Didn't You Know I'd Been Ruined?
Thomas Hardy, Disposable Income, and Sexual Novelty
By Wendy Bourgeois
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
id you know that a wedding gown weighs roughly the same as a fat toddler? Did you know that you need help to put the thing on, and that bits of beadwork will snag against your underwear, or worse, your underwear or nails might snag the satin? I didn’t know any of this. I knew wedding gowns were outrageously expensive, and unwearable except for the once, and that I should experience some kind of frisson of beauty and meaning when I found the “right” one. Instead I skulked from one store to another, alone, too embarrassed to even drag a girlfriend along. I had no idea what I wanted, except that it wouldn’t be white, wouldn’t have lace, no veil, no strapless, no sweetheart neck, nothing bridal. I finally gave up when, forlorn in the last store I tried, I asked the sweet young thing in the showroom if they had anything in cotton. She smiled and leaned in to me. “I think you’re in the wrong place,” she whispered.
I’ve always had a terror of weddings. Where I come from, people marry for sport, penance, or profit. Most adult women I knew growing up had been married at least twice. Divorce, infidelity, operatic fights and heartfelt reconciliations and recommitments in church—all common as dirt. I remember my mother and her friends laughing over a particularly expensive and saccharine invitation, heavy emphasis on words like “forever” and “before God.” This was, if I remember correctly, the woman’s fourth wedding. My wedding phobia is not new. I know that I have it, and why, and I even think it wise and just, but still I am getting married and I’m happy about it, happy about my sweetheart joining teams with me, despite the dress paralysis.
At the risk of sounding immodest, I usually excel at all things femme-y. The concrete things like eyeliner and pot roast, and the not-so-concrete things: compliments, mom-voice, social maintenance. I’ve been good at being a girl for a long, long time, and more importantly, I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s just that despite my extensive Barbie collection, I only had one Ken, if you know what I mean. I never dreamed about my wedding cake or wedding dress. When a friend says, “Only you know your vision for this day,” I wince. I never had a vision. I wanted to be a mermaid, or possibly Harriet the Spy.
Later, when I started getting crushes, having sex, falling in love, I had a different vision. I didn’t escape romanticism, but I wanted to be an adventuress. I wanted lovers and a walk-up in a big city. I wanted to be an artist with a complicated and stormy series of passionate entanglements. I wanted out of the trap of what Angela Carter calls “feminine impotence—a mode of experience that transcends gender.” I may not have known what to call it, but I did know that in the real world, girlish vulnerability invites harm. Purity is danger. To be a feminine woman and also have agency and a reasonable expectation of safety has always been hard to pull off. Tomboys and butches manage by eschewing femininity altogether (see Harriet the Spy). Or if you want to keep your lipstick and black underwear, you can always choose the path of economic free agency. Signaling to the world at large that you are no longer pure by adopting the persona of an “experienced” woman (or, you know, a whore) provides at least some armor against would be despoilers.
So this wedding thing—the nameless anxiety and dread I feel when friends suggest I take a quick look at Pinterest—maybe it’s nothing more than a good old fashioned Madonna-whore complex. I don’t know why it never occurred to me I might have one, considering how many times I heard Mom say, “Never ever rely on a man to support you.” The whore, Carter says, despite her eviction from polite society, “stands for the old fashioned virtues of self reliance” and her femininity is “part of her arsenal of self interest.” And though art and literature may be full of fearsome tales of punishment for whores, we sense in them something aspirational. Like gay men, they represent freedom from reproduction and matrimony, a heaven of disposable income and sexual novelty.
Thomas Hardy, the Lars Von Trier of the fin de siècle, who made a career of devising horrific punishments for tender virgins like poor Tess of the d’Urbervilles, does give us at least one whore heroine who makes it out alive—’Melia, from the poem “The Ruined Maid”:
“O ’Melia my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments such prosperi-ty?” —
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
So it’s no wonder that the white dress feels like a flag of surrender. I’m caught up in a pretend game of Love versus Freedom. That these psychic underpinnings remain hidden until I have to throw an expensive party show me just how lucky I am, and also what a hypocrite. All my fretting over symbols and how they operate in my self concept? Entertainment purposes only. By sheer random chance, born the right time, right place, right color, I can have anything I want. My choices about who and when and how I fuck, whether or not I get married in white or have lovers until I’m eighty, impact my safety and quality of life not at all, and if that makes me finally unfeminine, no longer “impotent” in Carter’s formulation, then so be it. I’ll take the virility.
Wendy Bourgeois is a poet and writer. In the winter issue she wrote about William James and the perils of theory.