Reverence

curtsyI 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.

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*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…

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Reverence — 3 Comments

  1. A gentleman actually was supposed to bow to the lady first. Later that became a tip of the hat. Gentlemen were also presented to ladies, not the other way around.

    The bow was taught as a mark of respect and politesse, according to the old manuals on polite behavior, though there were certainly degrees of bows. It’s interesting, in fact, to read Jane Austen closely and mark the various types of bows in meetings. (And also how people gather in a room; how everyone knew the principal speaker, or best place in the room, and grouped themselves according to rank. I wonder if this was a habit instilled because of the strictness of rank precedence when the hostess led the way to the table at dinner, even at home.)

  2. When you consider that nobody is allowed to turn their back on the queen of England, that they back up facing her… I can see that the recovery from a curtsey is a reclaiming of status. Wasn’t there a time when a woman stayed in a curtsey until she was told she could rise by the monarch?