Jane Austen - Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice
For me these two novels have always seemed to suggest that beauty is not an absolute but is "in the eye of the beholder" because in both cases once the hero who's doing the beholding falls in love, he considers his beloved beautiful even though he previously had doubts about her attractiveness.
Felix Moses summarises the changes in Anne Elliot's appearance
When Anne and Wentworth first meet in Ch. 4, Jane Austen describes them as follows: "He was, at that time, a remarkably fine young man, and Anne an extremely pretty girl." When the engagement breaks up, even Anne's beauty is affected: "an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect" (Ch. 4). On his return after more than seven years, Wentworth is contrasted with Anne, who is no longer beautiful: "no; the years which had destroyed her youth and bloom had only given him a more glowing, manly, open look, in no respect lessening his personal advantages. She had seen the same Frederick Wentworth" (Ch. 7). However, as Anne gradually "learns" romance, Wentworth notices an improvement in her physical attractiveness: "she was looking remarkably well; her very regular, very pretty features, having the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind which had been blowing on her complexion, and by the animation of eye which it had also produced. . . . [Wentworth] gave her a momentary glance . . . which seemed to say. . . ‘and even I at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again'" (Ch. 12). The fact that Anne has regained her former beauty is underscored by Jane Austen, when Lady Russell, a neutral observer, fancies in Ch. 13 that "Anne was improved in plumpness and looks" and hopes "that she was to be blessed with a second spring of youth and beauty."Moses does not clarify whether the restoration of Anne's beauty is the cause or an effect of the restoration of Wentworth's love towards her. The following quotation, however, suggests that although happiness may have improved Anne's appearance, the real reason for the change of Wentworth's opinion of it is his change of heart:
"I was six weeks with Edward," said he, "and saw him happy. I could have no other pleasure. I deserved none. He enquired after you very particularly; asked even if you were personally altered, little suspecting that to my eye you could never alter."Rather than falling in love again because of her beauty, it is his love for Anne which causes him to consider her beautiful.1 I think this argument is strengthened by a comparison with Pride and Prejudice, in which Darcy at first describes Elizabeth as only "tolerable":
Anne smiled, and let it pass. It was too pleasing a blunder for a reproach. It is something for a woman to be assured, in her eight-and-twentieth year, that she has not lost one charm of earlier youth: but the value of such homage was inexpressibly increased to Anne, by comparing it with former words, and feeling it to be the result, not the cause, of a revival of his warm attachment. (Chapter 23)
"You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.His opinion of her physical beauty is altered, however, by his growing appreciation for non-physical aspects of her personality (intelligence and playfulness):
"Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."
"Which do you mean?" and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me. (Chapter 3)
Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley's attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness. Of this she was perfectly unaware; -- to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable nowhere, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with. (Chapter 6)He is soon after "meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow" (Chapter 6) and by the end of the novel, having fallen in love with her, he is convinced of her beauty, as he makes clear in this exchange with Miss Bingley:
"I remember, when we first knew her in Hertfordshire, how amazed we all were to find that she was a reputed beauty; and I particularly recollect your saying one night, after they had been dining at Netherfield, 'She a beauty! I should as soon call her mother a wit.' But afterwards she seemed to improve on you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time."I do wonder if there's any link between this process of coming to believe the beloved is beautiful and the recent finding that
"Yes," replied Darcy, who could contain himself no longer, "but that was only when I first knew her; for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance." (Chapter 45)
Sexiness evolves according to what we see over and over. This mechanism, Winkielman noted in a statement, “accounts for cultural differences in beauty — and historical differences in beauty as well — because beauty basically depends on what you’ve been exposed to and what is therefore easy on your mind.” (Alexander)2Perhaps once these heroes began to feel attraction towards their heroine's personality (her intelligence, wit, goodness etc) they look at her more often. Darcy certainly spends quite a bit of time staring at Elizabeth. The result is that he may be resetting his beauty ideal, so that whereas before he compared her (unfavourably) to society's standard of beauty, now her appearance is the standard by which he judges beauty.
