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Charis, Lake Ediza, California, 1937, by Edward Weston
Miss Blythe was a genteel woman who spent her spinster days preparing young ladies for their debut in society. She taught them to curtsey, to maintain perfect deportment, to dress for the occasion, to know how to respond to young gentlemen and countless other so important politenesses. Decorum was everything to her and the grand ladies who trusted their daughters to her expert tuition were always delighted with her results.
Sitting demurely was something she insisted on. ‘Ankles should be crossed at the ankle, hands folded in laps – there should be no fidgeting,’ she instructed. ‘If you are overheated, employ your fan, but be aware of the language of the fan.’
The young ladies smirked at each other, careful not to let Miss Blythe see, for smirking was a lower-class habit and not to be encouraged. At the beginning of each season she was pleased to see her protégées depart for their sparkling lives of privilege and rich marriage and thought of her own mother’s exhortations to her as a young woman.
Miss Blythe’s origins were humble in the extreme. Her mother, a washerwoman, had wished great things for her daughter. ‘I don’t want you falling the same way what I did,’ she said. ‘Just you remember, my girl, keep your ‘and on your ‘a’penny. Save yerself for someone what deserves yer.’
‘Yes, ma,’ said Ethel Blythe and worked hard to discover the correct way of doing things, the way the toffs, as her mother called them, did them.
She did well, Ethel Blythe, and though she may never have made the leap across the classes as her mother had hoped, she lead a comfortable though husbandless life nonetheless. As she exhorted her young ladies to sit decorously, her mother’s words often sprang to her lips to be bitten back before expression.
‘A girl’s legs are her best friends,’ her mother always said, ‘And best friends should never be parted.’
‘Just once,’ she thought, ‘I wonder what it would have been like?’