the beauty question (reflections after reading Rebecca Mead on Middlemarch)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

I have made light of it, of course. I have said, within the past week, even: If only I were beautiful, Then. I wouldn't feel so unsettled as I sit before a camera, filming essays about memoir I've given my whole heart and head to. If only I were beautiful, Then. That driver wouldn't have cut me off; it was my turn after all. If only I were beautiful, Then. She would have never dared. If only I were beautiful, I'd be something.

No self-respecting woman is supposed to say such things, think such things, wallow so ungraciously. I know that. But the thoughts come unbidden, and there they are. Mucking around with me.

How easy it is to cast blame on those things I cannot control. How undignified not to stand up to the superficial me, not to embrace all my good fortune first and only. But there it is. I am.

Earlier this week, while reading the intensely intelligent memoir, My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, I found myself all caught up in the beauty question again. Mead is pondering George Eliot's appearance—the images she finds as she conducts her deep research into the life and mind of this complicated writer. Eliot did not, it seems, impress others as a beauty. She was possessed of a large nose and jowly facade. She was not svelte. She was not to be found in the fashion pages.

But, Mead writes, something happened when Eliot spoke. Something that contested the physical facts of her matter:

... a first impression of her hideousness, [Henry James] said, soon gave way to something else entirely. "Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her," he continued. "Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking."

Sara Jane Lippincott, Mead tells us, first found Eliot to be "exceedingly plain, with her aggressive jaw and her evasive blue yes.... Neither nose, nor mouth, nor chin were to my liking; but, as she grew interested and earnest in conversation, a great light flashed over or out of her face, till it seemed transfigured, while the sweetness of her rare smile was something quite indescribable."

Mead ends that paragraph with, "Ivan Turgenev, a friend of Eliot's, said that she made him understand that it was possible to fall in love with a woman who was not pretty."

Mead's entire book deserves your time. Mead's deft examination of how Eliot's biography shaped her fiction. Mead's brilliant assertion of the power books have to help us read our own lives. Mead's never-intrusive insertion of her personal journey as a repeated Middlemarch reader.

And, finally, Mead's lesson—Eliot's lesson—that, in a world of static images, Facebook portraits, video essays, beauty is not a closed one thing. Beauty moves.


Tawni Vee Waters said...

This is lovely, Beth. I love, "Beauty moves." I also love your beauty, not just of your glorious mind, but also your face. You are quite wrong about it. But that's ok. You are right about so many other things. Xoxo.

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