In Love in a Cold Climate (1949) Nancy Mitford wrote a hilarious account of life in the British aristocracy between the wars. One of her characters is Lady Montdore, a dedicated royalist. Before her daughter’s coming-out ball, Lady Montdore held a dinner party for 40, inviting various royals and ex-royals.
Lady Montdore loved anybody royal. It was a genuine emotion, quite disinterested, since she loved them as much in exile as in power, and the act of curtsying was the consummation of this love. Her curtsies, owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind. She scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost like a cow, a strange performance, painful it might be supposed to the performer, the expression on whose face, however, belied this thought. Her knees cracked like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly.
Curtsies, outside the ballet, are always a bit like this, so I’m quite relieved that Julia Gillard decided again one, when meeting the Queen in Canberra this week.
According to Wikipedia (so it must be true) women used to curtsey by placing their feet at an angle to each other (second-position in ballet) and bending their knees in a plie, the back remaining straight. This looked elegant when all the action took place behind a long and voluminous skirt, but those widespread knees became unacceptable when hemlines rose in the early 20th century, and physically impossible in the narrow skirts of the 1920s.
So a new method had to be developed.
I learned to curtsey at school in preparation for meeting Lady May Abel-Smith, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who presented the prizes at our school in the late 1950s as the wife of the Queensland Governor.
Place one leg behind the other, lock knees together (always important for blossoming schoolgirls), and bend. It is impossible to descend evenly, since everything tends to bend, not just the knees, so the result is an awkward waddling movement, the shoulders at an angle, and the back and neck jutting forward.
It probably looked quite cute when I did it for Lady May at the age of 12 – but as you get older, Nancy Mitford’s description becomes increasingly accurate. Maybe earlier generations of older women had knees that cracked like revolver shots, but if so, the noise, like the action, was smothered in their skirts.
No doubt it’s a coincidence, but women’s skirts began to rise at about the same time that the House of Lords lost its ability to veto money bills from the House of Commons, in the 1911 Parliament Act (1&2 Geo. 5. C. 13). The power and privileges of the House of Lords were by no means over, but in 1911 Prime Minister Lloyd George – and that other George, the new king George V – collaborated to bring the British aristocracy to heel. Australia rejected the idea of an aristocracy in the 1850s. (See Bunyips)
It’s also striking that most of Lady Montdore’s guests were ex-royals. Love in a Cold Climate is set between the wars, when various post-World War I revolutions had cut a swathe through the European monarchies. One of her guests was the cousin of a King who ‘was daily expecting the crown to be blown off his head by a puff of east wind.’
A hundred years on, the curtsey seems entirely obsolete – although there’s a rather similar move in Tai Chi, which is good for the knees, hips and lower back. Like most things, it is equally good for men and women, and like most things, you may be at a disadvantage in a skirt.