Ladies born and bred in the South do not perspire. A falsity oft repeated as fact, this old chestnut falls from the moss-draped trees that once surrounded those grand plantations of yore, where proper Southern girls would arrange themselves on verandas crowned with painted blue ceilings, with a cool glass of lemonade in one hand and a delicate fan in the other. This misty image still hovers in myth, solidifying in the modern age only upon movie or television screens.
For those few who may still hold up that symbol of the marble-cool Southern lady as an attainable standard, this is shaping up to be a summer of extraordinary challenge.
It is hot. Stifling, smothering - almost unbearably, hot. For the first time in memory, the hydrangeas that encircle my cottage - all 54 of them - have suffered the loss of their extravagant blooms. Colourful, fat and blowzy were those blooms in May - sad and brown are they now in July, fried to a crisp in this unusual heat. There will be none for drying; no lovely chartreuse hydrangeas to grace my wreaths this Christmas. Chic summer ensembles hang ignored in my closet, pushed aside day after day as I reach, once again, for drawstring linen trousers. Wearing my hair down is unthinkable. Make-up? Please.
And then She arrives.
Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, spent five and a half of the hottest hours on record in New York City this past week, and spent most of them outside, under a blazing sun that made lesser mortals faint dead away on the pavement. Clad in a floral suit, matching hat, stockings, pearls and white gloves (gloves!!), she calmly greeted the Mayor of the city and graciously spoke to some of those who had braved the torrid heat to see her, remaining all the while, totally unruffled, cool as the inner seed of a cucumber, not a bead of sweat upon the royal brow.
Mind over matter.
She puts me to shame.
Not long ago, my Mother gave me an old, old fan that had belonged to my Scottish great-grandmother St.Clair. Beautifully handpainted, and remarkably well preserved in spite of its hundred year age, I keep it by my favourite chair, within easy reach when I come in, limp, from the garden. I think of the women who, down through the ages, have cooled themselves off by the breezes it makes, exactly the same as I am now. Amazingly, it does that job rather well. There is an elegant quietude that descends when one uses a personal fan. Cooling and relaxing all at the same time, it can be nearly meditative. I can almost, almost, imagine one of those wide Southern verandas, almost feel the cold glass of lemonade in my hot little hand.
Could it be that Her Majesty has a beautiful fan of her own? Perhaps one owned by her own Scottish mother? I do recall seeing portraits of both the first Elizabeth, as well as Queen Victoria holding one in their hand - a cool breeze at the ready, always prepared.
Maybe I have finally figured out what she keeps in that handbag.
“It’s all to do with the training: you can do a lot if you’re properly trained.”
Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II
Painting by Marie Spartali Stillman, Self-Portrait