‘for something to be proper it must either belong to something else, or be in full possession of itself.’ – Camelia Elias
I found this quotation in Elias’s The Fragment: towards the History and Poetics of a Performative Genre. I was mostly looking for ideas about the fragmentary, but I liked Elias’s definition of the ‘proper’ so much that I decided to digress into a blog post about it.
The ‘proper’: something suitable and appropriate. We associate it now with the ‘prim and proper’: an excessive, pernickety regard for social norms.
But it can have a nostalgic note. The ‘proper’ is sometimes a fantasy of the simple but well-done. This longing for the ‘proper’ now drives the desire for real ale and leaf tea, a distaste for Kindles in favour of paper books, the revival of the Lindy Hop and boardgames.
The proper is something, in other words, which is established, known, familiar. It’s a layer of stability on which you can rely. And so it doesn’t take up your attention. The proper is simple and unobtrusive; it’s safe to ignore it. To riff on Elias’s phrasing, the ‘proper’ is taken care of (or it takes care of itself).
This is the sort of ‘properness’ which struck me in this quotation from My Antonia (1918) by Willa Cather. I copied it into my reading notebook on holiday. The narrator recalls the time when, newly orphaned, he had just come to live with his grandmother. Here, he describes her wonderful house:
Besides the kitchen, there was a living-room with a wide double bed built against the wall, properly made up with blue gingham sheets and pillows.
Cather’s ‘properly made up’ bed is proper not just because of its neat hospital corners. It is proper because it belongs. The bed doesn’t just belong to the room, it is physically ‘built against the wall’: immovable, constructed in its place. It is built into Jim’s memories of childhood. Its ‘gingham sheets’ are built into the American pioneer tradition.
For Elias, the ‘proper’ is a question of belonging, and therefore of ownership. Being owned gives you stability in the world. It builds you into the wall. If you don’t belong to anything, you’re improper. So you could marry someone in order to become proper, and they could possess you. Or you could join the Church. Alternatively you could own yourself, be self-possessed.
These are Stevie Smith’s dilemmas. Smith is very interested in the ‘proper’. We forget this when we focus on her naughty or subversive moments. It’s true that her characters often resist the proper: in ‘My Hat‘, for instance, a magical hat carries its wearer away from a nightmarish union with ‘the right sort of chap’.
But the protagonists of Smith’s novels crave the ‘proper’, as much as they can’t commit to it. Celia, in The Holiday (1949), longs for a holiday from the postwar ‘age of unrest’. She escapes to her Uncle Heber’s, to stay in his ‘old-fashioned bedroom’ (old fashioned here being ‘proper’, as in Cather’s proper gingham sheets) and pick spinach in his kitchen-garden. This is her idea of ‘properness’: finding a place where you belong, tucking yourself away into it, and being in that way flattened or mercifully obliterated.
This is, of course, only a fantasy of the proper. Only a holiday. Celia can’t be proper because she can’t bear to belong wholly to anyone.
I could never marry because of fear, I should like to have one-third of a man, to be the third wife, perhaps, with her own house…but to be the one wife, that is the dear one and the comfort, to be the dear one and the comfort of one man, that I admire, that I could not dare to be, I should be afraid there was a lion in the street.
Celia is too hyperalert, too divided in her attention, to be the ‘dear one…of one man’. Her focus blurs, like the sketchy lines of her drawings, flicking between the ‘one man’ and the enigmatic vision of a lion looming in the street. She can’t belong to anyone.
Her alternative, then, is to be ‘in full possession of herself’. Who manages that?