I've been reading Nancy Drew mysteries with my sons this summer--not the updated, CSI-style books but the originals, written in the 1940s and 50s, the books I read when I was a girl (in fact, we're reading my childhood copies of the books, with my name written on the flyleaf and the pages dogeared because I never had a bookmark). In these early books, no one is troubled by things like Miranda rights or Homeland Security, which is both funny and charming in this post-9/11 world.
But what I love the most about these books is the social tone, which is dignified and polite. Nancy and her friends address adults as Mr. or Mrs., and the worse expletive anyone ever uses is "Hypers!" Nancy Drew solves mysteries while wearing a dress, and only the bad guys question her youth or gender.
And, most appealing to me, everyone dresses for dinner. In Mystery at the Ski Jump
(originally published in 1952), Nancy and her friends track a gang of fur thieves into the wilds of the Adirondacks, in the dead of winter. And yet, despite the fact that they are staying in a snowed in summer cottage, everyone has dinner clothes in his or her luggage, because you just never know when you might be invited to a dinner party.
The young people spent the day enjoying winter sports, then changed into suits and dresses. . . . When they arrived at the inn, they found that Chuck had engaged a small, private dining room where places were set for ten persons. . . . There were colorful favors at each plate, and a special menu, with the promise of dancing afterward. When dessert was brought in, their host rose from his chair.
I find it charming that the "young people" know what to wear and how to dance and how to host a dinner party. Nancy is perpetually 18; her friend Ned Nickerson is perhaps two years older. Except for the fact that no one is holding a martini glass, these books are a delightful representation of retro swank elegance.
I have a soft spot for that kind of lifestyle, one where a young woman could be both feminine and smart, one where being a girl didn't mean staying inside and baking cookies. I love that Nancy Drew chases bad guys and waltzes with equal success. And I love the whole idea of the dressed up dinner party. I think there is a distinct connection between our devotion to Casual Friday attire and the essential loss of civility and politeness in our society at large.
In the mid-90s, there were a spate of movies based on Jane Austen novels all released in a clump (Sense and Sensibility
, and my favorite, Persuasion
). NPR carried an editorial by an English professor at Georgetown University, whose name escapes me, about the popularity of these films. We love Austen, the professor theorized, because we long for the kind of restrained social intercourse her characters have. We long for a day when not every thing was up for discussion, when certain subjects were taboo. We don't really want
to hear about the sex lives of celebrities; instead, we would like women to be ladies and men to be gentlemen.
I think this argument is essentially correct, despite the fact that it has flaws. Austen's women characters struggle mightily with the rules of polite society, and Nancy Drew exhibits a naievete that is almost unbearable today. But at the same time, I think that we do
long for a more civilized society, one in which men and women respected each other and showed that respect in their dress and deportment.
Should we all start dressing for dinner again? Probably not. But it wouldn't hurt any of us to reclaim our manners, to consider how our appearance influences the way people treat us. It couldn't hurt to revive the swank, polite dinner party. But perhaps with martinis and a judicious bit of swearing. After all, we're