Mothers in Fashionable Society

An antique porcelain with two faces representing youth and old age. 1880s Germany.

‘WHO IS THAT FAT woman dancing?’ I asked the Parisian who was piloting me through the ballroom for the first time.

‘That’s my aunt,’ he said, ‘a very young, very frolicsome, and, as you can see from her diamonds, very rich person.’

Very rich, very frolicsome, maybe, I thought; but very young, that can’t be right. I kept looking at her, dumbfounded; and, as I was unable to detect any trace of youth about her, I ventured to ask the sum total of her years.

‘That’s a silly question,’ replied Arthur, laughing at my faux pas. ‘My dear sir, I’m my aunt’s heir; I’m certainly not going to tell her age.’ Seeing that I didn’t understand, he added, ‘I have no desire to be disinherited. But allow me to introduce you to my mother. She used to be very close to yours; she’ll be delighted to meet you.’

I followed Arthur, and, next to a veritable shrub of camellias, we found two young ladies sitting in the midst of a cloud of more or less frivolous male butterflies. Arthur introduced me to the younger – at least, to the one who at first appeared to be so; she was the better dressed, the better groomed, the more engaging, and the more courted of the two. I was still dazed by the lights and the music, and by the fact that I was making my debut in Parisian society and was afraid of seeming gauche and provincial – and indeed I was as gauche as anyone can possibly be, because I didn’t hear the introductory compliments that Arthur recited while he steered me toward this dazzling beauty, and it took me a good five minutes to recover from the teasing and provocative glance her lovely dark eyes shot at me. She spoke to me, she questioned me; I answered wildly and randomly, not being able to overcome my awkwardness. Eventually I managed to grasp that she was asking me whether I danced; and as I was beginning to offer my apologies, ‘He dances just as well as anyone else,’ Arthur declared; ‘he hasn’t yet had the courage to take the plunge, that’s all.’

‘Bah! The first step is the hardest,’ the lady retorted; ‘we must overcome this timidity. I suppose you haven’t ventured to engage anyone? Well then, I shall cure your embarrassment and hurl you into the fray. Come and waltz with me. Give me your arm . . . not like that . . . put your arm around me, so . . . not stiffly, don’t crumple my dress; that’s right! You’ll get the hang of it. . . . Wait for the ritornello, follow my movements . . . here we are . . . let’s go!’

And, light as a sylph, bold as a soldier, solid as a besieged citadel amid the jolts of the dancers, she whirled me away.

For a while everything seemed like a dream. My sole concerns, as I leapt and spun, were to avoid falling over with my partner, to avoid crumpling her, and to keep in time with the music. Little by little I began to see that I was managing just as well as anyone else – in other words, that these Parisians waltzed just as badly as I did – and I settled down and gained in assurance. I began to look at the creature I was holding in my arms, and discovered, as we waltzed round the room, that this radiant puppet (she was a little out of breath and had been crammed a little too tightly into her bodice) was growing uglier before my very eyes. Her debut had been brilliant, but she fatigued easily; dark circles were developing around her eyes, blotches were appearing in her complexion, and, it must be confessed, she seemed to me less and less young and light. I had some trouble getting her back to her place, and when I tried to thank her politely for initiating me on the dance floor, I came out with such clumsy and coldly respectful language that she scarcely seemed to hear me.

‘Now then,’ I said to my friend Arthur, ‘who was the lady I’ve just been waltzing with?’

‘That’s a fine question! Have you lost your wits? I introduced you to her only a moment ago.’

‘That doesn’t tell me anything.’

‘Why, you scatterbrain, she’s my mother!’ he replied with a touch of impatience.

‘Your mother!’ I echoed, embarrassed by my folly. ‘Do excuse me; I thought she was your sister.’

‘Charming! Then he must have thought my sister was my mother! My dear fellow, you mustn’t make that kind of mistake, and go rattling off compliments to the wrong lady in imitation of Thomas Diafoirus.’

‘Your mother!’ I went on, heedless of his jibes. ‘She dances well . . . but then, how old is she?’

