Thursday, 30 April 2015

Girls about to get married, parlourmaids, and Hillary Clinton


I spotted the above in the window of a second-hand bookshop in Lyme Regis. The 'bedroom scene' is hardly 'naughty', but it is meant to be humorous. Let's have a closer look.


The half-hidden caption says 'Never let him see you in your [just-out-of-bed state?] or without MAKE UP!' And there is an obvious joke here, because of course this very attractive, eager-to-please, wide-eyed young lady, immaculately turned out in her scarlet silk dressing gown, stylishly coiffured hair, pearls, and full make-up, would look pleasant if dressed in sackcloth, and her face smeared with coal dust. It's totally unnecessary advice. This kind of over-the-topness was funny in the 1950s, when a man might well expect his wife to bring him a cup of tea in the morning, but not in her pearls. It's even funnier now, when a man being brought tea in bed is a rarity, and a classy performance like this would be done only as a gag.

But there is another joke. She has got up early to pander adoringly to her man - but he isn't the handsome virile young chap in a dragon-design kimono that you would expect. He's a nondescript middle-aged man with a boozy red nose and thinning hair, clad in boring striped pyjamas buttoned up to the chin, and clearly a tabloid reader to boot. In older seaside postcards he'd be the hapless hen-pecked husband, bullied by a gigantic fat wife. Now he has a compliant lovely to wait on him. The worm has somehow turned, and the dog is having his day. And why oh why has she shackled herself to him? It's so totally ludricrous that, again, it makes you smile.

There's more yet. The postcard is headed 'Advice to girls about to get married!' So they aren't yet man and wife - merely betrothed. This is the 1950s, remember: a woman flitting in and out of a man's bedroom was the stuff of risqué farces on stage - so what then is she doing in his bedroom like this? The straightforward reply is that she is keeping him on the hook with this excellent attention to his early-morning needs. But perhaps she is innocent, and hasn't yet realised that he might have other, darker, needs too; and that she is in for an abrupt disillusionment on her honeymoon. Some 1950s women would have chortled grimly at the thought. Yes, she'd learn soon enough, just as they had. Men were all the same.

This wasn't the only 'naughty' thing on display in the bookshop window. There was a book devoted to the raffish humour in men's magazines of the 1890s. This featured a cartoon on the front cover:


It is quite funny. A young parlourmaid dusts a portrait hung on a wall, and her pert thrusting bosom brushes unconsciously against the face of the noble chappie in the picture. He smiles broadly, and his eyes twinkle, just as a real man of the time might have, if a pert bosom were pushed right under his nose. The older man in the adjacent picture shows envious disapproval on his face. Clearly she didn't get so deliciously close to him! It just shows that men in portraits have an inner life you would never suspect, and they respond to a little titillation!

However, there must have been a context. I do wonder whether in real life - in establishments for men (such as clubs and gaming houses) - ogling and handling the female staff was a constant problem, and could sometimes verge on the offensive. Even if there were club rules about not spanking the bottoms of passing waitresses - to avoid scandal, of course - what exactly went on behind closed doors in big private houses? When did naughty become nasty?

It's no coincidence of course that the humorous depiction of household women in 1950 (as essentially servants, however glamorous) wasn't much different from their humorous depiction in 1890. Men were still the bosses. Women were subservient, and waited on them, and were their toys. That has taken a long time to change. I remember a woman I knew in the 1970s, older than me and already in her thirties, telling me about a visiting male cousin, who had sat around all day reading the paper and not lifting a finger to help her prepare meals or wash up afterwards. Apparently his attitude was that 'men don't do housework'. This was bad enough, but she flipped when he said to her 'Make me a cup of tea, would you?' with no 'please', and without looking up from his paper. He got a stinging 'Make it yourself!' - and of course the visit turned awkward thereafter, and was never to be repeated.

I hear that nowadays the average man pulls his weight much more in the house. That's the average younger man. I see my nephew doing it. But I'm not certain that a sixty or seventy year old chappie would shift himself. That's one big reason why I wouldn't want to get entangled with an older man: the likely 'not my department' attitude. Well, I am much more than just a potential tea-maker and general slave - or tireless nurse.

Finally, an example of modern, 2015 humour - the front cover of last week's Private Eye:


Hillary Clinton (confidently): It's time to have a woman in the Oval Office!
Bill Clinton (smiling down at her): Been there, done that!

And we all know what he's referring to: a certain intern, and certain episodes that put a fresh slant on 'having a woman in the Oval Office'. Mr Clinton had to leave the White House. But despite the scandal, and despite the excoriating revenge Hillary must have threatened him with, and the promises and future pledges she doubtless extracted from him, he has ever since been a charismatic figure. In a strange way his misbehaviour enhanced his reputation. As ever, a man caught with red blood in his veins is a man who has proved something positive about himself. Even though he may be as guilty as hell. Bill Clinton has retained his aura of dangerous charm right up to today - and I dare say that if I were offered the chance to meet and talk to him, I would not decline. I would be most intrigued. And I imagine I would find it a very interesting and enlightening experience.

But back to the Private Eye front cover. Who is being laughed at? Bill Clinton? No, I think it's Hillary. She's quite right: it is time there was a woman President. She's the obvious candidate too. But Private Eye makes her out to be an aspiring innocent who will not cope with the temptations and seductions of high office. And we are invited to join in with Bill Clinton's joke, and laugh along with him. Another example then of a woman not being taken seriously. And it's 2015, not 1890.

I have a curious but not entirely unattractive notion. What if Hillary Clinton did become President? And then, not long afterwards, in a post General Election leadership contest over here, Theresa May became Prime Minister? Hmmm.

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