Category Archives: Manners


I have a fainting disorder.  Doesn’t that sound Victorian and elegant?  It isn’t.

“Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint!”  — That’s Jane Austen, from Love and Friendship.  As usual, Miss Austen knows what she’s talking about.

Swooning–fainting–was not in vogue during the Regency, at least not the way it was during Victoria’s era, when the swoon was so much a part of society life that there were fainting couches and fainting rooms:

“We must have two dressing-rooms in the third story, one for the gentlemen, one for the ladies–and a little fainting-room besides; the small east room will do for that–we can put in it the easy-chair, with the white batiste cover I brought over from the city, with a pitcher of iced-water, and restoratives, all ready. It is always best, Mrs. Bibbs, to have a pretty little fainting-room prepared beforehand–it makes the thing more complete.” — Susan Fenimore Cooper, Elinor Wyllys

Isn’t that lovely?

Fainting, aka syncope, is a brief loss of consciousness and “postural tone.” In other words: you pass out and fall over. It’s caused by a sudden lowering of blood pressure, and concomitant lack of blood and oxygen to the brain. Not long enough or profound enough to cause damage, just enough to…well, make you faint. In some cases syncope is caused by heart problems or other underlying physical ailment; but sometimes it’s something simpler. The Victorian women who required dedicated couches and rooms to faint in? Likely way too tightly corseted. Having recently built and been laced into a corset, I can tell you that it’s unlikely that Regency corsets caused this sort of problem: the cinching doesn’t feature the waist; it’s designed to push the breasts up. The Victorians, with their fondness for 19″ waists, were more likely to fall over from tight lacing.

You don’t have to lace to fall over, of course. I generally don’t, and yet I have a clinical diagnosis of vaso-vagal syncope. Put simply, sometimes my body over-reacts to a harmless stimulus (a momentary stomach cramp, for example) by going into red alert and reducing blood flow to everything but the core systems; the blood flow to my brain slows wait down, and I fall over. What’s it like to faint? There is nothing delicate and ladylike about it. If you’re smart (which I have finally learned to be) you get down low when you start feeling dizzy; if you don’t you can fall flat on your face. I did this once; it had some unfortunate dental side effects. Crumpling gracefully to the ground requires a lot more “postural tone” than you’re likely to have, and most of that is spent fighting the inevitable. Bonks on the head, the chin, the nose, etc. are likely. As for the faint itself, visually everything contracts and gets fuzzy and gray, like monotone tunnel vision that swallows the world. And there’s a ringing in the ears that gets higher pitched as one gets less conscious.

This is all in a matter of seconds.

Coming out of a faint is different depending on how deep a faint it is. Once I found myself on the floor and thought, for a moment, that I was in bed and was waking from a sound sleep. Other times I’m aware, somehow, that I’ve fainted and that I have to get up and get going, that I can’t stay where I am. The first thing I’m really aware of is that ringing in my ears (I fainted in gym class in high school once and came to with the sound of 35 teen aged girls squealing “what happened! what happened!” sounding like a flock of soprano gulls). Then the sight comes back. Finally, the gross motor tone comes back, and you lumber to your feet and give profuse thanks and apologies to the people around you who have been totally freaked out by your falling over.

I have fainted at the top of the up escalator at an NYC department store; in the ladies’ room of a London cinema; in the coffee shop where I sometimes write; in gym class; on the street a few times; and in a doctor’s office (that was convenient).  None are ideal.  It would be much nicer to have a convenient couch to swoon onto. Preferably with a fainting-room attendant there with a fan and a vinaigrette. Or a nice military man with mustachios to catch me as I slouch gracefully to the ground…

The Sign and Statement of Loss

I have been, for one reason and another, thinking about mourning.  There have been several deaths in our circle this year, and after one of them my daughter chose to wear what I can only call “mourning” to school the next day: black shirt, skirt, stockings, and boots.  Which startled me–only because I don’t know that I’ve ever worn all-black after a death, not from lack of respect, but because I didn’t always have black to wear. When I see a funeral on a TV show, I wonder: do all these people have mourning wardrobes?  Even the little kids are often in little black suits or dresses (despite the advice of Emily Post, who says children of eight and under are never dressed in black).  All this made me wonder about mourning: the why, the what.

