The Chinese philosopher Confucius once wrote, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” This goes against our culture which praises the obvious outer beauty of models and actresses and even athletes. We admire the glamorous and sexual. There is always a connection between feminity and beauty and anyone who does not match the criteria is somehow considered deficient and lacking. How many young women grow up feeling less than because they do not look like those they see on TV or in movies and in magazines?
Shallow and superficial is certainly nothing new. The Greeks even had a saying, “If he is not beautiful, he is not a god.” And, even in this modern age, we too often hold fast to that ideology. I can easily remember being on the playground at school and the cruelty of boys who would try to pick out who they thought was the ugliest girl and mockingly say to another boy that she was his “girlfriend” just to get an “Ewww, gross. No way!” out of him (especially if the girl was near them). Then the boys would up their game by telling that boy that he would marry her one day and have her hideous children. This was yet another reason why I so often hated school. Having always felt an outsider, I have always identified myself with whoever was being bullied, teased, made fun of or mocked. They were the ones I would come alongside to be their friend.
Charles Darwin believed that animals, as well as humans, preferred beauty because attractiveness made one more desirable to the opposite sex and for breeding. In his The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relationship to Sex, Darwin controversially wrote that animals choose mates based on aesthetics: if someone was alluring. Sexual selection was rooted solely in a taste for beauty. So where does this leave those who are found lacking? As less than the aesthetic ideal?
Two of my favorite authors are George Eliot and Eudora Welty. They have written some of the most beautiful prose in the English language. They have daring souls and keen eyes for details. Despite their talent and craftsmanship, in reading biographies of both novelists, I was horrified to see how much time was spent on describing their looks and appraising their appearances. Both by the biographers and by those who knew Eliot and Welty.
In 1933, Anne Freemantle wrote of Eliot, “It must be a terrible sorrow to be young and unattractive: to look in the mirror and see a sallow unhealthy face, with a yellowish skin, straight nose, and mouse-colored hair.”
William Michael Rossetti, the critic and brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, described Eliot as, “a woman with next to no feminine beauty or charm or of countenance or person.”
Novelist Henry James was, perhaps, the cruelest with his assessment of Eliot’s countenance when he wrote that she was “magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous.”
When I read such horrendously cruel and malicious descriptions, I cannot help but wonder why they would take the time to be so mean and vicious to another human being? What, within themselves, is so insecure that they feel the need to act no better than the boys on the playground of my school?
“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are still alive.,” Eliot once wrote, “There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them.” Beautiful and good. For Eliot moral virtue always eclipses physical beauty.
Is this what lies behind her writing the poem “Empathy”?
Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible
Comfort of feeling safe with a person,
Having neither to weight thoughts,
Nor measure words–but pouring them
All right out–just as they are
Chaff and grain together,
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them,
Keep what is worth keeping,
And with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.
Those who spent any time with Eliot noticed a change in themselves. Even Henry James who’d spoken of her so cruelly found that there was such empathy and tenderness in her that he found himself becoming aware of her true beauty. As he wrote, “Behold me, literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking!” He, like others who began to know George Eliot better, realized that she had a luminous intelligence and a generous character. In her masterpiece Middlemarch, Eliot wrote, “I should like to make life beautiful – I mean everybody’s life. And then all this immense expanse of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think most people are shut out from it.”
Eliot believed that the meaning of our lives was to make life less difficult for others. As if writing her own beatitude, she said, “Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul on another.”
A woman who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi with Eudora Welty once said of the author, “It wasn’t that Eudora was plain. She was ugly to the point of being grotesque. In the South, that was tantamount to being an old maid.”
Those who were polite described her as “different looking” or as not being “pretty.” Others call her the “ugliest person I’ve ever known.”
“People give pain, are callous and insensitive, empty and cruel,” Welty once said, “but place heals the hurt, soothes the outrage, fills the terrible vacuum that these human beings make.”
Her looks made her an outsider in a Southern culture that prized beauty and loveliness in a young woman (or Southern belle). For the Southerner, beauty in a woman was akin to purity and revered as something that they needed to protect from all harm and is so often tied to issues of race. Because Eudora Welty did not measure up to this form of perfection and fragility, it may be why, as Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in an article for The New Yorker, “Welty had a notably vivid sympathy for the freak and the grotesque, for the pygmy and the pickled and the blinkingly dim, characters who served to set the wider population in her stories at a disadvantage. She knew her outsiders, and she understood what people used them for.” This would also play a huge role in the works of two other Southern writers, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers (who also did not meet that standard for womanhood). All three women were most often described as “homely and plain.”
They, however, would shift the ugliness from the obvious exteriors to the less noticed interiors of characters whose cruelty comes out in relation to the grotesque figures that populate their works.
“Beauty,” Eudora wrote, “is no a means, not a way of furthering a thing in the world. It is a result,; it belongs to ordering, to form, to aftereffect.” This belief shaped how she constructed and wrote her stories, as well as her eye for photography and her love of gardening. Welty believed that to create beauty, one had to engage with empathy the world around oneself. It is a “stepping down from the general view close to the particular” where one truly begins to see people and place more clearly and with more sympathy.
Her writing always contained understanding and insight into the life of others, especially those outside of or on the fringes of society. As she once said,”Mutual understanding in the world being nearly always, as now, at low ebb, it is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another, if the other can hear at all. Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, indeed, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction; in particular, the novel.”
Art, for Welty, illuminates the human condition: the suffering, the loneliness and the separateness of human life. She holds this up for the reader to see, just as she did in her photographs. Eudora Welty was a shy woman who found protection behind a typewriter or camera, where she could watch with her eye for detail, the lives of others In an interview with the New York Times, she spoke of these two art forms as a “kindred impulse” that sprang from her inquisitive nature and a “wish to respond to what I saw and what I felt about things.” She saw both as her desire to portray things truthfully: “Portray life, living people, as you saw them. And a camera could catch that fleeting moment, which is what a short story, in all its depth, tries to do. If it’s sensitive enough, it catches the transient moment.”
Through her art, both in story form and photographs, Eudora Welty stated, “My continuing passion is to part a curtain, that invisible veil of indifference that falls between us and that blinds us to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.”
One cannot help but see how empathy and a desire to open the eyes of others to each other’s human plight came out of her own loneliness and pain.
As with Eliot, those who spent time with Eudora Welty found their attitude changed in regards to how they thought of her. In her biography Eudora: A Writer’s Life, Ann Waldron writes how many people’s experience went like this, “The first time I saw her, I thought she was the ugliest person I’d ever seen. Five minutes after I started talking to her, I thought she was the most wonderful person I’d ever known.”
What saddens me, in both cases, is that people had to get past Eliot’s and Welty’s appearance to discover the true beauty that both women had; that they superficially judged them before understanding the true depth of feeling and thought that both had. Eleanor Roosevelt, another woman well-known for having her looks criticized and mocked, once said, “No matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and honesty are written across her face, she will be beautiful.”