(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Jane Austen’s & Phoebe Baker Hyde’s Parallel Beauty Experiments: Through the Looking-Glasses of Sir Walter Elliot

Today, I listened to a good portion of an engrossing interview (on NPR) with Phoebe Baker Hyde, author of The Beauty Experiment, in which Hyde spoke perceptively about her life experiment spending an entire year not wearing any makeup, covering all the mirrors in her home, and similar abstentions from making herself “beautiful”. Her objective? In her words, to “ditch the bad friend” she carried around inside her head, the corrosive inner voice which hounds her (and all modern women), and insists on beauty maximization, on penalty of shame and self-loathing.

You can see Hyde and her book briefly profiled here in this short Katie Couric TV clip on YouTube…

Being the hardcore Janeite I am, when I heard Hyde speak about covering all the mirrors in her home, I was instantly reminded of the following memorable passage in Chapter 13 of Persuasion, when the bluff  Admiral Croft takes the full satirical measure of, and neutralizes, his landlord Sir Walter’s veritable hall of mirrors/chamber of horrors:

“I have done very little besides sending away some of the large looking-glasses from my dressing-room, which was your father's. A very good man, and very much the gentleman I am sure: but I should think, Miss Elliot," (looking with serious reflection), "I should think he must be rather a dressy man for his time of life. Such a number of looking-glasses! oh Lord! there was no getting away from one's self. So I got Sophy to lend me a hand, and we soon shifted their quarters; and now I am quite snug, with my little shaving glass in one corner, and another great thing that I never go near."

As I’ve noted before, I really love that subtle pun of on “serious reflection” that the narrator slips in, a pun I expanded upon 3 years ago here:

And then, when Hyde spoke about going cold turkey on facial makeup, I also could not help but recollect these other varied pronouncements of self-styled cosmetics maven Sir Walter…..

...about a passing acquaintance in Bath…

“…a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage you can imagine; his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree; all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder at top….”

…and about his dear old friend Lady Russell…

“Morning visits are never fair by women at her time of life, who make themselves up so little. If she would only wear rouge she would not be afraid of being seen; but last time I called, I observed the blinds were let down immediately."

…and about his daughter, Ann (of course the novel’s heroine) and Mrs. Clay, the young widow tipping her cap at him…

 “In the course of the same morning, Anne and her father chancing to be alone together, he began to compliment her on her improved looks; he thought her "less thin in her person, in her cheeks; her skin, her complexion, greatly improved; clearer, fresher. Had she been using any thing in particular?" "No, nothing." "Merely Gowland," he supposed. "No, nothing at all." "Ha! he was surprised at that;" and added, "certainly you cannot do better than to continue as you are; you cannot be better than well; or I should recommend Gowland, the constant use of Gowland, during the spring months. Mrs Clay has been using it at my recommendation, and you see what it has done for her. You see how it has carried away her freckles."

…and even the narrator seems to be infected with Sir Walter’s obsession with facial preservation, albeit in a charitable, rather than a judgmental, manner:

“Mrs Croft, though neither tall nor fat, had a squareness, uprightness, and vigour of form, which gave importance to her person. She had bright dark eyes, good teeth, and altogether an agreeable face; though her reddened and weather-beaten complexion, the consequence of her having been almost as much at sea as her husband, made her seem to have lived some years longer in the world than her real eight-and-thirty.”

And here’s the most curious thing---for all this persistent focus on facial beauty in Persuasion, I am hard-pressed to recall any other passages of this kind anywhere else in JA’s other novels. Sure, we hear in general terms about the relative beauty of the many female characters who populate JA’s novels. But  there’s very little that comes to my mind that goes beyond that “skin-deep” (ha ha), superficial level of description---as if JA was just getting that perfunctory detail out of the way as expeditiously as she could (“the bells rang, the heroine was beautiful, etc etc”), so she could get on to the real business of her fiction, which was about inner beauty or ugliness, in an infinitely wide palette of personality colors and shapes.

So what I am forgetting? Or is it really the case that it was only near the end of her life that JA decided to engage so candidly with the tyranny of beauty in her world, which I suspect was even then a harsh taskmaster for women, even if not close to the omnipresent monstrous level of scrutiny and focus we see in 2014?  

And how, I also wonder, did Jane Austen really feel about that tyranny? It’s so hard to answer that question—for starters, we know too little about whether her own face conformed to the standards of beauty in force in her day—Cassandra’s famous miniature depicts a woman who, like Hyde during her Year of Living Plainly, appears to thumb her nose at any pressure to look femininely beautiful—so much so, that JEAL, who distorted so many things in order to conceal the true Jane Austen from the world, radically altered Cassandra’s portrait to make JA seem more like a conventional feminine beauty.

And I’d also be really curious to know if Phoebe Baker Hyde was in anywise inspired to conduct her Beauty Experiment by a prior familiarity with the dubious wisdom of the improbable duo of Sir Walter Elliot and Admiral Croft. But, whereas I cannot ask Jane Austen for an answer to my question about her, I am able to pose my question to Hyde, and so I will Tweet her the link to this post at my blog, and ask!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Phoebe said...

Regrettably, no, I wasn't inspired by those two male observers. But then again maybe yes, in that the construction of femininity (as opposed to femaleness) is such a social thing. Everyone has a hand in its creation, fictional characters in much-loved novels too. I find it interesting that the passages you found are from the perspective of men--they tell us more about the men themselves than the objects of their scrutiny. I wonder if Austen found this particular device of characterization less useful in women, or too mean spirited, or just--sadly-- too commonplace.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Great answer! Jane Austen did put those perspectives on physical appearance in the mouths of those two older men, one of whom was judging the appearance of the other, but she also puts the harshest judgment on female appearance in the mind of her saintly heroine, Anne Elliot, who gets really upset with Mrs. Musgrove's 'fat sighings', because, I claim, that matron was blocking Anne's view of Wentworth on the sofa.

It's very difficult to extrapolate from judgments made by her characters to judgments made by JA herself, but I do believe she reserved most of her irony and moral condemnation for those who earned it by their bad behavior toward others.

Out of curiosity, had you read Persuasion before you came up with the idea for your experiment? If so, when? I have a theory that Jane Austen sent 1,000 Trojan Horses out into the minds of her readers, such that you would not even realize that she had prompted an idea, because it entered the reader's mind subliminally.

Thanks again for your reply!