Tuesday 29 September 2015

Time Makes Tragedy Of Us All

This is likely to be a ramble-y post, so bear with me as I return to the thorny issue of aging.  You might remember we talked about this a couple of years ago with my post about depictions of older women in art.  Well, this week I started thinking about getting old again for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, this happened...

That's me. I was taking a few selfies for my author postcards and when I made this one my profile picture in a couple of places I got a very interesting response.  Normally I look more bright and curly and more to the point less wrinkly around the eyes. This time I was sat in a darker room and, as one friend kindly said, I looked like the Woman in Black. When I pointed out that I was over 40 now I was told that I looked it.  Ouch.

Cara Delevigne and Kate Moss
Then Kate Moss had the bad manners to look over 40 (at the age of 41) and was told by one newspaper that she performed an act of extreme bravery by standing next to Miss Delevigne who was half her age.  Dear God, the horror! Look at Kate Moss!  It's like Dorian Gray's portrait has escaped the attic and is walking around!  Or something. Anyway, there should have been a black border around the piece as it was generally about the sadness that Kate Moss no longer looks like she did twenty years ago. Which leads me to this conversation I had recently with an older friend...

Sylvia Syms, then
Sylvia Syms, now

Apparently it is impossible to watch the lovely Sylvia Syms in any film or tv programme without being overcome with utter misery that she does not look the same as she did in Ice Cold in Alex.  Whilst I agree she looks pretty ace shoving the ambulance (was it an ambulance?  Why do I think it was an ice cream van?) up the hill in Alex, she looks marvellous now too and is ace in The Queen.  It's the same thinking that was expressed to me at a family funeral once where I was trapped in a room with all the other Mrs Walkers of the family and one told me that it would be kinder for women to be shot at 30 as we all look horrible after that. Lawks, I said.

Jane Morris (1898) Emery Walker
All this pop culture, self-obsessed rambling brings me to Pre-Raphaelite stunners.  Jane Morris was, until recently, the one stunner who we could see in old age.  After Rossetti's death we ceased to see her through the eyes of someone who loved her and saw her through the lens of various cameras.  It's not that her photographers didn't like her, but the camera is unable to lie. She poses, she sits, she waits and her stoic expression is recorded.  She is almost 60 years old here and her expression is unreadable (as it always is).  However, I often hear people express how unhappy Jane looks in her later life.

The Hourglass (1905) Evelyn de Morgan

Jane Morris (1904) Evelyn de Morgan
Undoubtedly, Jane Morris does look unhappy in the final painting of her modelling career.  When Evelyn de Morgan wanted someone to play the woman who has everything but the ability to stop aging she chose Jane, the aging Stunner.  It seems a common assumption, possibly correct, that we read the picture biographically.  We ascribe that sadness at a loss of beauty to Jane rather than the character and carry it over to all other images of her.  In the photographs of her in old age, sitting in her garden, out and about with her daughters, surrounded by friends: all appear sad to us.  Do we have any reason to believe that Jane was so shallow as to allow her changing appearance to overshadow all the blessings she had? From what little I know of Jane I do not believe her to be that shallow, so is it therefore a sadness we impose as viewers upon the faded stunner?  Her hair is grey, her face is lined, how unhappy she must be.