Georgette Heyer - The Quiet Gentleman
Tania Modleski noted that
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger, Marxist art critic, screenwriter, and novelist, has discussed the way in which the display of women in the visual arts and publicity images results inThe following passage from Heyer suggests that women's self-perception is also affected by the fiction they read. Drusilla Morville has fallen in love with the Earl of St Erth, but, having compared her own appearance to that of the heroines she's read about, she finds herself lacking:a woman's self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.(qtd. in Modleski 37)
a candid scrutiny of her own face in the mirror soon lowered her spirits [...]. She could perceive no merit either in the freshness of her complexion, or in her dark, well-opened eyes, and would willingly have sacrificed the natural curl in her brown hair for tresses of gold, or even of raven-black. As for her figure, though some men might admire little plump women, she could not bring herself to suppose that St Erth, himself so slim and graceful, could think her anything but a poor little dab of a girl. [...] 'Depend upon it, you are just the sort of girl a man would be glad to have for his sister! You don't even know how to swoon, and I daresay if you tried you would make wretched work of it, for all you have is common-sense, and of what use is that, pray?'As with the self-surveying woman described by Berger, Drusilla is aware of the conventions surrounding female behaviour. In relating her reality to that of fiction, she perhaps reveals both the way in which so much of life may feel like a performance, and the way in which each of us may refrain from casting ourselves in a particular role if we feel we lack the correct appearance, temperament, or both. Drusilla believes she lacks the beauty she feels is required in a heroine, as well as lacking what we might now describe as the Too Stupid to Live tendencies that afflict so many heroines. Heyer, however, by making Drusilla the heroine of the novel, challenges us to accept a wider range of heroines and, as a result, to consider the possibility that we too may play the heroine in the drama of life.3
This embittered thought brought to her mind the several occasions upon which she might, had she been the kind of female his lordship no doubt admired, have kindled his ardour by a display of sensibility, or even of heroism. This excursion into romance was not entirely successful, for while she did her best to conjure up an agreeable vision of a heroic Miss Morville, the Miss Morville who was the possessor not only of a practical mind but also of two outspoken brothers could not but interpose objections to the heroine's actions. [...] 'You would do better to put him out of your mind, and return to your parents,' she said. 'No doubt he will presently become betrothed to a tall and beautiful woman, and forget your very existence. [...].' (229-30)
Heyer seems to be subtly suggesting that character and personality, rather than physical beauty, are the true indicators of a person's nature and that there is hope that this will be recognised and valued by those who have the intelligence to look deeper than surface beauty. Like the poster Whitney Calvert created for Love Your Body Day (it's the image at the top of this post), The Quiet Gentleman can be read as an argument for seeing a woman's true beauty as an amalgam of her intelligence, strength, love, generosity etc.
Jennifer Crusie - Anyone But You
I couldn't possibly omit Anyone But You from a list of romances which challenge the beauty myth. Crusie addresses the problem head on:
Max said [...] "[...] Women do not handle turning forty well."Crusie's heroine is forty, and despite all her concerns about her appearance her sex-life is just about to to be restarted most satisfactorily.
Alex looked at him with contempt. "And you know this because of your vast experience in dating hundreds of women twice."
"No," Max said, sounding not at all perturbed. I know this because I'm a gynecologist. [...] Forty is when they start rethinking plastic surgery. [...] They look at magazines and see all those damn seventeen-year-old anorexics in push-up bras, or they go to the movies and see actresses with tummy tucks and enough silicone to start a new valley, and then they look at their perfectly good bodies and decide their sex lives are over." (158)
So, which romances would you add to the list?
1 Anne learned of Frederick Wentworth's initial negative opinion of her appearance thus:
after the Miss Musgroves had returned and finished their visit at the Cottage, she had this spontaneous information from Mary --The juxtaposition of his assessment of her and a description of his emotions towards her perhaps suggests that, as with his later, positive opinion of Anne's beauty, his negative opinion is at least partly the result of his feelings of resentment:
"Captain Wentworth is not very gallant by you, Anne, though he was so attentive to me. Henrietta asked him what he thought of you, when they went away, and he said, "You were so altered he should not have known you again." (Chapter 7)
Frederick Wentworth had used such words, or something like them, but without an idea that they would be carried round to her. He had thought her wretchedly altered, and in the first moment of appeal, had spoken as he felt. He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill, deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. (Chapter 7)2 Winkielman, Halberstadt, Fazendeiro, and Catty state that
our findings suggest that part of the preference for prototypicality arises from a general mechanism linking fluency and positive affect. This mechanism has been shown to contribute to several preference phenomena in psychology (Winkielman et al., 2003) and aesthetics (R. Reber, Schwarz, & Winkielman, 2004). From our perspective, prototypicality is simply one fluency-enhancing variable; others include repeated exposure, perceptual and conceptual priming, contrast, clarity, increased duration, and symmetry. This explanation of prototypicality preference does not rely on considerations of value for mate selection (Halberstadt & Rhodes, 2000, 2003). (805)3 Heyer also has Drusilla examine whether masculine beauty has played too great a role in creating her love for St Erth:
Drusilla's heart was not untouched [...] it had crumbled under the assault of the Earl's first smile. 'In fact,' Drusilla told her mirrored image severely, 'you have fallen in love with a beautiful face, and you should be ashamed of yourself!' She then reflected that she had several times been in company with Lord Byron without succumbing to the charms of a face generally held to be the most beautiful in England. (228-29)The implication would seem to be that although beauty may play a part in creating an attraction, it should not be the sole, or even primary, foundation for love.
- Alexander, Brian. "Why beauty is in the eye of the beholder: Cultural images influence our perception of attractiveness." MSNBC, 5 Oct. 2006.
- Austen, Jane. Persuasion. The Republic of Pemberley.
- Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. The Republic of Pemberley.
- Crusie, Jennifer. Anyone But You. 1996. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2006.
- Heyer, Georgette. The Quiet Gentleman. 1951. London: Pan, 1966.
- Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. 1982. New York: Routledge, 1990.
- Moses, Felix. "Learning Romance The Jane Austen Way: The Semic Code at Work in Persuasion." The Victorian Web, 12 August 2001.
- Winkielman, Piotr, Jamin Halberstadt, Tedra Fazendeiro, and Steve Catty. "Prototypes Are Attractive Because They Are Easy on the Mind." Psychological Science 17.9 (2006): 799-806.