A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages to deserve the word [accomplished]; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions …
Few writers have produced a shrewder or wittier social commentary on the role of women at the turn of the nineteenth century than Jane Austen. Her novels garnered critical acclaim and financial reward, though of course as a woman she could only publish them under a pseudonym.
Like most incurably romantic young girls I suppose, I was a great fan of her work and through it built my understanding of what it meant to be a lady. I daydreamed my way through most of high school, escaping to a Georgian era of lavish gowns, satin gloves, and handwritten love notes. I scoffed at the twenty-first century I was stuck in, convinced I would have been much happier as a tea-sipping lady swept off her feet by a dashing gentleman on horseback.
Today, as I examine the matter more seriously, I wonder whether I really would have enjoyed being a woman in Austen’s times. Back then, and up until not too long ago, the grandest dream a lady could aspire to was to ‘serve the political and social needs of the republic by dedicating [her] energies to the creation of healthful and nurturing households.’ That meant cooking, cleaning, and providing one’s husband with the progeny through which the illustrious family name would endure. And perhaps a little embroidery if there was time to spare.
Being pretty was of course an essential prerequisite to the acquisition of said validating husband, second only to the possession of an adequate fortune. And if you could not marry and happened to be poor, then you could be a scullery maid, a nun, or a prostitute.
Forget about getting an education, seeing the world, writing a book, starting a business. If you wanted to be a lady, those were the rules.
Except that rules are very enticing things to break.
In sixteenth century Renaissance Italy, there actually were women who read, wrote, maintained elevated conversations on philosophy and art, and even influenced politics. They were called courtesans; ‘prostitutes with a courtly, wealthy, or upper-class clientele.’ The most legendary of these was Venetian writer and poetess Veronica Franco, one of the first women ever published to write about gender rights. Society thought her ‘vulgar and unchaste,’ but lady or not, it was she who persuaded one of her lovers, French king Henri III, to supply Venice with a fleet of ships to ward off a Turkish invasion.
Another woman who broke the rules and became one of the first female entrepreneurs of modern times is Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, otherwise known as la veuve Clicquot. At the turn of the nineteenth century, when her husband’s death left her at the head of a failing wine business in the middle of a continental economic crisis, the young widow perfected a novel technique to develop champagne and overcame an allied blockade against Russia to ship her 1811 vintage bottles to Saint Petersburg. French society called her a bitch,
but she built an empire whose yellow label trademark became a symbol of luxury and elegance that persists today.
Even Jane Austen, who said herself that she lived in an age in which the man’s role was to ‘provide for the support of the woman’ and the woman’s was ‘to make the home agreeable to the man,’ never married, never had children, and worked.
These women were no ladies in the traditional sense, and up until the wave of women’s suffrage in the middle of the twentieth century, they were even considered second-class citizens. But they were powerful and feared, because at some point they each decided not to be something, but to be someone.
Coco Chanel, another woman who didn’t play by the rules, said: ‘My life didn't please me, so I created my life.’
Today Jane Austen is dead, women can vote, and I can write under my own name. We have moved from sipping tea to making champagne, and it is time to revisit our understanding of what a lady really is. A lady is defined not by her looks, wealth, or marital status, but by her substance.
This is not a post on feminism. It is a man’s world, and God do we love our men. But our men deserve more than empty-headed porcelain dolls hanging on their arm. I learned that from a great lady, a woman who loved and married, cooked and cleaned, raised four children and worked full time, traveled the world, read and wrote, and got a PhD. A woman of substance who, in grace and in adversity, always found the will to smile and the time to have a cup of tea with me. To you Mamy.