The One with the Pretty

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton

Every now and then I come across a book that has been collecting dust on my shelves. I’ll buy a book, add it to the pile and then for some reason never get around to reading it. Right now that book is Edith Wharton’s masterpiece The House of Mirth, published in 1905. This one has been squirreled away on my bookshelf for so long I think it has come with me on two apartment moves. I don’t know what made me finally crack open the cover last week, but I’m so glad I did.

Wharton (the first woman to receive a Pultizer Prize for literature) paints a portrait of New York high society in the time when the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts reigned, and she does it with satire and humor. So much humor, in fact, I’ve regularly laughed out loud while reading on the subway.

But this “old New York” she writes about so eloquently wasn’t all glitz and glamour for the women on the inside of these closed ranks. Marrying “well” was of the utmost importance, something the character Miss Lily Bart must do, because really there isn’t another viable option for her. After her father is financially ruined and dies, Lily and her mother cling desperately to the only way of life they’ve known. Their last ditch effort to secure Lily’s future relies solely on her appearance. (I’m realizing that my description here doesn’t sound hilarious, but trust me that this book has light moments too.)

Only one thought consoled her [Lily’s mother], and that was the contemplation of Lily’s beauty. She studied it with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian…

She [Lily] liked to think of her beauty as a power for good, as giving her the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste.

This last tongue-in-cheek line got me thinking about using beauty “as a power for good.” Is that even possible? There’s no doubt that Miss Lily Bart’s beauty opens doors, which benefits the holder, not the beholder. This is just as true today as it was in Wharton’s time. Attractiveness certainly has its advantages, but I’m not sure that Sofia Vergara’s gorgeous hair or Jennifer Lawrence’s perky nose is helping anyone else. My neighbor is stunning, but other than occasionally thinking, “Wow, she’s gorgeous,” I’m not realizing any benefit from her beauty.

Then I saw this short clip from the Black Women in Hollywood event wherein Lupita Nyong’o, who would go on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress a few days later, was honored. How can beauty be used as a power for good? This is how…

I remember a time when I, too, felt unbeautiful… And my one prayer to God was that I would wake up lighter skinned… My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome… I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy.


March is Women’s History Month, and I’ll be exploring some inspiring women in my posts this month.

What does beauty mean to you? Do you think beauty can be used for good?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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26 comments

  1. Hmmm… I do think there’s some measure of enjoyment to be gained from looking at beauty, and that includes beautiful people. I remember, many years ago, when I was working in an office, there was one such person, a tall, dark-skinned black woman, who was so insanely beautiful, you couldn’t help but stare. What was she doing in the accounts department, of all places(!) when she should have been earning millions on the runway?!?!

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    1. Ooh, I know what you mean. There’s a guy in my office who’s extremely tall. I think that she should be playing basketball or some other sport. Interestingly he works in the accounting department also. I see a pattern here.

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  2. Gosh, Jackie, that video is stunning–so, so amazing. I love the notion of beauty being about being, not doing or consuming. This reminds me of a reading I did last night here in Cuenca. I have written a new first chapter for my memoir and was facing a large audience. I was nervous. Interesting, one of the other writers, who is also a musician (from your very borough, but the way) told me that my book was not mine and the reading was not about me. That I was merely the vehicle. That I share because it is my duty to the story. But really none of this is about me. It’s about the essence of what we value, what makes anyone who they are and how we all create meaning.

    Wonderful post, my friend. THANK YOU!

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

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    1. I love that sentiment, Kathy. Every artist has a responsibility to her art. But then once it leaves your hand, it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the audience’s interpretation of the work. I think that is the hardest part.

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  3. What a beautiful post and that video is so inspiring. Beauty does come in a variety of forms and conventional Hollywood beauty is not necessarily what it is all about in my humble opinion. I think we all can project our inner beauty in our actions and our kindness to others–that is the true measure of beauty for me. Lovely post. Thanks!

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    1. What a terrific line: “We all can project our inner beauty in our actions and our kindness to others.” Absolutely. I think you’ve just perfectly summed up how one can use beauty for good.

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  4. Great post and video, Jackie. It’s incredible to think that Lupita N’yongo considered herself unattractive.
    Her acceptance speech made me teary-eyed too. Such a thoughtful young woman.