Lizzie, died at 32
Alexa, died at 37
To use that very unpleasant phrase, we seem to like our Pre-Raphaelite women better if they die young and leave a pretty corpse.  The subject matter of the Pre-Raphaelite artists encourages us in this mind-set what with the Ophelias, Elaines and Lady of Shalotts all popping off before they have to use night cream or resort to a box of Nice 'n' Easy.  Both Lizzie and Alexa had the good grace not to get old, conveniently dying while still young and pretty.  How good of them not to bother us with those inconvenient images of them looking older.  We can't cope when people get older.  Actually, in our visually orientated, youth obsessed culture we can't cope when we get older and everyone else is collateral damage.
Fanny Cornforth, 1863
Why do we react so badly when people we admire get older?  Returning to Sylvia Syms, she was the height of glamour for my older friend, the epitome of what it meant to be attractive when they were both young.  Now Sylvia is old that means my friend is old, that she is no longer up to pushing an ambulance or jeep or whatever it was up a hill.  Our society says that you might 'look good for your age', but on the whole that's just a nice way of saying 'well done on not looking horrific now that you are over 35. That must help with the sadness, but remember, you are no longer being sexually attractive. Only one woman over 35 is allowed to be sexy and Helen Mirren is doing that.'  It's a self fulfilling prophesy - society says women over 35/40/50 aren't sexy so we don't feel sexy so we are declared not sexy and so on. It's such a cycle of sadness and shame and denial that it's impossible to untangle.  Woman over a certain age cannot be happy and sexy, so if their fame is based on their attractiveness to the opposite sex then age must render them bereft.  All fame now for women is based to some degree or other on our looks so the moment a woman in the public eye starts looking a bit wrinkly, chunky or grey then they must be miserable. We feel miserable for them because through them we vicariously taste glamour, we have a role model for the sexual perfection we can aspire to.  All that makes what I am about to do unforgiveable...

Fanny Cornforth 1907
 Many people did not want me to show this picture but now it is in the public domain it is only a matter of time before you see it.  The people who have seen this image have told me that they find it devastating, mainly due to the context.  This is the photograph taken when Fanny was admitted to Graylingwell Asylum.  She looks - I don't know.  Well, she doesn't look happy but then she is a Victorian woman posing for a camera.  Look at Jane Morris.  Smiling wasn't really an option.  She looks concerned, her eyebrow on the right is furrowing down.  We know she was confused and angry when she was brought to the asylum because she thought she was being arrested.  However, we also know that she settled in to life at Graylingwell and it was a comfortable hospital dedicated to caring for and rehabilitating the mentally ill. Was she any happier in 1863, living with her depressed lover, traumatised by the death of his wife whose image haunted their home? She had been ditched by him, forced to marry a drunk, picked back up by her unreliable lover and surrounded by his circle of his friends who did not like her. Yet we don't read sadness into the image of her by the mirror.  In 1907 she was approaching the end of her life and everyone she loved was dead, so do we see that?  Jane Morris still had her children, a circle of admirers, so why do we read sadness in her image as well.  It would be understandable to see Fanny as unhappy in the vulnerability of age, but Jane?  Her life was a velvet cushion in comparison.

I think the answer lies in the way we see old age and youth.  There is little doubt that we are visually obsessed and our focus is on youth, especially for women. I'm sure my gentleman readers (both of you) will correct me if I am wrong but only age for women is seen as a battle we cannot afford to lose. We have so many products for sale that will smooth us, plump us (only our faces sadly, plumpness anywhere else is another source of sadness), recolour what goes grey and generally regenerate us like the Countess Dracula bathing in the blood of virgins.  Any opt-out of this unwinnable fight is seen as failure, a tragedy, such terrible sadness.  Look at brave Kate Moss stood next to her replacement, no doubt shortly before they take her out the back of the building and put her out of her misery.  It would be the kindest thing to do as those tiny wrinkles are making us all very sad.

Don't feel sad for the old stunners.  Don't feel sad for Jane, surrounded by comfort, surrounded by those that care.  Don't feel sad for Fanny even, cared for finally by people who didn't want anything from her. She lived her life as she chose, in a way that was open to her and considering the options her ancestors gave her, she made a considerable mark on the world.  Fanny Cornforth got old, of course she did, and she ended up in a home which is likely to be the fate of many of us reading this.  Her home was sympathetic.  She lived a long and memorable life to the point that some random woman wrote a book about her a century after she died.  That is pretty impressive for a blacksmith's daughter from the back end of nowhere.  Don't feel sorry for Fanny, it would do her no good and to be honest I think she would prefer that you thought of her and cheer. Maybe then we wouldn't feel so sad about our own wrinkles and grey hairs.

