Friday, April 15, 2011

Queen Victoria Meets Paula Deen

I was talking to my husband this week about the pitfalls of living in the American South. He was born in Tennessee but didn't grow up here. I was born in Canada but spent my childhood here. Between us we are born and raised in the sticky sweet confines of The South.

But really, we are outsiders. I never considered myself to be an outsider until this week. I was aware at a young age that I didn't quite understand the Nashvillians with whom I shared parks, church pews, and Mason jars of iced tea. But why shouldn't I feel at home here? My parents, grandparents, ancestors and kin have haunted the hills of nearby areas for centuries. And then, it hit me. I am of Appalachian descent, not Southern. They are close in geography but ever so far apart in nearly every other way.

Presently, I'm not going to detail the myriad differences between those living in the South and those in Appalachia. Perhaps another day.

When the realization hit me that I am NOT Southern but Appalachian,  I searched for a way to describe the subtlety.

"Living in the South," I exclaimed "is like living in Victorian England!"

"Mmmhmmm...." Austin mused.

" have to know where the lines of power are and who leads whom without addressing anything deeper than your mint julep! And it is assumed that you know what to say on what occasion with the proper hat and gloves already in place. There are no lessons, just trials. You pass or you fail, and you are rarely given another chance should you be so unlucky as to don the wrong head accessory."

"Sounds like a blog to me!" Austin said. "Perhaps a controversial one, but as it isn't about me, go for it!"

If you have read my work for any amount of time, you are aware that I love, adore, am passionate about and border on obsessive in the area of history. European history, so much the better. History of England? I would have the Union Jack tattooed somewhere if my somewhere didn't have stretchmarks.

I have no pretense about the sordid history of England. She has been a raper, a pillager, a snooty upper crust perpetuator of a false class system. However, she has also been the mother of Shakespeare, the bearer of Jane Austen, and the cornerstone of some of history's greatest achievements. She is, like us, to be taken with her faults and her gifts.

Victorian England is a subject of much interest. Some love the speech and the restrained, refined social interactions. Some simply love the decor, and we must remember that it isn't proper to point out the bad tastes of others.

I have read quite a number of books about Queen Victoria, after whom this period is named. The longest reigning monarch to date, she was quite a formidable woman. And yet, she was quite uncharacteristic of any English monarchs before her, king or queen.

I quite respect Queen Victoria in many ways, as I feel that she rose to greatness because it was thrust upon her. She acted for her country, and her life was given in service the country. I've written sufficient praise about her, which you can read to know that I am not gossopmongering about her personally.

Queen Victoria reigned over an England that was changing. Unlike her reigning uncles before her, Victoria followed a rather strict moral code that went far and beyond things that I would think are moral. It seems that she fairly well exuded strictness, and expected those around her to comply. Even on happy occasions, she wanted solemnity to be observed as the point rather than the byproduct.

Hear her thoughts on marriage: "A marriage is no amusement but a solemn act, and generally a sad one.” Ah yes, Queen Victoria, the great lover of love.

But enough about the lady. She was, I believe, simply leading and yet reflecting the shifting culture in her realm. Those living in Victorian England were hyper aware of their class, your class, your brother-in-law's class, and the class from which your equerry hailed. It wasn't a point of polite interest, but of essential understanding of your person.

It was assumed that everyone was aware to which class they belonged, and that they wouldn't dare operate outside the system Handed Down By God to Govern The Masses. It is somewhat amazing to the modern American that such a system was not only recognized, but followed by members of upper AND lower classes! It is no stretch to determine why the peasant revolts eventually broke out in various countries in various centuries when such a system was present. For the most part, however, the general population ratified through their actions and adherence that the wiser and stronger were born to look after the coarser, weaker-minded peoples. More importantly, these wiser and stronger came not by character but by birthright. If my mother was a scullery maid, I could hope to rise not much higher than scullery maid. I might make it to a higher class of servant, but there would be no pretense of my becoming Lady or Duchess of Nameyourshire.