‘Not again! This is too much. Everyone will send you packing if you keep on asking women’s ages.’

‘But surely your mother wouldn’t bear me any ill-will; after all, it’s just an innocent compliment. From her jewels, her figure, and her vivacity, I thought she was a mere girl. I can’t believe she’s old enough to be your mother.’

‘Well, well,’ said Arthur, chuckling, ‘these simpleminded country folk do know how to get themselves forgiven. All the same, I must warn you not to play the dashing young blade too much with my mother. She loves to poke fun at people; besides, it would really be in the worst possible taste to show any surprise that a mother is still active on the dance floor. Look around you. Aren’t all the mothers dancing? It’s quite the thing, at their age!’

‘Then women here must marry very early in life to have such grown-up children.’

‘No earlier here than elsewhere. My dear boy, you really must get the whole idea out of your head; I should tell you that after they reach thirty, Parisian women have no age at all, for the simple reason that they never get any older. It’s the height of rudeness to ask how old they are, as you keep doing. What if I told you that I don’t know my mother’s age?’

‘I wouldn’t believe you.’

‘And yet I don’t. I’m too well born, and I’ve been too well brought up, to ask her any such question.’

I went from one surprise to another. I returned to Arthur’s sister, and I still thought that, superficially at least, she looked less young than her mother. She was a girl of about twenty-five; no one had thought of marrying her, and she was cross about it. She was poorly dressed, either because she had no taste, or else because the necessary expense for her attire couldn’t be afforded. Either way, her mother had clearly never tried to display her to advantage, and therefore had done her a serious disservice. Perhaps as a reaction against her mother’s giddy manner, she was no flirt. Nobody paid her much attention; she wasn’t asked to dance much. Her aunt – the fat aunt who danced with such frenzy, and whose heir Arthur claimed to be – chaperoned her now and then while her mother danced. At such times the aunt was keen to be back on the dance floor herself, and so brought the girl a few recruits who were dutybound to oblige. I was soon assigned this task, and performed it less reluctantly than the others did. The girl wasn’t at all ugly; she was merely cold and awkward. Yet she did loosen up and get a bit livelier in my presence. She went so far as to tell me that she was bored with society, and that the ballroom was her torture chamber. I then realised that she had been dragged along against her will, to accompany her mother; she herself was, in effect, acting as mother to the author of her days. She was doomed to be a mere pretext. Arthur’s father, who had the tastes you’d expect to find in a man of his age, resigned himself to running the gauntlet of society or remaining alone by the fire, because Madame kept telling him, ‘If you have a daughter to marry off, you certainly must take her out to dances.’ And all the while, the daughter didn’t get married. The father kept yawning, and the mother kept dancing.

I took the poor young lady onto the dance floor a number of times. At a ball in the country, this would have compromised her, and her parents would have given me a piece of their mind. In Paris, by contrast, everyone was exceedingly grateful to me, and Mademoiselle didn’t display any of the pretty bashfulness that launches so many small-town sentimental romances among young people. This gave me the right to sit beside her afterwards and have a talk with her, while the two matrons exchanged sweet nothings with their admirers and simpered charmingly.

Our own chat was much less frivolous. Mademoiselle Emma was perceptive – too perceptive; it made her malicious, though she wasn’t witty by nature. My simplicity gave her confidence.

She even informed me about the matters that had so astonished me at the start of the ball, and proved a much more forthcoming tour guide than her brother, so that I didn’t need to venture many questions.

‘You’re amazed at the sight of my fat aunt kicking up her heels with such gusto,’ she told me; ‘well, that’s nothing; she’s only forty-five, she’s just a girl. She’s very upset about her weight –  it makes her look old. My mother is better preserved, don’t you think? Yet she’s been a grandmother for some years; my older sister has children of her own. I don’t know Mamma’s exact age; but even if we assume that she married very early in life, I’m sure she must be fifty at the very least.’

‘That’s amazing!’ I exclaimed. ‘Good God, when I think of my poor mother, with her big bonnets, her big shoes, her big knitting needles and her spectacles, and then look at all the ladies of the same age here in short sleeves and satin shoes, with flowers in their hair and young men on their arms, I really believe I must be dreaming.’

