Growing Old Ungracefully by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

There comes, we are told, a crucial moment, “a tide” in all lives, that taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. An assertion, by the bye, which is open to doubt. What does come to every one is an hour fraught with warning, which, if unheeded, leads on to folly. This fateful date coincides for most of us with the discovery that we are turning gray, or that the “crow’s feet” or our temples are becoming visible realities. The unpleasant question then presents itself: Are we to slip meekly into middle age, or are arms be taken up against our insidious enemy, and the rest of life become a losing battle, fought inch by inch?

In other days it was the men who struggled the hardest against their fate. Up to this century, the male had always been the ornamental member of a family. Cæsar, we read, coveted a laurel crown principally because it would help to conceal his baldness. The wigs of the Grand Monarque are historical. It is characteristic of the time that the latter’s attempts at rejuvenation should have been taken as a matter of course, while a few years later poor Madame de Pompadour’s artifices to retain her fleeting youth were laughed at and decried.

To-day the situation is reversed. The battle, given up by the men-who now accept their fate with equanimity-is being waged by their better halves with a vigor heretofore unknown. So general has this mania become that if asked what one weakness was most characteristic of modern women, what peculiarity marked them as different from their sisters in other centuries, I should unhesitatingly answer, “The desire to look younger than their years.”

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That people should long to be handsomer or taller or better proportioned than a cruel Providence has made them, is natural enough; but that so much time and trouble should be spent simply in trying to look “young,” does seem unreasonable, especially when it is evident to everybody that such efforts must, in the nature of things, be failures. The men or women who do not look their age are rare. In each generation there are exceptions, people who, from one cause or another-generally an excellent constitution-succeed in producing the illusion of youth for a few years after youth itself has flown.

A curious fatality that has the air of a nemesis pursues those who succeed in giving this false appearance. When pointing them out to strangers, their admirers (in order to make the contrast more effective) add a decade or so to the real age. Only last month I was sitting at dinner opposite a famous French beauty, who at fifty succeeds in looking barely thirty. During the meal both my neighbors directed attention to her appearance, and in each case said: “Isn’t she a wonder! You know she’s over sixty!” So all that poor lady gained by looking youthful was ten years added to her age!

The desire to remain attractive as long as possible is not only a reasonable but a commendable ambition. Unfortunately the stupid means most of our matrons adopt to accomplish this end produce exactly the opposite result.

One sign of deficient taste in our day is this failure to perceive that every age has a charm of its own which can be enhanced by appropriate surroundings, but is lost when placed in an incongruous setting. It saddens a lover of the beautiful to see matrons going so far astray in their desire to please as to pose for young women when they no longer can look the part.

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Holmes, in My Maiden Aunt, asks plaintively:-

Why will she train that wintry curl in such a springlike way?

That this folly is in the air to-day, few will dispute. It seems to be perpetrated unconsciously by the greater number, with no particular object in view, simply because other people do it. An unanswerable argument when used by one of the fair sex!

Few matrons stop to think for themselves, or they would realize that by appearing in the same attire as their daughters they challenge a comparison which can only be to their disadvantage, and should be if possible avoided. Is there any disillusion more painful than, on approaching what appeared from a distance to be a young girl, to find one’s self face to face with sixty years of wrinkles? That is a modern version of the saying, “an old head on young shoulders,” with a vengeance! If mistaken sexagenarians could divine the effect that tired eyes smiling from under false hair, aged throats clasped with collars of pearls, and rheumatic old ribs braced into a semblance of girlish grace, produce on the men for whose benefit such adornments have been arranged, reform would quickly follow. There is something absolutely uncanny in the illusion. The more successful it is, the more weird the effect.

No one wants to see Polonius in the finery of Mercutio. What a sense of fitness demands is, on the contrary, a “make up” in keeping with the rôle, which does not mean that a woman is to become a frump, but only that she is to make herself attractive in another way.

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During the Ancien Régime in France, matters of taste were considered all-important; an entire court would consult on the shade of a brocade, and hail a new coiffure as an event. The great ladies who had left their youth behind never then committed the blunder, so common among our middle-aged ladies, of aping the maidens of the day. They were far too clever for that, and appreciated the advantages to be gained from sombre stuffs and flattering laces. Let those who doubt study Nattier’s exquisite portrait of Maria Leczinska. Nothing in the pose or toilet suggests a desire on the painter’s part to rejuvenate his sitter. If anything, the queen’s age is emphasized as something honorable. The gray hair is simply arranged and partly veiled with black lace, which sets off her delicate, faded face to perfection, but without flattery or fraud.

We find the same view taken of age by the masters of the Renaissance, who appreciated its charm and loved to reproduce its grace.

Queen Elizabeth stands out in history as a woman who struggled ungracefully against growing old. Her wigs and hoops and farthingales served only to make her ridiculous, and the fact that she wished to be painted without shadows in order to appear “young,” is recorded as an aberration of a great mind.

Are there no painters to-day who will whisper to our wives and mothers the secret of looking really lovely, and persuade them to abandon their foolish efforts at rejuvenation?

Let us see some real old ladies once more, as they look at us from miniature and portrait. Few of us, I imagine, but cherish the memory of some such being in the old home, a soft-voiced grandmother, with silvery hair brushed under a discreet and flattering cap, with soft, dark raiment and tulle-wrapped throat. There are still, it is to be hoped, many such lovable women in our land, but at times I look about me in dismay, and wonder who is to take their places when they are gone. Are there to be no more “old ladies”? Will the next generation have to look back when the word “grandmother” is mentioned, to a stylish vision in Parisian apparel, décolleté and decked in jewels, or arrayed in cocky little bonnets, perched on tousled curls, knowing jackets, and golfing skirts?

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The present horror of anything elderly comes, probably, from the fact that the preceding generation went to the other extreme, young women retiring at forty into becapped old age. Knowing how easily our excitable race runs to exaggeration, one trembles to think what surprises the future may hold, or what will be the next decree of Dame Fashion. Having eliminated the “old lady” from off the face of the earth, how fast shall we continue down the fatal slope toward the ridiculous? Shall we be compelled by a current stronger than our wills to array ourselves each year (the bare thought makes one shudder) in more and more youthful apparel, until corpulent senators take to running about in “sailor suits,” and octogenarian business men go “down town” in “pinafores,” while belles of sixty or seventy summers appear in Kate Greenaway costumes, and dine out in short-sleeved bibs, which will allow coy glimpses of their cunning old ankles to appear over their socks?

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