

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:

February 11th
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?)

February 12th
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.

Illustration of Lady B. from
E.M. Delafield’s “The Diary of a Provincial Lady”