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  5. Unfortunately, I do not have speakers on my computer here at The Grind and I left my headphones draped on my spin bike/cloths rack at home, so I’ll watch this video later. But I am well aware of how articulate and graceful Lupita is. Milton and I were rooting hard for her to win that Oscar. Her role as Patsey is the heart, if not the personification of the heartbreak, of “12 Years a Slave” with Solomon’s desperate plight being the story’s soul. If you have yet to see this film, I urge you not to miss it. Her performance was even more extraordinary when I saw how stunningly attractive she is as herself. Of course, great acting is all about great transformation. I wept for Patsey and felt immense anger over the relentless degradation she endures knowing full well that this monumental torture and emotional abuse actually happened to a real woman with no way out. But I cheered for Lupita and felt immense satisfaction seeing her hold that shiny naked gold guy. I hope this film is shown in every high school in the country.

    Beauty means both physical as well as internal to me. A person who is outwardly gorgeous and inwardly kind, like my pal, Coco, is the total package. But a guy that could be George Costanza’s physical doppelganger like my longtime bud, Martini Max, is as handsome as any male model due to his lighting fast wit, charm and okay, he always dresses well and drives a sexy convertible, but if you just saw him alone at a diner, you might not think much. So, beauty, can be both instantly apparent as well as elusive depending on who’s radiating it.

    I say yes that beauty can be used for good when I think of a knockout like Angelina Jolie who is also a dedicated humanitarian. Her partner is eye candy, too, and he was instrumental in getting “12 Years a Slave” produced. But there are also a lot of Martini Max’s out there, beautiful people that are active in their communities. Max is a silent film expert and he is actively involved in preserving Fort Lee, New Jersey’s film history because, believe it or not, Hollywood was actually launched over a century ago across the Hudson in the Pallisades. Film has come a long way to this day when a dark skinned black woman can proudly hold the most coveted award for playing a woman who was treated worst than a dog when she lived. Lupita vidicated Patsey. She did immense good.

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    1. You’ve definitely convinced me that I need to see “12 Years a Slave” if for no other reason than to see Lupita’s performance. People who are “conventionally” beautiful probably have a harder time not relying on their looks but cultivating their inner beauty as well. Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about that. LOL 🙂 But people like Angelina do. You know how thrilled I am that she’s putting Louis Zamperini’s story on the big screen.

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  6. I set this book on my shelf to read this year. Sounds like I should soon. Beauty if such a simple concept that gets twisted by so many. For me, beauty is everywhere: nature, animals and people. It’s a feeling. When it comes to people I really think (and this will sound cheesy) that’s beauty is connected with a person’s heart and soul. Good people have this radiance about them.

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    1. I think you would love this one. It’s so accessible and so spot on. And it has quotes like this: “She had been bored all afternoon by Percy Gryce… but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life.” Come on, right?

      I couldn’t agree more about beauty being everywhere. It takes an open mind and heart to see it. 🙂

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  7. Oh, Jackie, I loooooove Warton. So glad you liked this one when you *finally* got around to reading it. It’s one of her best, IMO. You make me want to read it yet again.

    Great video. Her speaking voice is lovely. It’s terrible anyone still feels the feelings she felt as a young girl. So sad. But maybe we all go through this, in one way or another, in our beauty-obsessed world, where external packaging has always been a heavy factor in the value of women. In answer to your question: beauty unquestionably opens doors for some, but it only benefits them. And I suspect it can also draw unwanted attention, and unwanted jealousy, too.

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  8. I must confess to knowing about Edith Wharton more than reading her. Thanks for the referral.

    Thanks also for the discussion about beauty. I’ve never thought of it as something that benefits others, but it sure seems to benefit the hell out of the bearer.

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  9. I will have to read that book! I’m watching Citizen Kane tonight, so I’m on a nostalgia kick. I agree that beauty and aesthetics in general has its place, but with women, it’s only skin deep!

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    1. The more I read The House of Mirth, the more I’m enjoying it. The nuances of their high society relationships were so much deeper than I would have expected. One wrong word could send a person down the social ladder a few pegs!

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  10. I didn’t see this post for some reason. It’s funny, I just finsihed this book as well. Or rather, a while ago and I don’t think I can review it. I resented Wharton for the ending. It felt as if she punished Lily for being so beautiful.

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    1. Reading this story actually made me have sympathy for wealthy women of this era. It seems like it should have been a very easy life filled with parties and frivolity, but in many ways they were just as trapped as poor women. Neither group seemed to have many options.

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