cherchez la femme

In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, one of the most popular books in Ireland was Hester Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, Addressed to a Lady. This exciting read was a 'Conduct Book', one of a genre of books that purport to educate the reader on social norms.

Conduct books had been around for many years, but became especially popular in the eighteenth century with the growth of the middle classes. Learning the rules - from how to educate one’s children to how to make proper a curtesy - offered readers of conduct books a way to improve their own station in life through imitating the behavior of their 'betters'.

Helpful topics covered were 'Directions to read gracefully' and 'The Benefit of Thinking' and 'Directions in a choice of husband' as well as recipes and instructions for cooking and cleaning. While a large number of these books were written by men, many were written by women - either a named author or an anonymous 'Lady'. This author character would serve as the readers' guide.

Last week I mentioned Marie-Laure Ryan's Avatars of Story, and wrote how she suggests that having a character with whom readers can identify greatly increases the narrative properties of a story. I began to wonder if I too should have a female character, someone to personify the advice provided in my Guide. This character could travel through the magazine, getting excited at the planning, then slightly stressed with all the planning, appearing triumphant on the night of the party dressed in finery, possibly eating too much and feeling full, maybe getting a little tipsy and finally, falling down exhaustedly in the final pages.

I could see the charm of using such a device. But who would my character be? where would I find her? And then I realised I actually had a character in my cover portrait of the woman in the red and white striped dress. She appears later, devastated at the tragic discovery of some freckles - still wearing her red and white striped dress....hang and white striped dress....this is ringing a bell......

Have I been secretly channeling Milly Molly Mandy all this time? Milly Molly Mandy whom I ridiculed last week and immediately felt so guilty? Milly Molly Mandy whom I loved as a child?

Is my guide character actually Milly Molly Mandy?

By Jove, I think it is!

Ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured to present, your guide for all matters or etiquette, polite behaviour and social gentility, Lady Millicent Margaret Amanda.

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