If you have to feel sorry for anyone, feel sorry for Helen Mirren, she's the only woman over 50 who's allowed to be sexy.  The responsibility must be exhausting...


  1. Dear Kirsty
    I don't like getting older, seeing the ever increasing wrinkles where there were none before, or the layers of squishiness increasing around the midriff. It is depressing, but, as you say, it happens to all of us. I wish the media wasn't so youth and beauty obsessed. I'm amazed that any woman over 35 dares to go out in broad daylight - what are we all thinking? (However, men do seem to be able to 'get away' with being older and still thought attractive...Hmmph!)
    Thank you for including the photograph of Fanny - it is hard to see the shadow of her former self in that face, but equally, I applaud her tenacity and stoicism. Beauty will eventually fade, despite the makeup or botox and what we have remaining is the force of character and personality we possess.
    I applaud all of us 'older people'.
    Best wishes

  2. I'm reminded of the old song 'nobody wants a fairy when she's 40' - sad, but true. I'm old enough now not to want to be sexy and people are nice to me because i'm a sweet old lady who isn't a threat.
    Perhaps those beautiful models look miserable in later life because they had no teeth left. Just saying.

  3. Thank you ladies, for your insightful comments. Youth and weight both seem to be things to beat women with and as I am losing control of both (not that I had much of a grip on the latter anyway) I am increasingly aware that I have to either opt-in to the battle or have the confidence to see there is another way.

    Lynda, I suspect you may well be right...

  4. I loved this post so much, Kirsty. So much pressure is put on women to stay youthful. There are multiple examples of men in the film industry who still get the leading man role despite the fact that they have aged. Yet their leading ladies remain in their twenties and the actresses who really could have played their love interest are relegated to grandmother roles!

  5. Thank you, it is a subject I recognise immediately when I hear it in modern culture (the article about 'brave' Kate Moss just made me cringe) but I wonder how much I miss it when we talk about art and artists' models. We have a visual language which is complicated and very ingrained in our society equating beauty with goodness and youth with beauty and so on. I don't think men have it quite as strict as women do, but if any of my gentlemen readers would care to comment, I'd be interested to hear...

  6. My sister is the beautiful one in my family, and I have never for a moment envied her that. The constant male attention would have driven me mad (I'm a lesbian, so there's that), and it hasn't made her life easier. Now that she's 50 and dealing with wrinkles and the various effects of gravity, you'd think that the end of days was at hand.

  7. Honestly, after the people who've spoken of the final photo as devastating, this is not at all what I expected. The first word that came to my mind was "indomitable."

    Whether it's in contrast to the slightly disheveled, hunted and haunted thing I had conjured in my mind, I don't know, but to me Fanny here seems clear-eyed and steely. I hope to leave half as solid a final impression.

    1. I agree! To be honest, the photo of older Fanny actually reminds me of my grandmother! (right before she smiled) And I find that photo full of personality and charisma. What a character Fanny must have been in old age, despite her circumstances.

  8. Hi Kirsty In reply to your request for a male perspective. I was having a chat with an old friend I had not met up with for many years. During the conversation the subject of age came up. We came to the consensus, to our amusement, (you've got to laugh); that although we still felt like twenty five we had to be careful who we for example smiled at. For instance that twenty something attractive young woman you passed in the train and gave your most devastating grin/gurn to might feel repulsed or threatened by what she probably perceives as a leering old git.

    Really I think if you are not George Clooney or Julianne Moore, we're all in the same boat. I think it is the different ways in which men and women self perceive themselves. I think what we are suffering from is the effects of tabloid/celebrity culture. Forcing people to react to ageing as if it was unatural and something to be shunned.

