I’m rereading Persuasion, and as I read, I’ve been thinking about all the references to how Anne has lost her bloom. We’re told in the first chapters that “Anne Elliot had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early.” Even Captain Wentworth says Anne is “so altered he should not have known [her] again.” Then Anne swipes left on his sorry face and friends him on Facebook so that she can pointedly unfriend him later.
Just kidding. Instead Anne agrees that she’s quite ugly now, but Wentworth is still hot, and if only she had married him before the worries and stresses of life took their toll on her face. I want to say the world is different now, but is it? When a woman hears a disparaging comment, from an ex of all people, does she say, “Move along, you worthless loser,” or does she go to the mirror and count every wrinkle and imperfection? I think I’d do the “worthless loser” bit boldly with my friends, but then, at home, when it’s just me and my mirror, I’d be counting those wrinkles.
Anne’s sister Elizabeth also worries about this loss of bloom. Austen writes that Elizabeth “was fully satisfied of being still quite as handsome as ever, but she felt her approach to the years of danger, and would have rejoiced to be certain of being properly solicited by a baronet-blood within the next twelvemonth or two.” Elizabeth worries that time will suck away her beauty, so she’d better lock down a man soon. Elizabeth is 29, very much at the age of danger in Austen’s time. Today, at least among my friends, the new age of danger seems to be about 39. It’s pushed back a decade, but it’s still there, looming.
The Crofts continue this emphasis on a woman’s looks. When speaking of their quick engagement, Mrs. Croft says to her husband, “I had known you by character, however, long before.” Admiral Croft then agrees, “Well, and I had heard of you as a very pretty girl.” She knew he was solid, loyal, honest, and he knew she was pretty. So! Even trade!
Sir Walter also cares about his looks, but his fixation is seen as silly and excessive, something to laugh at. A man caring about his looks is frivolous, but a woman is only doing what is necessary because her looks are her key to marriage, safety, and security.
I can read the novel now and think about the pressures of sexism. These poor women, taught by society that their appearance and youth are their main assets, and once they lose those, they are less useful, less relevant, less noticed.
Why, then, 200 years later, can I relate? The pandemic was hard. And now that the dust is beginning to (kind of) settle, I look at myself and see wrinkles and gray hair. Where did those come from? Are they going away? I Google it: “Will my gray hair and wrinkles go away after the pandemic because that wasn’t really fair, and it was an early loss of bloom, and what if Captain Wentworth says I’m so altered he can no longer recognize me?” And Google tells me where to get hair dye and Botox and also corrects my spelling because, let’s face it: Google has a terrible habit of mansplaining when what I really wanted was someone to just listen.
Maybe my question isn’t why sexism is still here so much as why I’m still letting it have so much power over me. Why am I thinking about buying carcinogenic hair dye and injecting poison into my face, as if these are rational options? When my husband says I’m pretty, why is that gratifying? Shouldn’t I be happier if he said, “My gosh, Kirstin. That comment was so witty that I’d be overcome with lust if we didn’t have three children tearing through the house like wild boars.” Wait. Why isn’t he saying that? I knew if I kept typing, I’d get to how this was somehow his fault.
Today, a woman can make her living without a partner, but her looks are still important if she wants one, and, as looks fade, as we age, there is still less relevance in our society for older men and women alike. Just look at the pandemic. People over 65 were affected, and there was a lot of controversy over whether we should shelter, wear masks, alter our lives. If COVID had been killing off children and pretty young things, I don’t believe there would have been so much controversy. We would have stayed home to protect them. But people in nursing homes? That sparks debate.
When I read about Anne losing her bloom and her relevance, I’m surprised at how much I relate. I’m surprised at how little society has changed. And I wonder if all this worrying about how my wrinkles and gray hair are making me less relevant in society is causing me more wrinkles and gray hair. Google, do you know? Oh, right. I misspelled “relevant.” Thanks for that.
I waxed a little serious in this one. Don’t worry. I won’t make a habit of it. Comment below to tell me how you stayed sane during the pandemic—or comment on whatever you want, and thanks for reading.