‘Then perhaps you’re having a nightmare,’ suggested Emma unkindly. ‘My mother used to be so strikingly beautiful that she might possibly have still some right to try and appear so. But it’s less pardonable for my aunt to wear such a low-cut dress and exhibit the sorry sight of her obesity as freely as she does.’

I automatically turned around – and accidentally bumped against two shoulder blades so bulging that I had to glance at the aunt’s floral chignon to convince myself I was seeing her from behind. This overabundance of health positively horrified me, and Mademoiselle Emma quickly noticed my pallor.

‘That’s nothing,’ she said with a smile, and the pleasure of mockery fleetingly lit up her eyes with the glow that love had never given them. ‘Look around; count up all the young girls and pretty women. Then count up all the ugly women (of whatever age) and the ones who are over the hill; and finish off with the old hags, the hunchbacks or near-hunchbacks, the mothers and grandmothers and great-aunts, and you’ll see that decrepitude and ugliness constitute the majority in our ballrooms and dominate society.’

‘Oh, it really is a nightmare!’ I exclaimed. ‘And what scandalises me most is the exorbitant luxury involved in rigging out these unbridled and fantastic creatures. Ugliness never seemed as repulsive to me as it does here. Until now I felt sorry for it. I even had a kind of respectful sympathy for it. When a woman has neither youth nor beauty, one feels obliged to honour her all the more by way of compensation. But this bedizened old age – this brazen ugliness – these wrinkles that contort themselves into voluptuous smiles – these ponderous and superannuated odalisques who squash their frail squires flat – these skeletons draped in diamonds, who seem to creak as if they’re going to disintegrate into dust – these false tresses, false teeth, false waists –  all these false airs and graces – they’re a ghastly sight – they’re the Dance of Death!’

An old friend of Arthur’s family – a fairly well-known painter, and a wit – came up to us and heard my last words.

‘Young man,’ he said, as he sat down next to me, ‘I quite approve of your anger, though it doesn’t exactly assuage mine. Are you a poet – or an artist? If you’re either, what are you doing in a place like this? Be off with you! Otherwise you might grow accustomed to this abominable reversal of the laws of nature. And the very first law of nature is harmony – in other words, beauty. Yes, there’s beauty all around us, as long as it knows its place and doesn’t stray from what naturally suits it. Old age is beautiful too – as long as it doesn’t try to twist itself into an imitation of youth. Is there anything finer than the noble bald head of a calm and honourable old man? Look at all these old periwigged idiots. Well now, if I could dress and groom them as I pleased, and make them look and act differently, I’d find some excellent models among them, I can tell you that. As you see them now, they’re mere hideous caricatures. Where have good taste, and awareness of the most elementary principles, and (I must add) even plain commonsense, gone? I’m not talking only of current fashions in clothing; though men’s fashions are the most dismal, silly, graceless, and inconvenient things imaginable. That black is a symbol of mourning; it strikes you to the heart.

‘As for women’s fashions, they’re pleasant enough at the moment, and might even be considered pretty. But so few women can tell what suits them! Look around, and you’ll find scarcely three out of forty in this room who are presentably got up and know how to turn the restrictions of current fashion to their advantage. Most of them have more taste for opulence than for beauty. The same thing is happening in all the arts, in all forms of decoration. The wealthy spendthrifts want what is costly; the wealthy misers want what is showy; nobody wants what is simple and beautiful. Well now, don’t the women of Paris have monstrous enough models in front of their eyes to cure them of any taste for ugliness?’

‘What about the old English ladies piled high with feathers and diamonds,’ I exclaimed, ‘like fantastically caparisoned horses of the Apocalypse!’

‘You may be able to talk about them,’ he replied; ‘perhaps you notice some of them in this very room. I, however, have trained myself not to see them. When I suspect that they’re in a room, I erase them from my sight by sheer willpower.’

