Muck on the chaise longue

Imagine you are in Jilly Cooper-land. You are the lord/lady of the manor and you are about to jump into bed /have a roll in the hay/ rumpy pumpy in the stable yard with the groom/maid/manservant. Either sex will do. Your sense of droit de seigneur means no niggling doubts enter your head. The lure of forbidden fruit – someone of a different class, with whom you certainly shouldn’t be getting intimate – is overwhelming.

Jilly Cooper’s world is full of this – the upper classes and the worker bees endlessly getting jiggy and sometimes actually falling in love.

Interestingly, Cooper is a very accurate purveyor of social relationships. As a country-dweller myself, the posh man getting it on with the stable girl is not far off the truth. Nor is a bit of Lady Chatterley hooking up with the gardener/builder/painter-decorator.

There are all sorts of fantasies around this. It’s not a vast stretch of the imagination to see the potential dynamic in the overpowerer getting a kick from their superiority. However, it’s not necessarily that simple. There’s the thrill of subverting the rules – one tribe mixing with another tribe when it’s not the done thing. But there’s also the dynamism of subverting usual class hierarchies. Who is the stronger – Poldark or Demelza? It’s not always the person with wealth and social standing who holds the keys to the heart of the relationship.

I’ve observed that posh people often like to get involved with people who they consider to be “earthy” types, such as men who can fix doors or women who like uncomplicated sex and can cook. But of course this isn’t always the case. We are far too complex as human beings to be lumped together into some bog-standard commonality. Though just because people may be from a different class doesn’t mean we have no commonality at all. The strength and warmth of the human spirit binds people together wherever they come from.

As a relationship counsellor, I see this all the time: the Home Counties public schoolboy engaged to the girl who works in the pub and both sets of parents up in arms, refusing to see that in fact their offspring are very well-matched as a couple, despite their differences in upbringing. The assumption is that we cannot change, formed as we are from birth by our cultural and tribal background. I disagree. I believe that if we really want to change and expand our thoughts, actions, words and deeds, we are totally capable of it. It’s called self-responsibility.

I have met countless couples on the therapy couch for whom the high-low allure works extremely well

Finding empathy for people “not like us” is thrilling as well as challenging. Not everyone is afraid of what is “other”: of things, behaviours and cultures that are unfamiliar. There can be joy in tenderly finding out about another person’s life, especially if it’s been so different to our own. And a key part of that process is not making assumptions. I have met countless couples on the therapy couch for whom the high-low allure – two sets of people magnetised towards each other from two extremes – works extremely well. One, for example, the son of a train driver, told me he has no issue with his titled wife explaining which way loo roll should be facing. Yet when they first met, you’d have expected him to hate her, since he often made veiled references to the “idiocy of the over-privileged” he meets at work. They met when he got a job on the news desk of a paper – more of an apprentice than a fully-paid up member of staff, he noted – and she was an upper-class intern helping out on the diary column. When not covering parties, her job largely involved waltzing around the office wearing Issey Miyake and wafting Chanel No 5. “Can’t even change a lightbulb,” you’d think he’d mutter. But no. The moment he laid eyes on beautiful Miss Titled he was smitten. For her part, she refused to give him the time of day at first, but told me he won her over in the end with his determined dedication. They have been happily married for nearly three decades. Part of the success of their relationship, she once told me, is that she never has to second-guess anything. “He’s just so steadfast,” she said. It freed her up to be totally herself and she adores him as much as he her. In some ways it’s trickier territory for middle-classes couples who assume they’ll have the same views on everything. They lack the confidence and swagger of the high-low combo. For them, it is not so much arguing over private vs state school for their children – which is what the aforementioned couple came to counselling about – but the endless mundane tussles most of us go through on a daily basis. Human relationships make the world go round, and I believe the key element of long-term ones is the continuing generosity of each partner towards the other. The ability to invest in connections, to be curious about each other, and more widely to see everyone as a citizen of the world, with flesh and bones and organs that are basically all the same, is what pulls us together as societies. We are, as a race and as a civilisation, bigger than any class differences.

“How To Have Extraordinary Relationships With Absolutely Everybody” (Quadrille) is out now. More info at lucycavendishextraordinaryrelationships.com

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June / July 2024, Life, Serendipity

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