Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice. The Good Wife’s Guide (1955)
Place a pillow over his head and hold it there until he promises to do at least one household chore a month.
Celia Riverbark, Bless Your Heart, Tramp: And Other Southern Endearments (2006)
My husband fell in love with a creative woman. “Creative” is Southern Lady Code for slob.
Helen Ellis, Southern Lady Code (2019)
Florence King, in her bestselling Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, writes vividly of her years on her grandmother’s “anvil”. Disappointed but not too discouraged by having failed to chisel her own daughter into a lady, Granny had set her sights on the young Florence or ‑ as she saw the infant ‑ a fledgling Southern belle.
Over three decades she tirelessly instructed her granddaughter in how to be perfectly put together, have nice manners, ooze charm and ignore anything unpleasant; the importance of good silver, fine china and place settings were hammered home; the delights of crochet versus the downsides of book-reading and the life-or-death importance of writing thank-you notes were regularly noted; as was – cue ominous tone ‑ the certain fate that awaited the girl who Went Too Far.
So did all those years in Granny’s hot forge pay off? Some of that Southern code stuck, but not as much as the older woman might have hoped. “Whether she succeeded in making a lady out of me is for you to decide,” King wrote years later in the prologue to her memoir, “but I will say one thing in my own favor before we begin. No matter which sex I went to bed with, I never smoked on the street.”
To the uninitiated, the women who hail from south of the Mason-Dixon line come in a bewildering range. Even social anthropologists have their work cut out trying to decipher the stereotypes, the subgroups, their mores and, oh my blessed Lord, those extreme good manners; that ability to pour Southern charm over just about anything.
For fictional belles, usually stock characters straight from central casting, think of feisty Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind; the impetuous Julie Marsden, played by Bette Davis in Jezebel; fragile Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire and desperate Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.
Many present-day Southern women still take their antebellum credentials very seriously indeed, though others do not. For every fluttering ingénue there’s a bluestocking, or so you’d hope. The dos and don’ts of this “lady code”, passed down from generation to generation, would make your head spin. Devotees know when not to wear white shoes or pearls, and that smoking and drinking in public is as infra dig as it gets. She never – nevah – chews gum in public, because that’s just cheap. And when a Southern lady wants to say something unpleasant about someone, she prefaces it with “Why bless her heart” or (and I’m not making this up) “Please pray for her”. But even when a bona fide lady does break the rules, y’all can be certain she does so with uncommon civility.
So what do Southern women have that the rest of us don’t?
“Simply put, Southern women have the ability to survive in a man’s world while wrapped in a pouf of flowery femininity and gracious, thoughtful manners,” explains Ronda Rich in What Southern Women Know. Phaedra Parks, breakout star of The Real Housewives of Atlanta (her guidebook is subtitled “How to Be Nice, Work Hard, Look Pretty, Have Fun and Never Have an Off Moment”) cautions that “no matter how heated the situation, you will never catch a Southern belle sweating”.
It is with good reason that a slew of manuals and field guides to the Southern female exists. For a much-needed antidote and a timely update to much of the above, bless their precious hearts, look no further than Helen Ellis, the latest to mine this Southern lode. Southern Lady Code, a series of twenty-three essays, several of them written with the safety-catch off, was published by Doubleday earlier this year. Twenty-five years after swopping Alabama for New York City – those distances only sharpen her perspective – Ellis would seem to be in remission regarding the more rigid rules. You start to read this book and soon wonder: could there be a more fertile ground for satire than a Southern upbringing?
Hers was not a cosseted childhood in the conventional sense: the Ellises would seem to have prepared their daughter for a variety of unusual eventualities. Life lessons included handling firearms and being mannerly even in extreme situations. If they were to have a girly-girl daughter in the house, by God they wanted one with some steel in her spine.