The why is both simple and complex: particularly if you are in the decedent’s family, mourning is meant to indicate loss.  Today, when many people wear all black as a fashion statement, that doesn’t work so well except at a funeral.  But you wear mourning, as much as anything else, as a useful social cue: it shows to the people around the mourner that jokes or thoughtless comments are not appropriate.  Mourning could also flag where the mourners were in the grieving process.  Which is where it started getting complex. Continue reading


I have just finished reading Emma Thompson’s screenplay of Sense and Sensibility (which is to say, the final shooting script–Thompson wrote dozens of versions of the screenplay before it was acquired and put into production) and her diary from the shoot*.  She is uniformly witty and down to earth (her comments about zits, hangovers, and feeling like a talentless hack are not only reassuring to the rest of the world–which is to say, to me–but are funny in their own right) and endlessly appreciative of her colleagues on camera and behind the scenes.  I wish I’d been a gofer on that film.

Reading the diary, in particular, reminded me of the extent to which the production of an historical film of good intent (meaning, one that wants to get it right) relies on experts: the horse wrangler who teaches Willoughby how to drive a curricle (the sportscar of its day); the costumers and designers; the dance teachers; and Jane Gibson, “movement duenna and expert on all manners historical,” who taught bearing and manners and the reverence.  By which I mean bowing and curtseying.

During my brief career studying ballet as a kid the first thing Miss Dear (honest to God, it was her name) taught us was the “reverence,” a deep bow which was to be given to her at the beginning and end of each class.  Her class of 7-year-olds mostly teetered and tried not to fall over.  Later, when I took some classes in historic dance, I learned several different reverences: it wasn’t until some time in the 17th century, I believe, that bowing and curtseying split off into sex-differentiated motions.  According to Wikipedia, that font of all wisdom, the curtsey is a gesture of respect from an inferior to a superior.  Hence all those bobbing Victorian maids in the movies (“yes, m’lady.”  **bob**).  Per Thompson:

“We learn the root and meaning of the bows and curtsies–or reverences, as Jane calls them.  As you enter a room you ‘cast a gladdened eye’ about you.  Beautiful phrase….

The bow is the gift of the head and heart.  The curtsy (which is of course a bastardisation of the word ‘courtesy’) a lowering in status for a moment, followed by recovery.”

I had always understood the “lowering in status” part of the reverence, and that a superior may nod or bow less deeply to an inferior, either in dismissal or acknowledgment.  You would bow very deeply–abase yourself–to a King, less deeply to a baron, acknowledging their superior status.  My 21st century feminist self gets the status thing, even if she doesn’t believe in it, but was always troubled by the fact that a gentlewoman curtseyed to a gentleman (I believe in practice she was supposed to curtsey to him, then he would respond with a bow).  The idea of a recovery from that lowering of status pleases me.  “I submit to your authority,” the curtsey says.  Or maybe, “I acknowledge that society places a higher value on your gender than on my own.”  And then the recovery: “But I submit only so far.”  And then the bow, acknowledgement and “gift of the head and the heart”.

It’s easy for me to want to read a taking back of authority in the recovery from a curtsey: I love the past, but I am firmly a creature of now.  One of the great tasks of writing then is to remember that Sarah Tolerance has no Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan or Ms. Magazine in her background; that however independent she is, she’s still a woman of her time, and while she might not feel that the man she’s curtseying to is worthy of her respect, she would still go through the proper forms.  It’s her age, and not mine, that I am playing in.


*I once read excerpts of Thompson’s diary from the movie Junior, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, in which she mentions that he was still so muscle-bound that it was difficult for him to tie his own tie–the muscles literally got in the way.  I was then editing comics, and made sure to mention this to those artists who seemed to think that moving like a gymnast and being built like a fireplug were not incompatible…