Is that a trick question? Well, I am calling myself The Well-Turned Lady (WTL), but if I am thinking in Jane Austen’s time (Regency Period) then it is a tricky question, indeed. In our more democratic era, the standard for being lady is…well more liberal. Now we can all be ladies if we call ourselves that. However, in Jane’s time it was very clear that most women were not Ladies.
Being well-turned did not happen by accident and did not happen overnight. A Lady was cultivated. This was the great dividing line in English culture. Her Ladyship’s work was becoming a Lady. The rest of them were hoofing it for her and pulling it together for themselves when they could.
In training to be a Lady, it was a given that you would work on your embroidery, your painting, your languages, your dancing -- this was your work. Even In the softening of the class system in America, this did not die completely. Young women who wanted to be respectable wives had their lessons as well. This was the new work of middle class women. It was a matter of course that a young woman would work on these skills. They might also may marry a bully or die in childbirth, but we can’t have everything can we, Dears?
Why does being a Lady even matter? Why should you or I care? For me, the artful life that I desire is not pulling itself together on its own. Nor do I believe it will without a conscious effort to see that happen, and I do not know how to make that happen in my current manner of living.
As a feminist, I am not harkening back to a time of “traditional womanhood” kicks and grins. I am hearkening back to a time when roles were bounded by cultural expectations. Yet, in that boundary a lot of creativity and cultivation could happen. That was a boon, I think. It is a great struggle for me to make this happen in any other way. In having it all, I am too unbounded. I have too much to do in vocation, chores, avocations and self-care. In managing me there is just too much to “just happen” any other way.
You can disagree with me on this, but for some reason the Well-Turned Lady Model makes this all very real to me. To live the model one must know, what constitutes a lady? I can’t say that I have encountered any women who would not be considered ladies now-a-days. However, in the true cultivation model, I know of only one or two women who were actually raised in such a way that their patronage, wealth and lifestyle would actually make them part of the “ton.” Knowing them and hearing about their lives is to meet someone who breathes extremely rarified air.
Beyond the pure, pure air of that world, the model of the Well-Turned Lady became most real to me in fictional worlds. First in learning more about the world Jane Austen lived in, which fascinates me to no end. Second in watching a woman who models what a true lady most likely was -- Lady Mary in Downton Abbey.
Yes, there are issues in the show: too much of a soap opera, too liberal in its depictions of class relationships, etc. However, Lady Mary’s demeanor was something that I had never really understood until “my study” of her. Has there ever been a more entitled woman depicted on television? She acts with true (perhaps selfish) self-regard. In her is a depiction a woman whose sense of what she needs and what she wants is a matter of fact. Her wants supersedes everyone else in her orbit -- no apologies or qualifications. Why would there be? She has been raised to know that what she wants matters and is important; therefore, she need not apologize for wanting it.
For this reason, I am really beginning to think that sense of entitlement is what is ultimately necessary in order to carve out the time to create. Entitlement is very difficult for me. In my life, I have been raised to be a servant and not a lady. I do not know how to give myself the time to cultivate me without feeling like I have to ask permission for it (to no one but my own highly developed super ego). At 46 years old, I am a little tired of it.