    Personally on a very positive note (luckily for me), I find a lot of women around my age attractive, (and I close with a list of gorgeous 'older' actresses, simply because because they are in the public eye and everyone knows them). Judi Dench, Penelope Wilton who looks remarkably like my missus, Francesca Annis, Eileen Atkins, Helen Mirren (of course), My list could go on, and I'm sure that you will have noticed that none of the above, to my knowledge, have had any surgery. Oh and the most glamourous elderly lady of all time Honor Blackman.

    Oh and before I forget, it's my age you know, look at the way once handsome male celebs are and were treated by the media. For example Keith Richards, Peter O'toole, Richard Burton and Ollie Reed. They couldn't wait to print unflattering images of those lads as they aged badly. Maybe those boys pretended not to care and that's probably the difference. Women care openly, the men keep it to themselves and self delude.
    Sorry about that being so long and rambly. Yours was a very good post though.

  9. Ah Horus, I should have known I could rely on you! Thank you for your very interesting comments indeed. I often ask Mr Walker (who, although younger than me, is now 40) what he thinks of adverts for skin cream and the such like and he shrugs and declares it all 'man jollop' that is only beneficial if you are worried about the size of your wallet.

    You are right to say that male celebrities can come in for a bashing as well - maybe its about aging with dignity or appropriately, whatever that might be. It seems a very narrow tightrope to walk if you want to appear distinguished and still attractive. I'll stop before I start rambling and telling you about my massive crush on Donald Sutherland.

    Thanks for your comments.

  10. As one of your two gentlemen readers, I must say your piece on aging is poignant and insightful. I suppose art by its very nature throws into relief the disparity between our aging selves and its unchanging patterns, "all breathing human passion fat above that leaves a heart high sorrowful and cloyed" as Keats would have it. Tennyson's "Tithonous" expresses this theme from a male point of view, though I suppose Eos represents the timelessness of art as well as female beauty. But, in any case, women are beautiful at every stage of their lives. Thanks as always for your thoughtful illuminating comments leavened with that inimitable puckish humor that even on somber topics makes us smile, like Mozart's music, through our tears.

  11. missing teeth are the clue
    that mouth is seen in so many old photos

    apart from that, though, for someone over seventy suffering from dementia she looks remarkably good and well, even dignified - upright, plump, neat hair and nice lace collar. it's plainly a mugshot like a passport image today, not any kind of carte-de-visite much less an art photo like those posed by DGR

  12. I think Fanny looks remarkably self possessed and proudly erect. The photo is sad only because of the context.

  13. That you have written on this topic today is particularly interesting in the timing for me personally.

    My family tends toward prematurely gray hair, and I started coloring mine when I was in my mid-20's. I just turned 50 this year and decided, as an experiment, to grow the color out enough to have it completely cut out as soon as I could without resorting to a scalping. So, my last visit to the colorist's chair was while I was still 49, shortly before my birthday in April.

    Yesterday, after work, I got my hair cut into a very short pixie cut (a la Jamie Lee Curtis). The first person who was shocked was me! I immediately posted a photo to my Facebook where I was looking for reassurance. Unlike many people, I only accept actual friends as my "Facebook friends" and I was immediately reassured that I looked wonderful.

    This morning I arrived to work only to receive a lot of second looks. Although I've received many positive responses, it's interesting to see how many don't remark on it at all. The change is pretty startling, so I know it's not that they didn't notice.

    As for myself, the jury is still out as to how I feel about being confronted with the fact that I really do look older. While inspecting my new appearance in the bathroom mirror last night, I suddenly noticed wrinkles under my eyes. Had they been there all along? Probably, but the salt and pepper hair makes it less easy to ignore them.

    I'm going to stay this way for at least a month before I decide on whether to go back to coloring. It will be an interesting experiment for sure.

