Story type: Essay
In Autumn the thoughts lightly turn to Age. If the writer has seemed to be interested, sometimes to the neglect of other topics, in the American young woman, it was not because she is interested in herself, but because she is on the way to be one of the most agreeable objects in this lovely world. She may struggle against it; she may resist it by all the legitimate arts of the coquette and the chemist; she may be convinced that youth and beauty are inseparable allies; but she would have more patience if she reflected that the sunset is often finer than the sunrise, commonly finer than noon, especially after a stormy day. The secret of a beautiful old age is as well worth seeking as that of a charming young maidenhood. For it is one of the compensations for the rest of us, in the decay of this mortal life, that women, whose mission it is to allure in youth and to tinge the beginning of the world with romance, also make the end of the world more serenely satisfactory and beautiful than the outset. And this has been done without any amendment to the Constitution of the United States; in fact, it is possible that the Sixteenth Amendment would rather hinder than help this gracious process. We are not speaking now of what is called growing old gracefully and regretfully, as something to be endured, but as a season to be desired for itself, at least by those whose privilege it is to be ennobled and cheered by it. And we are not speaking of wicked old women. There is a unique fascination–all the novelists recognize it–in a wicked old woman; not very wicked, but a woman of abundant experience, who is perfectly frank and a little cynical, and delights in probing human nature and flashing her wit on its weaknesses, and who knows as much about life as a club man is credited with knowing. She may not be a good comrade for the young, but she is immensely more fascinating than a semi-wicked old man. Why, we do not know; that is one of the unfathomable mysteries of womanhood. No; we have in mind quite another sort of woman, of which America has so many that they are a very noticeable element in all cultivated society. And the world has nothing more lovely. For there is a loveliness or fascination sometimes in women between the ages of sixty and eighty that is unlike any other–a charm that woos us to regard autumn as beautiful as spring.
Perhaps these women were great beauties in their day, but scarcely so serenely beautiful as now when age has refined all that was most attractive. Perhaps they were plain; but it does not matter, for the subtle influence of spiritualized-intelligence has the power of transforming plainness into the beauty of old age. Physical beauty is doubtless a great advantage, and it is never lost if mind shines through it (there is nothing so unlovely as a frivolous old woman fighting to keep the skin-deep beauty of her youth); the eyes, if the life has not been one of physical suffering, usually retain their power of moving appeal; the lines of the face, if changed, may be refined by a certain spirituality; the gray hair gives dignity and softness and the charm of contrast; the low sweet voice vibrates to the same note of femininity, and the graceful and gracious are graceful and gracious still. Even into the face and bearing of the plain woman whose mind has grown, whose thoughts have been pure, whose heart has been expanded by good deeds or by constant affection, comes a beauty winning and satisfactory in the highest degree.
It is not that the charm of the women of whom we speak is mainly this physical beauty; that is only incidental, as it were. The delight in their society has a variety of sources. Their interest in life is broader than it once was, more sympathetically unselfish; they have a certain philosophical serenity that is not inconsistent with great liveliness of mind; they have got rid of so much nonsense; they can afford to be truthful–and how much there is to be learned from a woman who is truthful! they have a most delicious courage of opinion, about men, say, and in politics, and social topics, and creeds even. They have very little any longer to conceal; that is, in regard to things that should be thought about and talked about at all. They are not afraid to be gay, and to have enthusiasms. At sixty and eighty a refined and well-bred woman is emancipated in the best way, and in the enjoyment of the full play of the richest qualities of her womanhood. She is as far from prudery as from the least note of vulgarity. Passion, perhaps, is replaced by a great capacity for friendliness, and she was never more a real woman than in these mellow and reflective days. And how interesting she is–adding so much knowledge of life to the complex interest that inheres in her sex! Knowledge of life, yes, and of affairs; for it must be said of these ladies we have in mind that they keep up with the current thought, that they are readers of books, even of newspapers–for even the newspaper can be helpful and not harmful in the alembic of their minds.
Let not the purpose of this paper be misunderstood. It is not to urge young women to become old or to act like old women. The independence and frankness of age might not be becoming to them. They must stumble along as best they can, alternately attracting and repelling, until by right of years they join that serene company which is altogether beautiful. There is a natural unfolding and maturing to the beauty of old age. The mission of woman, about which we are pretty weary of hearing, is not accomplished by any means in her years of vernal bloom and loveliness; she has equal power to bless and sweeten life in the autumn of her pilgrimage. But here is an apologue: The peach, from blossom to maturity, is the most attractive of fruits. Yet the demands of the market, competition, and fashion often cause it to be plucked and shipped while green. It never matures, though it may take a deceptive richness of color; it decays without ripening. And the last end of that peach is worse than the first.