Bess of Hardwick

Bess of Hardwick


‘And I of ladies most deject and wretched …’

I’m not actually feeling depressed myself: with these words, Ophelia, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, bewails the fact that Hamlet, who has recently been wooing her, is now treating her with utter contempt and has implied that she, because she is a woman, can be no lady, unless a licentious ‘painted’ one. The word ‘lady’ is one I’ve been pondering since, a week ago, we spent two very enjoyable days walking with our friends Priscilla and Rupert and, over breakfast, I told an anecdote from my remote bookselling past, which, briefly, goes like this:

The founder of the small library supply company for which I used to work, who was a First World War veteran and a very old man (I’ll call him ‘Mr Smith’) when I first met him, always stayed at the George Hotel in Stamford on his visits to and from London.  His wife, a formidable lady by all accounts, the eldest of five clannish and strong-willed sisters, was a semi-invalid who spent most of her time at home, engaged in various projects that could be completed from her bed; for example, she taught herself fluent German.  However, when her illness – whatever it was, it always sounded quite vague to me – was in remission, she would occasionally accompany him on his business trips and eventually they checked in together at the George, which is a magnificent old coaching inn and quite grand in its way.  One of the services it has always offered is tea in bed, delivered by a waiter.  On the morning after their arrival, the waiter duly knocked at the door and entered with their tea tray.  The founder’s wife sat up in bed to take it from him.  The founder himself also sat up and the waiter addressed him with the following greeting:

‘Good morning, Mr Smith. Not the usual lady, I see!’

Aside from the fact that I find this very funny – it became one of the company legends – it’s interesting because of its use of the word ‘lady’, always a slipperier noun than its plainer alternative, ‘woman’. My husband was once berated by some female colleagues for saying ‘Good morning, ladies,’ even though, as he pointed out, ‘Good morning, women,’ sounds both comic and slightly disrespectful (and in any case, he added, he always said, ‘Good morning, gentlemen,’ to a group of men). But ‘lady’ is not a straightforward term.  If not used with care, it can be very patronising: why do we refer to ‘dinner ladies’ and ‘cleaning ladies’, but use the terms ‘female’ or ‘woman’ as epithets for women with a recognised profession (policewoman, female barrister, woman MP)?  Would anyone today refer to a ‘lady teacher’ or a ‘lady librarian’?  (There were actually ‘lady librarians’ running the public library service before the Second World War; they were generally women from the upper middle classes, whose families were so well-heeled that the local authorities didn’t need to pay them a salary and, as soon as salaries were introduced, many of these jobs were then taken by men! )  And what of the careers to which women have  been admitted only in more recent times?  Would anyone seriously allude to a lady soldier, a lady bus driver or a lady CEO?  Don’t we all abhor the slimy man who refers to his spouse as ‘the lady wife’?

And yet … amid the hubbub of modern life, we may – sometimes – still wish to be referred to as ‘ladies’.  For example, when a mother with a lively child in tow says to it, ‘Give up your seat to this lady,’ or ‘Be careful, don’t bump into that lady,’  it would be only  the most truculent and militant of us who would correct her and say, ‘Please refer to me as a woman.’  Shops – including online ones – still refer to ‘ladies’ fashions’ and, although some facilities in hotels, restaurants and public places are now marked ‘Men’ and ‘Women’, most still use the more traditional ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Ladies’.  Speechmakers still begin their address with ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ – or sometimes even the grander ‘My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,’ with its delightful implication that all ‘ladies’ are in some way aristocratic.  And most of us are fascinated by the great ladies of the past: Bess of Hardwick, who began life as a ‘woman’ and worked her way up; Lady Castlemaine, one of Charles II’s two most famous mistresses (though the other, Nell Gwynne, was definitely a ‘woman’); and two scintillating Duchesses of Devonshire, each quite different from the other –  Georgiana, the eighteenth century holder of that title, and the recently-deceased Deborah, chatelaine of Chatsworth House, who was born a lady and became a greater one.

Listing some of these ladies, however, brings out another connotation of the word: it can be and often is very closely associated with the oldest profession. Thus the deliciously evocative  ‘ladies of the night’, ‘his lady-friend’ (meaning ‘not his wife’) and a ‘lady no better than she should be’, a term much favoured by my grandmother, usually delivered with a flash of the eye and a pulling-down of her skirt over her knees, as if to imply that her virtue, at least, was safe.

I return to Ophelia. One of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic heroines, she is portrayed both as the ultimate virgin and, after her madness sets in, as a foul-mouthed woman conversant with sexual practices unbefitting a ‘maid’.  ‘Lady’ is a word she uses frequently.  She herself embodies its ambiguity, and by extension the double entendre of the word itself. It is an equivocation which today’s women, who in this country have almost but not quite achieved equality and in many others are still fighting a tough uphill battle to get anywhere near it, often resent.  Are we ladies or women?  Does the word ‘lady’ still have a place in our society?  What of its counterpart, ‘gentleman’? But that, perhaps, raises a wholly different topic!

I’ll leave the penultimate word to Ophelia:

‘Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night.

And the last to myself:

Or, perhaps, ‘Good-bye, Ladies? Hello, Women?’  Words, words, words!