The Lady Defined

Marina's picture

            According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word “lady” is derived from the old English word “hlæfdíge,” “hlæf” meaning loaf and “díge” meaning to knead. This etymology implies that the lady was considered a domestic figure whose main responsibility was to manage the home and perform various domestic tasks, a bread kneader. However, this definition of the lady is troublesome, as it does not represent the authority and power that a lady possessed in old English times. In fact, calling a lady a bread kneader is misrepresentative of the original old English idea of the lady. The lady was a female personification, not of a husband or  a gentleman, but a lord which assumes much more power than a simple bread kneader. The etymology of this word seems to complicate rather than elucidate what the meaning of a lady actually is so I have decided to go through cultural descriptions of ladies in the form of music to attempt to find a common theme or characteristic that exists within the lady and attempt to connect the lady that is presented in these descriptions  with Henry Jame’s Isabel Archer who, according to Henry James, is the portrait of a lady.

            These songs may shed some light on what it means to be a lady and what a lady actually is. The first song is “Lady 95” by Styx and the second song is “Lady Jane” by The Rolling Stones.

 

 

“Lady 95”

Lady, when you’re with me I’m smiling

Give me all your love

Your hands build me up when I’m sinking

Just touch me and my troubles all fade

Lady, from the moment I saw you

Standing all alone

You gave all the love that I needed

So shy, like a child who has grown

 

You’re my lady of the morning

Love shines in your eyes

Sparkling, clear, and lovely

You’re my lady

 

Lady, turns me on when I’m lonely

Show me all your charm

Evenings when she lays down beside me

Just take me gently into your arms

 

Your my lady of the morning

Love shines in your eyes

Sparkling, clear, and lovely

You’re my lady

 

Lady of the morning

Love shines in your eyes

Sparkling, clear, and lovely

You’re my ... lady

 

Audio:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HizWiLVED4w

“Lady Jane”

My sweet Lady Jane

When I see you again

Your servant am I

And will humbly remain

 

Just heed this plea my love

On bended knees my love

I pledge myself to Lady Jane

 

My dear Lady Anne

I've done what I can

I must take my leave

For promised I am

This play is run my love

Your time has come my love

I've pledged my troth to Lady Jane

 

Oh my sweet Marie

I wait at your ease

The sands have run out

For your lady and me

 

Wedlock is nigh my love

Her station's right my love

Life is secure with Lady Jane

Audio:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fPQC4eRJuk

 

These two ballads reveal an interesting take on the idea of the lady as they both portray the lady as someone who they admire and who provides them with a sense of love, safety, and security. The lady takes on a much more significant role than just a domestic figure or a bread kneader as the entomology suggests. Another interesting characteristic of these two songs is how they both portray the lady as possessing power over the man who is surprisingly comfortable and accepting of this as he acts as her “servant.” Both songs also convey the lady as a provider of endless love and comfort that causes the man to then become possessive of her as they both repeatedly refer to the lady as their own. In “Lady 95,” the speaker says, “Your hands build me up when I’m sinking / Just touch me and my troubles all fade” conveying how the lady, in addition to love, provides a sense of security and support that the speaker relies on in moments of weakness. In “Lady Jane,” similar sentiments are relayed towards the lady in the last line as the speaker states “Life is secure with Lady Jane.”  This idea of a warm, providing lady causes the men to feel secure and attached and eventually possessive. This illustration of possession over the lady seems to be representative of the relationship between Isabel Archer and Casper Goodwood as Goodwood acts controlling and dominating towards Archer as a result of his lustful emotions towards her. Goodwood loves Archer to the point of obsession and even asks her to marry him so he can, like the speakers in “Lady 95” and “Lady Jane,” call her his own lady. Archer, unlike the ladies portrayed in these songs, will not stand for this and rejects any chance at marriage with Goodwood as she does not want to risk her independence and chance to travel and experience life on her own terms without the burdens of caring for a husband. Isabel reveals her dislike of Goodwood’s possessive qualities as he kisses her, “She felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession.” This revelation shows how Goodwood’s expression of love towards Archer only serves as an expression of his possessive nature. Archer did not welcome this kiss and it only made her feel more distant and detached from Goodwood as his controlling nature suffocates her and compromises her ability be free in mind and experience. This theme of possession seems to carry throughout the image of Isabel and the ladies of “Lady 95” and “Lady Jane” as all seem to be possessed or one desires to possess them. This leads me to wonder whether possession is a common theme of the definition of being a lady. Is the idea of being possessed a common theme in the definition of the lady? In a more modern song we see this possession of the lady again in Lenny Kravitz’s hit song “Lady.” Kravitz presents a strikingly similar image of the lady that was presented in the previous songs.