‘Really?’ said Mademoiselle Emma, laughing; ‘oh, but you can’t possibly avoid seeing that enormous Lady  – – ! There she is, treading on your toes at this moment. Even if you can’t see the huge creature, you must at least feel the weight of her. Five and a half feet tall; four feet around the waist; a plume from an undertaker’s hearse; lace that has yellowed on the bodies of three generations of dowagers and cost three thousand francs per meter; a bodice shaped like a sentry box; teeth all the way down to her chin; a chin bristling with a gray beard; and, to match the lot, a pretty little light blonde wig with dear little girlish curls. Just look at her; she’s the pearl of the United Kingdom.’

‘My imagination revels at such a portrait,’ returned the painter, turning his head away; ‘but some realities are uglier than anything our imaginations can invent; and therefore, even if the noble lady trod on my whole body, I still wouldn’t look at her.’

‘But I thought you said nature never creates anything ugly,’ I pursued.

‘Nature never creates anything too ugly for art to transform into something more beautiful – or more ugly, depending on the artist. And every human being is the artist who shapes his own self, morally and physically. He can make use of it either for better or for worse, depending on how true or how false he is. Why do we see so many women, and even men, who are creatures of artifice? Because they have false notions of themselves. As I said, beauty is harmony, and beauty exists in nature because the laws of nature are ruled by harmony. When we disrupt that natural harmony, we produce something ugly; and nature seems to aid and abet us, because she keeps on generating what is consistent with her own rules, thus heightening the contrast. The upshot is that we blame her, when we ourselves have been foolish and guilty. Do you follow me, Mademoiselle?’

‘It’s a bit abstract for me, I must confess,’ Emma replied.

‘I’ll use an example to explain it,’ said the artist; ‘the very example that prompted our discussion. As I said at the start, there’s nothing ugly in nature. To simplify matters, let’s confine our attention to human nature. There’s a conventional belief that it’s horrible to grow old, because old age is ugly. As a result, a woman has her white hairs plucked, or dyes them; she uses makeup to hide her wrinkles, or at least, tries to add some luster to her faded cheeks with the deceptive glitter of bright fabrics. I don’t want to make a long catalogue of cosmetic artifices, so I’ll stop there. But note that instead of banishing the signs of old age, such devices merely make them more lasting and more glaring. Nature digs her heels in; old age refuses to back down; a face looks all the more wrinkled and angular underneath hair of an artificial tint that clashes with the wearer’s true, undisguisable age. Bright, vividly coloured fabrics, flowers, diamonds against the skin – everything that glitters and attracts attention –  will make anything that is already faded seem even more faded. And apart from the physical effect, there’s the effect on our minds, which must necessarily be affected by what our eyes see. Our judgement is shocked by such discrepancies. ‘Why struggle so hard against the divine laws?’ we instinctively ask. ‘Why adorn your body as if it could still arouse passion? Why not be content with the majesty of age and the respect that it inspires? Flowers on those bald heads or white hairs? What a joke! What a desecration!’

‘Old age breeds disgust when it’s patched and painted; but it would leave a much kinder and less unflattering impression if it gave up trying to transgress the laws of nature. There are styles of dress and adornment appropriate for old men and women. Look at some of the old masters’ paintings  – Rembrandt’s white-bearded men, Van Dyck’s matrons with their long silk or black velvet bodices, their white bonnets, their austere ruffs or wimples, their imposing and noble brows plainly visible, their long and venerable fingers, their rich and heavy chains – forms of adornment that set off ceremonial robes without robbing them of their dignity. Not that I’m saying we should copy the old fashions slavishly; that would be just eccentric. Any attempt at originality would be unbecoming in old age. But sensible customs and logical habits would soon spread comparable fashions throughout society, and public common sense would soon create a different costume for each age group – instead of creating a different costume for each social class, which has been the rule far too long. Give me the task of designing the old men’s dress, since I belong to that group myself, and you’ll see that a lot of these fellows who nowadays can’t model for anything but caricatures will look decidedly handsome. I myself, for a start. Here I am, obliged to wear a coat that chokes me, a shoe that pinches me, a cravat that accentuates my pointed chin, and a shirt collar that bunches up my wrinkles – for fear of looking odd and breaking the rules of good taste. Well, you’d see me with a fine black robe or a long flowing mantle, a venerable beard, calf-length fur boots or slippers – a whole set of clothes that would match the way I naturally look, my ponderous gait, my need for comfort and dignity. And then, my dear Emma, you might perhaps say, ‘There’s a handsome old man.’ Instead of which you’re obliged to say, when you see me wearing the same kind of clothes as my grandson, ‘What a villainous-looking old fellow!’’