  14. I hope I age into a Granny Weatherwax or Professor McGonagal; witchy and fierce! I'm edging closer to 30, now I've got my own home, a mortgage, etc. and am simultaneously back studying, surrounded by all these fresh-out-of-school youngsters, I'm starting to realise that I'm not an eternally youthful vampire, and I will eventually.

  15. Thank you everyone! Blimey, this happened last time I talked about age, it seems to be a subject that obviously touches us all and I get lots of very insightful comments.

    Indominable is a good word for Fanny's picture, she certainly doesn't look beaten by life. As Jan said, I believe there is a note about her dentures in her hospital records, hence the rather pursed expression.

    Thank you everyone for the comments, I have enjoyed reading them all, and sharing Fanny's final photograph with you has been one of the most touching things I've done here. On a side note, there should be a photograph from around 1900 in Delaware's archives as Fanny sent a picture to Samuel Bancroft which would be an interesting one to compare it with.

    Groovy Chick, I'm sure you look splendid, by the way.

    Thanks you everyone, and you all look gorgeous!

  16. Another male reader here. You have a beautiful , open friendly face, with lovely warm brown eyes (which will never change). Your personality shines through your writing. You`ve got nothing to worry about. Keep up the good work.

  17. Well thank you very much, male reader number 3! I shall keep calm and carry on...

  18. Kate looks better than Cara..in my opinion....great smile and much more interesting face...love your blog.

  19. Sorry I am always late with my comments! Men are on the surface shallow creatures. We do tend to judge on external appearance. However as one gets to know a person - something happens - the personality starts to shine through; the person you thought was plain suddenly starts to become more and more attractive while you start to notice faults in the pretty one who turns out to be quite dull. Also, that picture of you is beautiful - I don't see any wrinkles, and the eye shadow looks great. As for all these comments about women over 35, 40 etc I don't get it at all. Kate Moss looks far better now than she did when she was much younger. (And I don't understand how someone as ugly as Cara whatshername ever got into modelling; maybe she has a great personality). My wife is 56 now and I honestly believe she is becoming more beautiful every year. I think that is the ideal - to meet someone when you're young(ish) and stick with them through life - you'll always be beautiful to them. I do feel for women who find themselves single in late middle age (does anyone else read mid life ex wife in the Guardian and her increasingly desperate quest for a man). I do think it is important for both men and women to try and stay fit and not to give up the battle with weight gain; and though you don't expect 40 year old + to dress like teenagers, don't be too quick to assume the boring, frumpy look.


  20. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
    And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
    And every fair from fair sometime declines,
    By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed;
    But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
    Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
    Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
    When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st.
    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

  21. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I have my mother to thank for the fact that I don't automatically judge anyone by the way they look, as I never heard her say a bad word against anyone's age or weight. Equally I am blessed to know older women who are full of wonderfulness and are living, not ageing, if you know what I mean.

    Thank you everyone, this has been a very interesting conversation indeed...

  22. Really, really late in reading your post....but, like many others, I am very relieved that Fanny's picture was not as dreadful as I'd feared. She does looks anxious, however, and I note how she's holding the finger of one hand in sort of a nervous way. How could she not be anxious, having been shifted from one place to the other in her later years? Her eyes are not wild, but clear and focused. She's sitting very straight, which I find an interesting contrast to her rough, plain dress. I'm imagining that posture as a remnant of better times. The saddest element of the picture to me is that lace collar sitting cockeyed around her neck. Did she put it on? Thanks so much for sharing the picture now, Kirsty.

  23. I'm inclined to think that whoever told you that "you looked it" was simply envious. You look thoughtful and mysterious in that photo, and I think it's a lovely picture.

    As a younger woman, the women I look up to as beautiful are all my older female relatives. They take care of themselves, but not in the way women obsessed with looking young do. They are simply healthy, and their character is what allows me to notice how beautiful they are. If they were vicious, I would think them repellant regardless of how young they looked.

  24. Ha! Thanks Grace. The struggle against aging is aging in itself, far better to keep your health and smile a lot.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx