A cultivated woman. Now there’s an expression from a by-gone era. When I think of what it means to cultivate oneself during this rather short lifespan of three-score years and ten – if we’re lucky, it strikes me what a dull, undeveloped spectacle most women allow themselves to remain during our time.
My grandmother used to have a term for ugly speech and ill-bred manners in a female – a “guttersnipe.” A guttersnipe was the very opposite of a cultivated woman. But it’s not just the lack of vocal beauty or manners where my criticism about my own sex originates, its the abject neglect of developing discerning taste and a strong intellect.
I remember a conversation I once had at a dinner party with a woman of around 40 years of age who was complaining about her boyfriend’s lack of attentiveness towards her. “He just doesn’t spend enough time with me,” she whined, “I want him to find me interesting.” So I replied, “Are you interesting?”
She ran a small kitchen-design business, was capable and well-travelled – a solidly practical type of woman who could talk all day about the finer points of kitchen lay-outs, interior colour schemes and what she ate and drank on a riverboat cruise up the Rhine. She was also very much into spiritual “self-development” books, Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle – the Power of Now – all that Boomer New Age stuff. She thought she was very interesting. At the time, the last concert she went to was Lady Gaga. In the last election, she voted for the Greens.
A cultivated woman presents herself to the world as a well-bred, walking work of art and she is a far-cry away from anything dull.
The cultivated woman is aware that she creates an impression on other people with whom she comes into contact and she gives that fact some consideration, but not too much. Rather than obsessing about what anyone may think of her, she is mainly concerned with her chosen purposes and development. She is highly aware that her life matters greatly and she has things to do, things to achieve, things to enjoy, but not just any old things, i.e, the mortgage, the holiday, the gas bill etc, the cultivated woman concerns herself with a high standard of things, for quality matters and quality requires discerning judgement.
A cultivated woman develops her thinking objectively so as to be guided by reality and not by range-of-the-moment, fluctuating emotions. Facts matter more than feelings, though feelings ought not to be discounted. The cultivated woman owns her feelings as a matter of habit and examines their origin, but she doesn’t let them dictate her decision making in an unconscious, whimsically subjective manner. She knows that truth is not a relative concept.
A cultivated woman develops her intellect through a quest for knowledge, realising her life did not come about in some vacuum but is the present product of a long history of human life. She knows a good chunk of that history and understands its significance to who she is – from her ancestors to the current workings of her civilisation. Comprehending her own times in the context of what has come before gives her a realistic perspective and a depth of worldly understanding. This gives a cultivated woman insight into the nature and effect of current events and popular ideas. She doesn’t run with the herd ever, she runs on well thought out personal convictions. This makes her wise and brave.
Because excellence matters to the quality of her choices, a cultivated woman makes it her business to tune her senses, and therefore her mind and soul, into the greatest works that culture has produced in art and music. She knows the difference between Mozart and Chopin, between Wagner and Puccini and can recognise a Rembrandt over a Holbein, a Bouguereau over a Tadema. To her, the quality of artistic expression is paramount because she knows that great art is the most pure and powerful nourishment for her soul.
When a cultivated woman complains about things, she tries to do so with humour, wit and a measure of entertainment value, so as not to burden those listening to her unduly by being a giant bore. She’s perfectly capable of bitching, swearing, stomping her feet and raising her voice, but will only do so about things that matter, not just from the habit of having a stroppy, histrionic temperament.
When you are in the company of a cultivated woman, you will be entertained by the quality of her conversation and maybe a little intimidated too. She has a great mind which means that primarily she wants to discuss ideas, not just events which hold the attention of average minds, and not just people which is the preoccupation of small minds. She understands civilisation and loves it, thus she will often discuss the ideas which give rise to it, or which ruin it, as if they are personal to her, for that is exactly as she feels it and knows it to be.
When a cultivated woman speaks she is articulate and can draw on an excellent vocabulary because her mind has been developed by quality literature and meaningful concepts. She is easy on the ear and her words are clearly understood. She doesn’t squawk or constantly cackle like a kookaburra showing off to the parrot in a neighbouring tree. She thoughtfully tends to her speech and vocal beauty matters to her as much as physical beauty – perhaps even more so, which shows not only a high degree of self-respect, but also a respect for those who have to listen to her.
The cultivated woman is a breed of female that is almost extinct. She was once an ideal portrayed in books, plays and films, or an example set by our more refined mothers and grandmothers, if we were lucky.
If I were to draw on examples from film I would highlight Maria Callas in the documentary film Maria By Callas – a highly authentic, cultivated woman if ever there were one, Karen von-Blixen in Out of Africa (played by Meryl Streep), Katharine Clifton in The English Patient (played by Kristin Scott-Thomas – who happens to have the most beautifully crisp elocution I’ve ever heard), Grace Kelly in every film she starred in and Audrey Hepburn whose portrayal of Eliza’s transformation from guttersnipe to something of a cultivated woman in My Fair Lady is gold.
In this particular film, when Henry Higgins first encounters Eliza’s speech, his response as a discerning man is:
Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter,
Condemned by every syllable she utters
By right she should be taken out and hung,
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.
Now we have the repulsive phenomenon of widespread “vocal fry” to contend with, which is actually a speech disorder according to vocal pathologists.
The lack of any strong ideal along the lines of developing ourselves and our daughters into truly cultivated women is directly parallel to this ugly vocal epidemic. Speech comes straight out of the mind and an undeveloped mind constantly delivers grotesquely undeveloped speech.
Becoming cultivated is not about being a vain snob, it’s about being an interesting, intelligent human being who is worthy of the interest and attention of other intelligent human beings.
But here’s a little lesson on the scourge of vocal fry, which the presenter points out makes girls sound “world-weary.” If your daughters do it, pull them up on it pointedly – it’s our job as mothers to help our daughters cultivate themselves properly not sound like air-head valley girls trying to sound popular. I’m not saying they’re going to like you for it, but be brave and take the heat and thus be an example.