Every month Ruth Spencer casts about for a sense of self on a journey of reinvention.
When Princess Diana failed all her O-Levels she was packed off to finishing school in Switzerland. This taught her an important lesson: exams are for nerds who don’t want a free trip to Switzerland. Finishing school was designed to train young women in the etiquette required to find a husband and become a Society Ladyperson. Society Ladypeople had to know important things, like how many coatroom attendants will I need if my husband hosts an impromptu cocktail party for 100 guests at a chalet? The answer is, as it so often is, divorce.
Finishing school sounds such a hopeful prospect. What if the reason I feel this wistful chafing in my soul is due to having been ejected into the adult world somehow Unfinished? Is this another thing I can blame on high school? In an effort to fill any gaps in my education I’ve decided to send myself to finishing school. Not in Switzerland, unfortunately, and I’ll have to teach myself. Self-alp, if you will. Not having any O-Levels to fail, it’s the only way.
The main thing I know they teach, apart from small talk in several languages and where to put the oyster spoon, is peeling an orange with a knife and fork. It sounds like an absurdity, but is it? A Society Ladyperson can’t wander to the fridge for fruit snacks. The kitchen staff would probably titter, which is Posh for “laugh”. She only has the chance of fruit at mealtimes, out of one of those big epergnes or cornucopias or pantaloons or tureens or whatever large receptacle sits on the table in Downton Abbey overflowing with a fruity bounty. That means she has to eat it without getting pith in her fingernails or smelling like a primary school classroom after a rainy play-lunch. No sucking the overflow out of the navel, which is good advice for any situation, really. If a Ladyperson ever wants to experience citrus beyond the lemon twist in her cocktail, it’s cutlery or scurvy.
I have an orange. I have a knife and fork. I get out one of the nicer plates, one with a gilt trim and some roses on it. The first problem is immediately obvious: the orange is round. I consider this while I retrieve it from under the sideboard. What I really want is two forks to stab in opposite directions simultaneously. Or an orangecup, like an eggcup but ludicrously bigger, to hold it steady. Some kind of clamp?
Pinioning the orange with the knife while the fork pierces the skin, I’m so proud of getting it lodged that I wield it triumphantly in the air like a mace, immediately failing Orange Etiquette 101. Now I need a sharper knife. I only have the standard blunt dinner set business, great for buttering a potato or loading a fork but useless in the denuding fruit department.
I slice skin-deep at regular intervals, carving it into segments like a pumpkin. It’s precise and stressful, like defusing a bomb. There’s a risk of spray from that pungent oil in the skin, so after I rinse my eyes and cry a little bit I try to carve at an oblique angle, wondering how my life went this wrong. The peel shimmies off, segment by segment. It’s not rocket science, just a woman smiling desperately through pointless refined drudgery for small reward. Like the Society Ladypersons of the past I too am ready to invent feminism after this nonsense meal is over. All you get at the end is an orange, the same prize you get after only half a game of soccer, and in soccer they cut it up for you. You can feel a little sense of accomplishment for the skill of peeling if you like, but then you have to cut the peeled segments into bite-size pieces and fork them into your mouth like a toddler at a restaurant.
So at the end of this finishing school crash-course I’m sustained by an hour’s worth of chopped orange, I can ask where the toilet is in seven languages (I can’t, but it’s not good etiquette to mention toilets so no one will ever find out), I can tell you where to put your damned oyster spoon, and I’ve learned to avoid all chalet parties, so stop inviting me, I won’t come. Hopefully I’ve filled the gaps in my education; I’ve certainly learned I’d rather have an accessible fruit bowl than be a suitable Society wife. It didn’t do this Ladyperson any good anyway. Stay in school.