May 2, 2014 6:24 pm

Friendships fit for a princess

‘At the heart of many women’s friendships there lies a tacitly formed agreement: that one of the parties is the princess and the other the lady-in-waiting’

Jacques Derrida came to talk to us when we were students. The philosopher sat with an attaché case so glossy it was discussed for weeks in senior common rooms, where the figure of £1,200 was said to have been its cost. (This was circa 1991.) The great man’s subject – friendship – seemed apt and riveting to us all, for it was never far from our minds. (She did what?! She didn’t!) When two friends meet, he told us at the crux of his talk with something of a drum roll, what will be foremost in the minds of both will be this question: which of us will be the first to die?

Now there are very few things that I have never thought in life. I have wondered whether lion tamers who rely on kitchen chairs as key pieces of their survival kit view all furniture differently from non-lion tamers: coffee tables, Welsh dressers, buttoned ottomans ... I have wondered if groundsmen in cemeteries mentally reserve a bit of space for their own remains, and whether they secure a discount on the plot in advance. I have even considered with sympathy the plight of a woman I met once who employed a full-time chef and had to deal with his daily tantrums in the face of her tiny appetite. But I have never, in the company of a friend, thought that which Derrida suggested was universal.

Had I secured a few moments with him after the talk, I might have said that, at the heart of many women’s friendships, of the less-than-healthy variety anyway, there lies an agreement tacitly formed in the friendship’s first moments that one of the parties is the princess, and one the lady-in-waiting.

Call it “star and fan”, “damsel in distress and knight”, or even “monarch and court jester”; these are merely different versions of the same relationship, different steps in the same old dance, where one shines and one holds the chamois and the Pledge.

The princess may be an idealised version of the lady-in-waiting. She may be smarter, richer, more talented, more beautiful. She may be these things deeply; she may embody them in a superficial way. She may be fragile. She may be haughty. She may be famous. She may be artistic. She will definitely be demanding and the things she will demand will be manifold and various. She is Emma Woodhouse. She is Amy March. She’s the Town Mouse.

. . .

The princess will almost definitely require extreme loyalty. She may want levels of care and nurturing that would destroy a Hampstead shrink. She may seek from you the entertainment services of an army of Butlins Redcoats. She might demand the skills of a highly adept PR. She may want a sort of security detail, a gatekeeper to make sure the harsh and coarse world is always at a remove. She may want someone to send into battle on her behalf. (You will shun her foes years after she has completely forgotten what it was they were supposed to have done.) She may need funding, she may need clothing and feeding. She will claim your invitations and give you the distinct impression that it is you who tag along. You may get into the habit of making yourself available most days, in most time zones, for the call may come at any time. She may insist you stop doing the things she’s good at, or the things you’re good at, because comparisons are odious. You will feel honoured to do her bidding, you will feel grateful, you will feel warm, you will feel chosen, you will feel (codependency klaxon) needed.

Until, to paraphrase Dr Seuss, you don’t.

One day you will wake up to find that life in service has lost its lustre. A soupçon of success for you has made her sour or distant. There can be tantrums. There can be banishment. Her comments may grow very sharp or the drawbridge might slam down. Like Shylock crossed with a faithful retainer, you wail to yourself: “Do I not have dreams? Do I not have ambition? Hopes? Admirers? Work? Pride? A life?”

Princesses often behave with less grace than they might when things go well for those lower in the court. The pity in your heart for what your princess has suffered may allow you to overlook her behaviour at first – for a year, for a decade – but things will never be as they were. You will always think of her fondly and with great affection. You may speak to her in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep, resuming the old roles: “No problem! What’s mine is yours! Coming up!” You may berate yourself for having got into such a silly situation in the first place. After all, you chose it too.

But sometimes, wrestling with the complex workings of a friendship in the small hours, it may hit home that the princess, all along, was you.

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susie.boyt@ft.com Twitter: @SusieBoyt

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