Carrie Lyell learns how to level up her life from a woman who has
BY CARRIE LYELL
Lotte Jeffs is an impressive woman. I’ve watched her career flourish from afar, endlessly impressed by the writer, editor and creative director’s Insta-perfect life. She is who I want to be when I grow up. So when I heard Lotte was writing her debut book, a personal memoir come witty self-help guide, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Pitched as a “gentle antidote to a brutal world” and a celebration of soft power, this seemed the perfect cheat sheet with which to level up my life.
But the Lotte I speak to on the phone is very different to the Lotte in How To Be A Gentlewoman. She might seem like she’s got her shit sorted in the book, but it’s a little more complicated than that, it turns out. “Personally, I felt it was the right time for me to write something. I’d come to the end of a chapter in my life. My cousin had died, I’d come out of an emotionally abusive relationship, my dad had an affair and left my mum for a woman the same age as me. And then I met my now-wife, fell in love, and we had a baby. I’d had a happy ending. If this was a movie, this is where it would end. But what’s ironic is that life doesn’t actually work like that,” she laughs. “It isn’t a neat book that you can close and open. It’s sprawling and messy. There’s always difficult things to deal with. It’s a constant process of negotiating yourself in the world.”
“ONE IS NOT BORN, BUT RATHER BECOMES A WOMAN” – SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR
For Lotte, bringing a tiny human being into the world really changed her outlook on life. Having her daughter helped elevate the idea for How To Be A Gentlewoman from a “throwaway listicle” of “nice to haves”, which first appeared as an online listicle on elle.com, to something much more fervent and meaningful. Throughout the course of writing, it became clear that there’s more to being a gentlewoman than crystal decanters, ironed napkins and a designated ribbon drawer; it’s about how we treat ourselves and others. A journey, not a destination.
“Becoming a parent has thrown absolutely everything not out of the window, but very near the window,” she jokes. “It changes you in such a profound way. It’s brilliant, but with it comes so many challenges that I didn’t expect. So much of what I write about in the book is pre-kids. It’s much easier to spend time on your own, have self-care rituals, phone your friends, look after your family. As soon as you’ve got a tiny, screaming human to keep alive, everything else falls down the list.
“It was challenging for me because I had created a very nice routine for myself. Taking myself on dates, having nice times, spending good quality time with friends. And I wasn’t physically able to do those things anymore. So what I had to do was get to the root of what I had learnt in becoming a gentlewoman, which was much more about finding a security of self and a solid base of myself, because that’s what I needed most at that time. Being able to sit and have a dinner on your own; that’s lovely. But that’s not what becoming a gentlewoman is really about.”
Indeed, the 38-year-old is keen to stress that she definitely doesn’t have it all figured out. “It’s almost like I’m setting myself up as this guru figure who’s got it all sorted, but I’m not. This is ongoing. If you came to my house today, you would probably find wire coat hangers in the cupboard!” she chuckles. “This is aspirational. I’m by no means this perfect person.”
Lotte tells me she wrote the book in part as response to the self-help genre, which can often come across as aggressive and preachy. “Think about the language of a lot of these self-help books for women; ‘Killing it’, ‘Slaying’, ‘Smashing ceilings’, ‘The Mystical Art Of Not Giving A Fuck’… I understand where that anger comes from because I think women have a lot to be angry about. But for me personally, that language of aggression wasn’t an energy that I wanted in my life because it felt quite negative.”
One of the driving forces behind How To Be A Gentlewoman was a desire to be kind and indeed, gentle in its content. “I wanted to come out with something a bit more measured and considered. The thing about being angry and aggressive all the time is that actually, you’re taking it out on yourself. It’s really exhausting to feel that level of anger and I think it’s depleting of your energy reserves as a person. There are other ways of addressing the things that make you feel angry than not giving a fuck. I think we should give a fuck. We should care.”
THE URGENCY OF AGENCY
Not only was it the right time in her own life to write a book, but the right time politically too. “We’re at such a disruptive, tumultuous time, and it can feel really stressful to be living in this world that we have no control over,” Lotte explains. “It’s really important to work on the things that you can change. What I wanted to do with this book was really focus on the self; that’s a really important thing to do. To nurture ourselves. Particularly as gay people, with homophobic attacks on the rise in the big cities. It can feel very de-stabilising and scary, but I think that we have to find a way to not let them destroy our own personal worlds that we’re building for ourselves.”
Talk turns to times in our lives when we haven’t been very gentlewoman-ly; to ourselves, and to others. How does Lotte cope when she finds herself falling short of the standards she’s set for herself in the book, or slipping back into negative thought patterns and behaviours? Asking for a friend. “Think about being nicer to yourself. Be aware of it, but don’t let it chip away at your anchor of yourself. Feelings of being ‘less than’ or letting yourself down, having made a mistake, wishing you hadn’t said that, or regretting the fact that you snapped at someone… These things are important to acknowledge, but don’t do so in a way that diminishes you. I see so much with my female friends all of these small, micro-moments; they really knock their confidence. People angst over things so much. It’s such a learned behaviour for women, feeling constantly insecure about themselves in the world, which is a real shame because it’s really limiting.”
Turns out, How To Be A Gentlewoman wasn’t quite the cheat sheet I was hoping for, and like Lotte says, we’re all “constantly becoming”. With that in mind, does she have a sequel up her sleeve, putting into words some of what she’s learnt from the process of writing this one? Not just yet. “I’d really love to write a work of fiction with gay characters as the stars. So that’s on the list. But short term, I’m going on a big family holiday with everybody I mention in the book. That is my next adventure…”
This article originally featured in the September 2019 issue of DIVA – grab you digital copy right here!
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