The following paragraph, from C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, contained the germ of my idea.

The Electress Magdalena Sybilla [of Saxony] was a woman of character, virtuous, kind, conventional and managing. Her insight was limited; she believed that Lutheranism was right, that the lower orders should know their place and that a public fast was a seemly way of meeting a political crisis. She controlled the Electoral children and the Electoral household admirably and was partly responsible for the close sympathy engendered between her husband and his people, being one of the first princesses to recognize the importance of a middle-class standard of respectability in building up the prestige of a royal family.

 - Book-of-the-Month-Club, 1995 (reprint of 1938 edition), p. 61.

It seemed no accident to me that centuries would pass before any Catholic ruler arrived at the Electress’s insight. Respectability, when you stop and think about it, reeks of Reform. The Puritans were all about respectability; their sober demeanor was but a rehearsal for the solemnity of salvation.

When I was a boy, in the 50s, respectability was plainly synonymous the good standing in the community that’s earned by good behavior and decent appearance. It was never a matter of wealth. Even in those latter days there was the sense that truly rich people lived either above respectability or outside it, like gangsters. Poverty was incompatible with respectability only insofar as it couldn’t afford the upkeep. Now, nobody knew what the point of respectability was; like virtue, it was thought to be its own reward. But it was never truly a virtue, and everybody knew that. Virtue is never so preoccupied with putting up a good front. Young people, embryo hippies and BOBOs, claimed that respectability was nothing but a front, and that respectable were hypocrites even if they didn’t do anything improper in the privacy of their own homes.

Some will argue, inevitably, that respectability was a power tool. Those who could afford it disenfranchised those who couldn’t, or exploited it to set themselves above them. Perhaps. This sort of argument, and the thinking behind it, requires a taste for conspiracy that I don’t have, so I will grant the point, on the understanding that it explains nothing – nothing about respectability. Certainly it fails to explain the persistent association of respectability with sobriety, with dark and gloomy colors, with bland food and pallid entertainments. With a hush that can only be called ostentatious. There was nothing enviable about respectable style from the point of view of the poor, and it might be argued that respectability survives only as an object of Afro-American scorn.

For respectability is dead. Dead and gone and unlamented. When people long for the good old days, they forget how oppressively respectable those good old days were. When did it die? Respectability collapsed when divorce became respectable – when, that is, the divorced women was no longer déclassée.

We may ask: why is respectability never fun? That’s the key characteristic. There are sober, even humorless people in every society. But I don’t think that humorlessness has ever been so organized, so institutionally propped up.

‘Respectability’ is a quality achieved by following many rules diligently and some absolutely. When we look at the absolute ones, the rules that, if broken, will terminate the quality or one’s eligibility for it, we find that they are all essential to the introduction of women into the religious company of men.

Catholic priests, as hardly needs saying, lived apart from women. Not only did they not marry, but they – an interesting question: could a medieval cure have a female housekeeper? There were communities of religious women, to be sure. But these were invariably monastic. Beguinage. There was no such thing as a religious woman of the world, in the sense that a parish priest or a high church official was a religious man of the world. There was a vulgar idea that women could not be religious unless they’d been sequestered. Was there? Whether or not, there was the idea that there were no religious women of the world fit to live with priests. As I’ve put it, the matter seems hypothetical. It would take the Reformation to make it a practical puzzle.

For in the Reformation, men of god began to marry. (October 2000)

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press

Write to me