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    Modesty and Chivalry

    July 28, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    Modesty and Chilvary

    [dropcap]I[/dropcap]’m still making my way through Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty, and even though some sections are a little more … descriptive … than I’d prefer, I maintain that it is a profound book written by a good thinker.

    Today I want to touch on a single idea that I’ve been mulling over after my reading last night. Shalit asserts that the proper complement to female modesty is male character {or what was once called honor}:

    Like modesty, which once made every woman a lady, male honor was what made every male a man.

    As female modesty has faded from our culture, so has male honor and chivalry. There is much to think about in Shalit’s discussion of our attempts to build a genderless society:

    Today we want to pretend there are no differences between the sexes, and so when they first emerge we give our little boys Ritalin to reduce their drive, and our little girls Prozac to reduce their sensitivity. We try to cure them of what is distinctive instead of cherishing these differences and directing them towards each other in a meaningful way.

    The result of attempting to erase the differences between the sexes is frightening.

    Part of the problem is that we said it was sexist for a man to be gentle around a woman. For instance, a checklist from the Westchester Coalition for Family Violence agencies includes “an overprotective manner” as evidence you might be abused. In this light, the more boorish and less protective, the closer a man is to the liberated ideal.

    Shalit quotes feminist after feminist who believe that what was once basic manners on the part of a man towards a woman {opening a door, rising when she walks, carrying packages} is reinforcing a woman as weak and inferior. She quotes “intellectual” John Kasson who defends women’s rights by stating:

    The entire ritual structuring of urban life, although performed in the name of honoring women, assumed and encouraged their subservience to men.

    The reason why I was thinking about all of this so intently is that only a few hours before, during our evening family time, I was reading aloud the book Sir Nigel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is not a deliberate study on female modesty, and yet the portion I read last night was striking, to say the least. First, we have the description of Squire Nigel’s {for he is not yet a knight} chivalrous view of women:

    To his pure and knightly soul not Edith alone, but every woman, sat high and aloof, enthroned and exalted, with a thousand mystic excellencies and virtues which raised her far above the rude world of man. There was joy in contact with them; and yet there was fear, fear lest his own unworthiness, his untrained tongue or rougher ways should in some way break rudely upon this delicate and tender thing.

    Ah, yes. Chivalry: the attempt to keep a woman down.

    I think not.

    Edith wasn’t feeling particularly modest on this evening, though.  From her first words, we see Shalit’s assertion that modesty and chivalry reinforce each other in action {or, as is the case here, weaken each other by their absence}. She speaks immodestly — and also sinfully — and Nigel? Well…

    Nigel flushed and winced under the words, but he said no more, for his mind was fighting hard within him, striving to keep that high image of woman which seemed for a moment to totter on the edge of a fall.

    Before the evening is over, Edith {to make a long story short} has run off with a man who she has been deceived into thinking loves her and wants to marry her. Nigel, a priest, and Edith’s more prudent older sister, Mary, run to her rescue, determined to preserve her honor, if at all possible.

    Initially, Edith is completely offended by this.

    ‘I have but one word to say to them,’ said she. ‘It is that they go hence and trouble us no more. Am I not a free woman? Have I not said that this is the only man I ever loved?’

    Does she not have her rights? Isn’t this all an attempt to get her to obey her father?

    As the story goes on, though, we see that chivalry and modesty are, in this story at least, doing exactly what Shalit supposes they do. The whole culture was structured in such a way as to protect a woman’s greatest hopes and aspirations.

    In the end, it is revealed that this wicked man has only been deceiving Edith, that he had no intention of ever marrying her, but would rather have used her up and thrown her out. In the ensuing alteration, Edith sees the truth, and repents:

    ‘No, no; I see him as he is! I know him now, the mean spirit, the lying tongue! Can I not read in his eyes that he has indeed deceived me, that he would have left me as you say that he has left others? Take me home, Mary, my sister, for you have plucked me back this night from the very mouth of Hell!’

    And so Edith is led home, heartbroken, I am sure, but still intact and preserved.

    It is worth mentioning that our modern world expects a woman to live in “the mouth of Hell” indefinitely … and be so thankful that they are finally free from all this chivalry stuff. If they don’t appreciate their residence in said mouth of Hell, well, something is definitely wrong with them.

    Shalit continually asks the right questions. Free from what? Free to what?

    It’s an interesting study. I think Sir Nigel, or something like it, ought to be a required companion read to Shalit’s A Return to Modesty.

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  • Reply Kansas Mom July 29, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    It’s been over five years since I read this book, but I’m enjoying your commentary on it. I don’t remember the more “descriptive” parts, though I was probably less sensitive to those than I am now that I have boys and girls who are growing older. It was a profound book for me, though, in that it enabled me to better describe my uneasiness with much of society’s immodesty in thought as much as dress and deed.

  • Reply Kelly July 29, 2011 at 2:38 am

    I loved The White Company — I had no idea there was a prequel to it. Have to add it to my list. 🙂

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