46: On beauty (or, being a fat little skinny girl)
Jane was not beautiful. I think this is one of the reasons I like her, or the idea of her. Actually, really, we don’t know what she looked like. The only likeness we have is this little drawing her sister did, that looks like just the work of an afternoon and that no one thought looked especially like her at the time. The proportions seem off—the shoulders slope, the eyes and mouth and shape of the head and neck are not quite right—yet nearly every image we have of her has been adapted somehow from this. They probably never imagined it would make it outside their little family circle. And now it sits in a little case in the National Portrait Gallery in London, the light going off and on from time to time to protect it.
Jane’s niece, Caroline said in her brief memoir of her aunt:
“Her’s was the first face that I can remember thinking pretty, not that I used that word to myself, but I know I looked at her with admiration—Her face was rather round than long—she had a bright, but not a pink colour—a clear brown complexion and very good hazle eyes—She was not, I believe, an absolute beauty, but before she left Steventon she was established as a very pretty girl, in the opinion of most of her neighbors . . . Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally—it was in short curls round her face (for then ringlets were not.)”Caroline was much younger than her aunt, and perhaps her admiration made her see Jane in a more positive light. Her sister Anna was older, and got to the point of being very good friends with Jane, and almost feeling like her peer. She sought Jane’s advice on her marriage and brought around silly books she had gotten from the lending library for their general amusement. She even started to write and Jane offered guidance.
She wrote in a letter to her brother James-Edward:
“This has brought me to the period of my own greatest share of intimacy; the two years before my marriage, & the two or three years after, when we lived, as you know almost close to Chawton when the original 17 years between us seemed to shrink to 7—or to nothing. It comes back to me now how strangely I missed her; it had become so much a habit with me to put by things in my mind with a reference to her and to say to myself, ‘I shall keep this for Aunt Jane.’”But Anna was not so entirely gracious about Jane’s appearance:
“The Figure tall & slight, but not drooping; well balanced, as was proved by her quick firm step. Her complexion of that rather rare sort which seems the peculiar property of light brunettes. A mottled skin, not fair, but perfectly clear & healthy in hue; the fine naturally curling hair, neither light nor dark; the bright hazel eyes to match, & the rather small but well shaped nose.”Which all sounds very nice. And then Anna adds: “One hardly understands how with all these advantages she could yet fail of being a decidedly handsome woman.”
I have often felt that way myself—there are parts that should add up to a good-looking whole that don’t entirely. Tall and thin, with lovely eyes, a decent complexion (not as much of that smooth tan as I would like to have gotten from my Norwegian forebears, but still, decent), a nose which could be called “small but well shaped,” thick-ish brown hair that looks good when I do something with it, although that’s not very often, and cheeks which are “a little too full,” which is how another family acquaintance described Jane. My ears are crooked, and there are moments when I look in the mirror and think the jowls are beginning. Then there are moments when I catch myself in the mirror and think it’s not so bad as I thought, and maybe it’s actually far better than I usually imagine. But I’ve often thought that, if there is beauty here, it is with a kind of weirdness underlying it—like the disproportions of Cassandra’s sketch—which throws everything off.
The current American fashion, as everyone knows, is boobs-on-a-stick. As I am not actually a stick figure, and you have to have a good imagination to see my breasts, I do not exactly fit in. But then, I think this is not really a trend for normal women so much as for cocaine addicted, surgically altered models.
I try to tell my friends that I am actually a fat little skinny girl, but no one believes me. The only place on my body that seems capable of carrying fat cells is my stomach, which I wouldn’t mind if there were something to balance it out, but there’s not, so on my worst days I look rather disproportioned.
If you caught me sitting on the couch you would as likely see my little pudgy stomach sticking out as not. The thing is, it’s easy to hide these particular faults with a good outfit, a series of carefully constructed optical illusions. But it is still there, this weird little body, my skinny little frame with the stomach of a much larger woman, and I know it even when other people don’t.
My sister-in-law, who is wise and witty, tells me that women are supposed to have stomachs. Jane probably had a stomach and couldn’t have cared. But then, they were (and I think the British still are) much more satisfied with normal sorts of bodies than we are.
I don’t believe in plastic surgery. For one thing, I think it’s far easier to learn to be content with your body than to have someone knock you out, cut you open, and stuff foreign objects inside you. Maybe I’ve got that wrong. Maybe surgery really is easier than contentment. But I think contentment is healthier and more admirable and in some way much more attractive. So I am choosing to believe that my stomach looks big only because the rest of me is so very small.
I don’t think Jane would have wanted to be the most beautiful person in the room. I imagine that she was incredibly content with her own little blend of beauty and intelligence and wit.
She gives her characters only the vaguest physical descriptions. Odd that we have such clear pictures of them in our minds, because she didn’t labor over this at all. We get to know them most through what they say, their friendships, their place in society, the choices they make.