“Lady”

I'm crazy for this little lady

I'm freaking for my little baby

'Cause she makes me feel good

She's so fine

 

Don't need all my other ladies

I'm beggin' for this little lady

'Cause I tell you she's cool

She's divine

 

I know she's a super lady

I'm weak and I've gone hazy yeah

 

I'm crazy for that lady

She's chic but she's not shady yeah

Sophisticated lady

And she makes me feel good

She's so fine

 

Never knew there was such a lady

That would make me want to straighten

Out my life at this time but I find

I'm thinkin' 'bout this pretty lady

I would love her good as my own baby

'Cause you know she's no fool

She's refined

 

I know she's a super lady

I'm weak and I've gone hazy yeah

 

I'm crazy for that lady

She's chic but she's not shady yeah

Sophisticated lady

And she makes me feel good

She's so fine

 

Yeah

Don't you know she blows my mind

All the time

'Cause she makes me feel good

Like a real woman should

Yeah

She's so mine

Yeah

 

I'm weak and I've gone hazy yeah

 

I'm crazy for that lady

She's chic but she's not shady yeah

Sophisticated lady

And she makes me feel good

And she makes me feel good

And she makes me feel good

She's so fine

 

Yeah

Don't you know she blows my mind

All the time

And she makes me feel good

Like a real woman should

Yeah

All the time

Yeah

Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhtG7JTJD0k

 

            Kravitz’s image of the lady is again loving and comforting like those presented in “Lady 95” and “Lady Jane” but he also continues this notion of possession as he sings, “'Cause she makes me feel good / Like a real woman should / Yeah / She's so mine.”  Although these men seem to think they are possessing the lady by referring to her as “my lady” and “mine” they seem to ignore the fact that they are so obsessed with their respective ladies that in reality it is the lady who possesses them. The lady, in these songs and in James’ prose, holds all the power as the men fawn and obsess over her. This reflects another facet of Caspar Goodwood and Isabel Archer’s relationship as Archer feels overpowered by Goodwood’s obsessive advances, but it is really Archer who is overpowering Goodwood and holds authority over him as he, in his blind lust for her, is completely powerless and subservient to her wishes even if they are against his own. Archer’s power is displayed when she rejects Goodwood’s proposal and instead asks him to leave her for an period of time so she can experience life on her own terms. Goodwood, although hesitant, obeys her wishes in hopes that she will come back ready to marry him.

            Each of these views of the lady provides a complicated and often inconsistent image of power and submission. In the songs “Lady 95,” “Lady Jane,”  and “Lady” the lady is subservient to the man and provides him with comfort, security, and love but at the same time she quietly dominates him as he is so enamored he would do anything for her. At the same time, the men in these songs believe that they possess the lady while it seems to me that the lady is the possessor as she provides the love which she could easily take away causing the man to break apart. The images of ladies as simultaneously being possessed and the possessors of power relates with the relationship between Caspar Goodwood and Isabel Archer as Caspar consistently appears to be simultaneously possessive of Archer and possessed by her nature. The lady it seems, it not a simple bread kneader, but a complicated and multifaceted example of power and possession.

 

 

Comments

Anne Dalke's picture

Lay Lady Lay

Marina--
We've spent so much time in class puzzling over the notion of a "portrait"--just what it means to say that James was intervening in a long painterly tradition--that the second noun in the title of his novel has gotten short shrift. So I'm very glad to see you analyzing the meaning of the definition of "lady," and you can imagine my surprised delight to learn that the etymology of the word tells us that it originally meant "bread kneader." It seems clear to me how the meaning of the word might have evolved from "bread kneader" to "mistress of a household" (that is, the one who supervises the kneading of the bread, but is defined by the fact she doesn't have to knead it herself!) to one who is known (by not having to do such work) to be "of high social rank."

And so it also seems clear to me that questions of power have always been inherent in the term. Following Foucault, I'd also say that power always exists in relationship; no individual person ever has power, but achieves it in negotiation w/ others; that one might be "powerless" in a given situation, but "powerful" in another; and/or gain "power" by performing "powerlessness"; and/or vice versa. Mightn't "lady" accordingly be defined, then and now, as she who possesses and is possessed? Who possesses, that is, a certain social status, but only by virtue of being possessed by the man who, by his status, grants her a certain title? So that what you call the inconsistent image of power and submission" is actually what, definitionally, has always constituted the lady?

There are other dimensions to your paper I'd also like to hear more about: for example, the notion of obsession as a form of powerlessness (what does the psych major know about obsession, its causes, its cures?); and the precise role that of Goodwood's "hard manhood" plays in the drama (or @ least in the threat) of possession he represents.

What's even more unclear to me -- and what I'd also like to hear much more from you about -- is why you selected these three particular songs to explore the complexities of the powerless/powerful lady, who is ironically, perhaps even paradoxically, both submissive and dominant. Your selections seem so, well, random: how-and-why did you chose them to explore and exemplify your thesis? Why songs @ all? What does that genre add to our discussion? How are "songs" of ladies different than their "portraits"? Or their novels? And why songs of this particular era?

I can think of many other examples -- Dylan's Lay Lady Lay came immediately to mind, but so did multiple other intriguing, non-aural forms, such as the story of Lady Godiva (whose image precedes these comments: an 11th c. Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who rode naked through the streets, in order to get her husband to remit the oppressive taxes he was imposing on his tenants!). Or what about the long history of the ironic use of the term (as in "bag lady" or "cleaning lady" or "little lady"...) -- it seems, indeed, that "lady" has always had a double meaning (of which I was really unaware, until I read your essay--for which thanks!)


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