Depends what the words are and who’s uttering them. Or in the case of Jessica Mitford’s governess, “hissing” them. Jessica, the author, journalist and civil rights activist, was one of the famous Mitford Sisters whose upper crust British childhood included governess caretakers. My good pal Andrew recently emailed me “On Keeping a Notebook,” the Joan Didion essay written in the Sixties. Didion tells us that she copied down the following in one of her many notebooks: ” ‘You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it,’ Jessica Mitford’s governess would hiss in her ear on the advent of any social occasion.” Gee, what an uplifting message to send.
We’re talking Dickensian here, not the early 20th century when Jessica frolicked as a tiny tyke. Judging from her accomplishments, literary and otherwise, she thrived as an adult and did not suffer any symptoms of the Doormat Syndrome. “I copied that into my notebook because it is only recently that I have been able to enter a room without hearing some such phrase in my inner ear,” Didion writes. Oh, how I can relate. When covering parties for Women’s Wear Daily over a number of years I never quite lost that “they’re-much-more-important-than-me” thing.
But I’ve moved on, as a quote on my bulletin board will attest. It’s from the late political columnist Mary McGrory who once advised her nephew Brian at a hoity-toity Washington party: “Always approach the shrimp bowl like you own it.” Is there any other way, I ask?