‘Les femmes sont d’une substance plus délicate que les hommes.’1 On the basis of what appeared to be a self-evident physiological truth, deducible from women’s muscular inferiority and their traditionally sheltered life, the seventeenth century concluded that the sex was endowed with a correspondingly greater delicacy of mind and taste. Certain spectacles, actions and words unlikely to disturb the average man would, it was imagined, give instant offence to his companion, wounding her keen sense of fitness and propriety. The sensitivity attributed to them resulted in the elevation of women to the position of arbitresses of elegance. ‘C’est aux femmes à décider des modes, à juger de la langue, à discerner le bon air et les belles manières’, pronounced Malebranche; ‘Elles ont plus de science, d’habileté et de finesse que les hommes sur ces choses. Tout ce qui dépend du goût est de leur ressort.’2 Not everyone shared the philosopher’s persuasion that women should be allowed to dictate in matters of fashion, still less in those of language. But none objected to the idea of comely mentors having a shot at polishing manners.
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