Ellis writes that she has been mugged three times and records that, so far, she has come away unscathed. Thanks to her mother’s adamantine training in the art of saying no firmly but nicely and surviving, our girl knows the right thing to do. While physical violence is not out of the question, it is not always necessary, as this outclassed New York mugger learnt. “When the mugger said, `Give me your bags,’ I said ‘No, thank you’ and stepped around him like he was a perfume spritzer at Bloomingdale’s.”
Mrs Ellis was hell bent on standards not being lowered, whatever the situation. Here she is imparting advice on best practice for street crime: “Helen Michelle, always carry money for a mugger – three one-dollar bills wrapped up in a five. Keep the cash in your purse flap. This way, when you’re mugged, it’s easier for everyone involved.”
Ellis describes her mother as “Emily Post for the Apocalypse” – with good reason. Mama even has advice, maybe not in the best possible taste, for the ultimate social dilemma: “Helen Michelle, if you’re going to commit suicide, what you do is get into the bath fully clothed. That way, when you shoot yourself, your brains will go all over the tiles, and it will be easier to clean up. And since you’re not nekkid, it will be less embarrassing for the person who finds you.”
If you don’t have something nice to say, say something not-so-nice in a nice way is a widely recognised cornerstone of the lady code. “Bless your heart means ‘You’re an idiot’,” translates the no-nonsense Ellis. “‘This is my fault’ means ‘I should never have trusted you’.” Where New Yorkers are direct, Southerners like to sugar-coat. Here’s Ellis being not being subtle. “And always say, ‘Sorry you saw something that offended you’ rather than ‘Get that stick out of your butt, Miss Prissy Pants’.”
There’s advice on how retaining some semblance of mystery in the bedroom can keep a marriage sizzling along (“Don’t lotion your elbows in front of him bed”) and an essay called “How to Watch Pornography Like a Lady”. Because Ellis’s Twitter account name is American Housewife – also the title of a previous book by the author – she gets a lot of followers due to the fact that “American housewife” is such a popular search term in the pornography industry. “Out of more than 15,000 followers, I’ve recently blocked 208 because I am a lady. But I fear that Twitter pornographers are like mice: you kill one in your kitchen, there are 30 more in the walls.”
A card-carrying Southern lady looks forward to motherhood – but not without a wedding ring on her finger of course. “A Southern young lady’s birth control was an aspirin pinched between her knees,” writes Ellis. Not surprisingly, then, to read that over the years a number of her classmates disappeared mid-term, “to spend time with their aunt”, returning months later “deflated and forlorn”. Being a mother does not appeal to Ellis herself and she makes no bones about her un-Southern-lady horror of childbirth.
“A friend of mine broke her tailbone pushing,” she shares. “A friend’s friend separated her pelvis. There’s something called ‘the ring of fire’ that ain’t a Johnny Cash song.”
Then there are the thank-you letters. Like a good Southern gal, Ellis is on-message about their value. I liked her motto, pithy as the best notes tend to be: “If you’re grateful, get a pen.” When she became an aunt Ellis wrote a thank-you note to her godmother, who had set such an example of how to be a good influence. A very kind dentist, hygienist and receptionist were all thanked in writing for making an unpleasant experience that much better. Ellis even wrote appreciatively to the vet who put her cat down.
So yes, those Southern women are a varied lot. Some embody the traditional femininity of the Deep South, some do not. But whether a badass tearaway or a bona fide lady, y’all can be certain those legendary good manners will kick in.
Even if you are horrified by the so-called lady code, there are elements and people to appreciate. Winston Churchill thought “the most beautiful voice in the world is that of an educated Southern woman”. Tennessee country singer Dolly Parton’s proud declaration that “I was the first woman to burn my bra – it took the fire department four days to put it out” may not have been the mellifluous voice he had in mind. Dolly might or might not smoke on the street, but would I prefer to listen to her than to one of Churchill’s drawling ladies? Hell, yeah.
Maura O’Kiely is an Irish Times journalist.