Miss Fancy Pants vs uncouth youth

That snooty mother-in-law’s email about manners has been a viral hit because it exercises something rare: adult authority.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

How on Earth did a domestic spat between a 60-year-old horticulturalist, Carolyn Bourne, and her prospective daughter-in-law, 29-year-old Heidi Withers, become the subject of international media attention?

More worrying still for the media hordes desperate to stick their beaks in, it might not actually have been a real domestic spat. Over the weekend it has been speculated that the whole thing was a publicity stunt to promote Heidi’s fiancé’s newly set up wedding business. Which only makes the question more pertinent: Why have so many been keen to gatecrash this particular domestic party?

The official story begins back in April, a distant time when Carolyn and Heidi were able to enjoy their mutual antipathy in perfect peace. Yes, Carolyn clearly didn’t feel Heidi was quite good enough for her stepson, Freddie Bourne. And no doubt Heidi was none too keen on Freddie’s stiff, decorous stepmother, a breeder of ‘award-winning perfumed Pinks and Dianthus’, owner of five horses, and a shoulder-brusher with members/hanger-ons of the royal family. She was ‘Miss Fancy Pants’, as Heidi’s family called her. But one thing was taken for granted. The simmering conflict between the prospective in-laws was of no particular interest to anyone outside of their own stormy, Home Counties teacup.

And then, if the story is to be believed, Carolyn sent the email. Three times in fact, twice to Heidi’s personal account, and once to her work email. Accusing Miss Withers of being ‘uncouth’ and ‘graceless’, before outlining just how offensive she found her behaviour, it was not a pleasant missive. In fact, Heidi was reportedly so taken aback by its contents that she forwarded it both to her father and a few of her friends. Perhaps she did so because she wanted advice on how to respond, or perhaps merely confirmation that the email was as rude as she thought it was. Or perhaps it just fitted the PR stunt’s narrative. It doesn’t really matter now. That email has long ceased to have much to do with the unknowable details of a domestic situation, fabricated or not.

This is because over the following few weeks Heidi’s friends forwarded it to their friends and they forwarded to their friends and so on, until, like cockroaches breeding under a bathtub, it exploded into the public sphere through the sheer volume of forwardings, tweetings and Facebookings. Since then, news programmes have been covering it, tabloids have been devouring it, and the broadsheets have seen fit to publish editorials on it.

Given the weight of coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Bourne Email contains some scandalous detail, some revelatory shard that might pierce the legitimacy of the British state. After all, Freddie did attend the University of St Andrews at the same time as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. But no, it is just a vaguely snobbish, definitely personal attack by Mrs Bourne upon Miss Withers. So why the focus?

Admittedly it is funny. ‘It is high time someone explained to you about good manners’, the email begins, before Carolyn adds: ‘Yours are obvious by their absence and I feel sorry for you.’ Pity over with, she proceeds to provide ‘a few examples of [Heidi’s] lack of manners’: ‘When you are a guest in another’s house, you do not declare what you will and will not eat – unless you are positively allergic to something’; ‘When a guest in another’s house, you do not lie in bed until late morning in households that rise early – you fall in line with house norms’; ‘You regularly draw attention to yourself. Perhaps you should ask yourself why.’ The examples are many, the tone is one: pompous condemnation. Pooterish to the last, the email reads like an ironic creation, not the sincere product of a real person. (Which of course is what it could be.)

Yet there’s something more than the email’s unintentional comedy that has prompted so many to spill so much ink. And that, I think, lies in a lurking sympathy with its putative author. It’s as if Carolyn Bourne has done what so many adults feel incapable of doing. She has asserted herself. She has exercised authority. With Carolyn, there is no shame-faced, tongue-bitten uncertainty when it comes to telling a younger generation how to behave. She simply knows – with a comic absence of self-reflection – that this is how things ought to be done. Her sheer conviction resonates, her willingness to chastise recalcitrant youth appeals.

In the Daily Telegraph, for example, Mary Killen writes: ‘We sympathised when we learned that Heidi would loll for hours in bed while everyone else in the household was up and about. We tutted at the girl’s picky culinary demands and table manners, and shook our heads at the absence of a graceful thank you letter.’ Over in the Guardian, Carrie Quinlan admits that while she’s ‘not entirely on Carolyn Bourne’s side’, she’s certain about one thing: ‘Her daughter-in-law to be, Heidi Withers, sounds bloody awful.’ Again, this time in the Daily Mail, another columnist cannot help but identify with Carolyn’s position: ‘While she may have been a fool to put her thoughts in writing, she made some perfectly reasonable points about her future daughter-in-law’s behaviour.’

The daughter-in-law here ceases to be specific. She is no longer a twentysomething PA at a recruitment consultancy; rather she’s representative of a half-socialised younger generation. The traits characterised by Carolyn Bourne, and cited by a largely supportive commentariat, are those perceived to be possessed by youth in general: lazy, insulting, ungrateful and insufferably self-centred. What marks Carolyn Bourne out as an unlikely hero is her willingness to speak truth to pre-adults. Or as the Independent’s Victoria Summerly gushes: ‘Good for Carolyn Bourne. If the idea that a household expects its guests to maintain a certain standard of behaviour comes as a horrible shock to twenty-first century Britain, then the Goths really are at the gates.’

At the heart of this strange fascination with a rude email is a fantasy revenge upon uncouth youth, a proxy assertion of power over the Goths, and no doubt the Emos, drinking too much and insulting their betters outside the gates of the adult world. That it centres upon an anachronistic caricature of adult authority in the shape of Carolyn ‘Fancy Pants’ Bourne, her snobbish self-certainty straight from a comedy of manners, only illustrates how desperate is the grown-up world for what it lacks: the capacity to say how we ought to be living our lives.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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