Flat White

In praise of the grande dame

19 March 2017

1:44 PM

19 March 2017

1:44 PM

Last week I attended an event in Brisbane that brought out lovers of art, local personalities, philanthropists, and many considered the fabric of our city. Amongst this group were women of style, wit and wisdom, retired business and professional women and doyens of society.

As I moved amongst and talked to these women I realised that most were over 70 and also that there seemed to be none following in their footsteps. If you take ‘grande dame’ to apply to women who held influence and power within organisations and society then they are a dying breed.

Yet they seemed to be everywhere when I was in my late teens and was introduced to the mothers of boyfriends. As a young business woman, they were both my mentors and my clients. A few were my friends some were family members. Some were amongst the first Australian business women, some were professionals; one I knew ran the school tuck shop, another ran the local pony club; many were on properties out west and others held sway at social clubs. They had poise, wit and wisdom – and wielded considerable power.

We have just endured another International Women’s Day (or something with a similar title – I am sooo over the feminists) which I thought might have honoured some of these women of the past and the few still standing but no, not a mention. The sad truth is that we aren’t making grande dames anymore. Why? Because they held strong opinions – of people, family members, places, events, politics and politicians, sports, food, fashion, the arts, animals… really everything that called for an opinion would have a grande dame taking a defined position on it.

Now, these weren’t opinions that grande dames felt they needed to keep to themselves for fear of causing offence as they readily both physically intoned and publicly voiced them. There was the raised eyebrow, the sniff, the turned shoulder and the withering or pointed comment. The power bestowed could be uplifting or diminishing.

Grande dames could thus provide physical and emotional support; valuable introductions to acquaintances of influence; advice from experience; an overview of character and recommendations towards the future or a damning report on anyone and anything not of their approval. From heads of state to vamps of stage and screen they were very much a force to be reckoned with.

Now we live in an anaemic world that celebrates dull concepts such as ‘niceness’ and the insipid 18c mantra of non-offence. Women must now have their ‘filter’ always turned on lest they come out with a truth that might be hurtful. Really? When did the blood sucker of personalities get through the fly screens to turn women into placard-wielding zombies? Or platitudinous palliators? Or, worse than that, send them off with the infection of the ‘niceness’ and ‘fairness’ virus into our schools and universities.

This is all very ‘now’, very group ‘consensus’, mislabelled as ‘progressive’ political correctness and very managed by the non-representative ABC, Guardian and Fairfax and the curse of social media. Out with individual wit and In with crowd ‘think’.

Somewhere along this ‘progressive’ path towards ‘correctness’ is the ignorant and totally wrong assumption that good manners should follow that tedious aphorism “If you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all”. Yawn. Yet it was a proper gentleman, the Earl of Chesterfield, who advised his son in one of his astute letters ‘A gentleman is one who never gives offence unintentionally’ (there is a later version by Oscar Wilde).

Grande dames, more comfortable with conversation than their male counterparts, totally got this advice which turns the modern take on manners on its head. From this mid-eighteenth century quote through to the mid-twentieth century a lady or a gentleman (of whatever social caste) was defined as someone who chooses, with fine precision, when to intentionally offend.

Or, in other words, to be well-mannered was to be particular in your selection of whom or what to offend or praise. This is of course quite anathematic to the current sanitised and homogenised code of civility being promoted by Tim Soutphommasne (our Race Discrimination Commissioner) and the very sour Gillian Triggs of the Australian Human Rights Commission. No spark of wit or clever repartee coming from this dour pair to shift focus on an issue as they slavishly look for insult everywhere under their publicly sponsored canopy of 18C umbrage.

It is as if a pernicious anaemia has bleached out the shadings of social castes and their diverse behaviours and replaced this with a pale, one-shade-suits-all presumption, policed by the Hurt Feelings Brigade, that good manners require an approved commonality of socially ‘sensitive’ interactions and public comments. We have replaced the selectivity inherent in manners with feigned ‘inclusivity’ mannerisms.

There are many railing about this political pap but there is another issue at stake here. We are losing our characteristic wit and cheekiness under the heavy ‘fake sugar’ coating of PC saccharine. Especially, it seems, the forked and sharpened tongues of women are now well and truly tied and the required ‘filter’ so fine that no quotable, satiric scold gets through because it won’t be ‘inspirational’ or ‘aspirational’. Matriarchs are now being relegated to bygone days when their pithy ‘bon mots’ were admired, quoted and allowed.

Here are some from the many quotes. Just think what trouble these girls would be in today in Australia:

Elizabeth 1:


“Those that would appear most sanctified are the worst.” (Read leaders of many religions).

“Where minds differ and opinions swerve there is scant a friend in that company. Where might is mixed with wit, there is too good an accord in that company.” (And wit and good company is being suffocated by ‘progressive’ consensus).

Mae West:

“Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?” (Definitely a case of sexual harassment.)

“I speak two languages: Body and English.” (Is this cultural imperialism?)

“A hard man is good to find.” (Both sexual and physical discrimination.)

Bette Davis:

“The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her downstairs in ‘Whatever happened to Baby Jane’.” (Bullying requiring a long programme of counselling.)

“There are new words now that excuse everybody. Give me the good old days of heroes and villains, the people you can bravo or hiss. There was a truth to them that all the slick credulity of today cannot touch.” (That says it all, Bette.)

“Hollywood always wanted me to be pretty but I fought for realism.” (Realism is way out of fashion.)

“If you have never been hated by your child you have never been a parent.” (Could be jailed for this.)

“It is a sign of your worth sometimes if you are hated by the right people.” (Rest in peace, Bill Leak.)

“Gay Liberation? I ain’t against it – it is just that there is nothing in it for me!” (Some perspective at last.)

“She was the original good time that was had by all.” (Bette would be sued today.)

“From the moment I was six, I felt sexy. And, let me tell you, it was hell, sheer hell, waiting to do anything about it.” (Bette would be locked-up for sexually perverting herself.)

“The only way you can become a legend is in your coffin.” (Australia is making one right now.)

“If everybody likes you, you are pretty dull” and “Evil people, you never forget them.”

“There comes a time in every woman’s life when they only thing that helps is a glass of champagne.”(I‘ll raise a glass to that.)

Katherine Hepburn:

“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.” (Subversive advice not to be taught at schools.)

“Enemies are so stimulating.” (Has a certain Islamic ring to it doesn’t it?)

“I never realised until lately that women are meant to be the inferior sex.” (Who started that myth?)

Dorothy Parker:

“You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks”. (Excellent advice for all the ‘multi-cultural inclusiveness’ that is just not working anywhere.)

Margaret Thatcher:

“If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time and you would achieve nothing.” (NB, Malcolm!)

“The trouble with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” (But Labour and the Greens will have a big expensive party on the way.)

“One of the great problems of our age is that people care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.”

Yep, like Pooh Bear we now have heads full of fluff.

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