What does this have to do with Junior League?  I'm glad you asked!

Though the South is decidedly part of the new millennium, it acts as though it has bodily memory of the past. Racism isn't tolerated except when it is, sexism is actually encouraged, and religious beliefs are judged by a rule book that I can't seem to find in any library.

Everyone is welcome, but not all opinions are. You are to know your place even when all outward appearances point to equality.

Are you on a panel to judge curriculum for your kid's school? Unless your mother wears pearls and high heels to meet friends over cocktail hour at the country club, your opinion doesn't actually matter. You get to say your peace they way your child gets to say what they want for dinner. You will be listened to and chucked under the chin, but your thoughts are no more than a way to comply with the modern need for diversity.

Believe that you can wear what you want to church? Remember when to wear your whites! Are your shoulders showing? What would Jesus think? What would Queen Victoria?! You can wear exactly what The Cool Debutante is wearing and still be flat-out wrong because you polished your nails with pink instead of blushing rose.

Things that stink aren't to be acknowledged. One would rather run naked through Piccadilly Circus than notice an unpleasant odor in the room. God and Queen forbid that anyone be asked if they need to use the loo.

Money is vulgar and common. This is true not because money is actually vulgar, but because one is to have so much of it that to mention or inquire the cost of anything is viewed as base and terribly low-class.

Though I love the history of Victorian England, I find that I am increasingly uncomfortable in the society that embraces her least appealing aspects. I would rather we ask for intellect and greater understanding of science than the protocol for when a lower ranking royal sits next to you at tea. I don't care so much for the white gloves unless they are in a history book, and I truly don't care from which class you hail.

Don't beat me, but there are few things I enjoy about living in the U.S. One of these is the idea that you can become what you want to be, what you think you are called to. I could be a doctor if I felt that fate was blowing me that way. I could be a chef. I could stay at home with my kids. But it is up to me. I have a choice, even when I really don't have a choice. I stay at home with my kids, but I don't have to because that's the only thing acceptable for a woman of my age and understanding.

Freedom of thought lies behind the freedom of choice. Sometimes we act on it, at other times we don't. But the ability to choose to act is the important aspect.

It is said that the Founding Fathers were fighting for this idea because it was the pinnacle of their grievances. Whether or not this is true is a moot point. The country embraces the idea, and it is one of the few things left to America that make her a great nation.

Hopefully the South will catch on and participate sometime soon. It takes awhile for news and history to waft into the sultry decks of the Plantation bourgeoisie. Their air is still thick with honeysuckle and the songs of Negro women in the fields. They might be shocked to discover that the world went on without them, and they are clinging to a dying mentality.

It was the severity of the Victorian age that gave way to the short hair, short skirts, and short tempers of the next generation. The children of white gloved ladies threw off their nets and went out into the wide world to discover who they were. It had little to do with class, and it won't have anything to do with mint juleps.

Queen Victoria, meet Paula Deen. Y'all have lots to talk about.


kimberlywenger said...

I've lived in the south since I was 12 years old, but still haven't seemed to grasp the unspoken rules and am very tired of being chucked on the chin. If I write anything more, I will probably regret it, so I'll stick with - Good post, Tiffany!

Anonymous said...

I was born & lived my first years in the American west. Moved to the south at age 9 whereupon my aunts decided I must learn the proper way to walk, talk, dress, etc. I remember their schooling me on these matters as though it were of utmost importance and feeling ashamed when I missed the mark. Mind you, the family was not high society by any stretch but placed great value on adhering to the proper ways a lady behaves. I confess to having adopted a lot of these rules for myself so that I must certainly qualify as a Southerner. Having said that, I find snobbery, chucking an adult under the chin, and holding others to one's personal values to be a contradiction of all that a truly gracious southern lady holds dear (at least one who names the name of Christ).