Wednesday, December 14, 2011


"Lady-in-waiting" has a decidedly old-fashioned and somewhat negative ring to it.

To these American ears, those three words conjure images of lonely women, waiting for that fairy-tale image of a prince to sweep her off her feet and abscond with her to married-land. Or the wives of active-duty servicemen who remain at home, waiting with much angst for their husbands to return home. Or it might refer to women who "await their turn" in political life--whose turn may, of course, never come.

Yet the historical role of the lady-in-waiting was much more significant than my American-bred (and obviously skewed) understanding could admit. (Of course, that depends in part on your understanding of the term significant: many today would no doubt scoff at what was deemed significant in different historical periods--but to them I would caution not to read modern conceits back in time.)

The lady-in-waiting was often a noblewomen who served in the capacity of attendant to a queen or princess or another woman of high socio-political (and often lesser royal) status. She was emphatically not a servant, nor a helpless damsel. Depending on her character and her conduct, she often "advanced" to the status of confidante of the woman she served. Her duties might have included advising on issues related to court/palace etiquette, translation when entertaining those who spoke a different language, performing secretarial duties, supervising servants and staffs, acting as discreet transmitter of messages, caring for the  wardrobe, and the like.

It is thanks to ladies-in-waiting that I saw some of Marie Antoinette's ballroom gowns this summer.

And I can only intuit that many a war or violent conflicts on the European continent were probably avoided because a lady-in-waiting advised a king or queen, or perturbed visitor, on the rules of etiquette regarding what do to when one perceives a snub by another. 

Even if we contemporize the term a bit--The Bangkok Post ran this article on a new film (the Asian equivalent of The Iron Lady starring the iconic Meryl Streep in the role of Lady T) about Aung San Suu Kyi--the term just connotes passivity.

Fortunately, my ladies in waiting are anything but passive. Here they are, in mid-December, despite a few moderately-damning frosts but encouraged by many a temperate day:

the Ben Franklin double red peony (trans-gendered? transvestite?), sending one of its gherkin shoots into the sky;

while the Creeping Phlox, which usually blooms in March and April, produces a few buds,

and the Paper-whites and daffodils display several inches of greenery.

To adapt the titles of several very popular books by Vicki Leon, these are the Uppity Women of the Garden!

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