Emma laughed at this entertaining declaration, and then said, ‘I think you’re too frank for your own good – and other people’s. Just imagine what a revolution, what an uproar there would be among the women, if they were forced to emphasise their age by starting to wear an octogenarian’s costume when they turned fifty!’

‘Believe me, it would make them look younger,’ he replied. ‘Anyhow, we could design different clothes for every twenty-year age group. I must say, by the way, that it’s a mistake when a woman tries to turn her date of birth into a big secret. Sooner or later some slip will be sure to betray the fact that you’ve lied about your age; and then, even if it’s only been by a single year, everyone will maliciously pile the years on you by the handful. ‘Thirty?’ someone will say; ‘more like forty.’ ‘Well, she looks a good fifty,’ someone else will say. And some comedian will add, ‘Maybe a hundred! When a woman is so clever at hiding her age, how can you tell?’ It seems to me that if I were a woman, I’d prefer to look a well preserved forty than a badly-faded thirty. I’m sure that whenever I learn that a woman is no longer admitting her age, instantly I start to think of her as old – very old.’

‘Well, I feel the same way,’ I remarked in turn; ‘but tell me more on the subject of dress. You’d leave fashions for young women just as they are today?’

‘Not at all, if you don’t mind my saying so,’ he replied; ‘I find them much too plain. Compared to the mothers’ fashions, which are so opulent, they’re quite niggardly – repulsively so. I think Emma, for instance, is dressed like a child; from the time she turned fifteen, I would have adorned her much more than she currently is. Are people already trying to make her look younger? There’s no need for that. It’s customary, we’re told, it’s tasteful; plainness suits the modesty of youth; I fully agree, but doesn’t it also suit the dignity of motherhood? Then the older women comfort the girls by telling them, ‘Your natural charms are adornment enough for you; we’re the ones who need the help of art.’ A curious model! A curious display of modesty and morality! And in the eyes of an artist, what a topsy-turvy notion! Here we have a matron decked out in finery, while her pretty and charming daughter is dressed for her first communion – dressed almost as a nun! Why, what are flowers and diamonds for – what are rich fabrics and all the treasures of art and nature for – except to adorn beauty? And if you’re singing the praises of plain modest purity, is that a virtue limited to virgins? Why are you so quick to rob yourselves of the one quality that could make you still more beautiful? If you want to appear youthful, why do you make yourselves look immodest? A bizarre kind of reasoning! An insoluble puzzle! Some shameless creatures seem to think that a woman should be like a flower, and display more and more of her breast as she ripens. What they don’t realise is that a woman doesn’t pass straight from beauty to death as a rose does. She is more fortunate; after the loss of her first brilliance, she retains a fragrance more lasting than that of roses.’

The ball was finishing. Emma’s mother and aunt stayed to the very end, getting steadily bolder and livelier – and, due to the excitement and fatigue, looking steadily uglier. Emma was in a good mood because she had heard their follies anathematised. After the old artist left, she continued to talk with me, but her conversation became so bitter and vindictive that eventually I had to go away, deeply saddened. Bad mothers, bad daughters! ‘Is that what our world is like, then?’ I asked myself.

George Sand was a nineteenth-century French novelist and critic. Her short story, ‘Mothers in Fashionable Society,’ was written between 1884 and 1885 and originally published in Le Diable à Paris, an illustrated book which also counted Théophile Gautier and Honoré de Balzac as contributors. The conceit of the book, explained in its prologue, was that the devil was sending emissary to Paris disguised as a dandy, who would report back to Hell on contemporary life.