I had just picked up my mum from the airport in Newcastle and now we sat on the metro, talking at full speed. I told her about seeing Uncle Vanya, and how I find it increasingly hard to deal with the treatment of women in (old) literature. She rightly pointed out that I shouldn't judge old works of art like contemporary works of art - i.e. that I should be able to enjoy Czechov for what he is, not criticise him for what he's not. (A good lesson in general.)
Whilst I agree with this, my feeling of discomfort didn't disappear. I guess it came up because I watched Uncle Vanya in the same week that I saw The Great Gatsby and Hitchcock's Marnie, and I read a Trollope novel as well. All the female protagonists have one thing in common: they're all beautiful, and that's what makes them likeable. Yes, I know, this is nothing new, nothing new at all. Lucy, the main female character in Framley Parsonage, reveals her true qualities to those who doubt her when they discover that she is, in fact, beautiful. We've all read and seen stories like that a million times.
What I find so disturbing about it is that it's so hard to let go of this ideal of beauty. I can't remember when I last read an article about a woman that didn't mention her looks - even Miranda July's interview with Lena Dunham mentions her 'adorably big front teeth'. I can't remember when I last went to work without someone commenting on my hair, my glasses, my clothes. I'm not saying that I don't care about looks at all, I just find it surprising that the idea that women have to look their best at all times is not just Daily Mail propaganda, that there are actually people who will tell me that I'd look better if I wear my hair this way or that way, as if it was my duty to look well. It's not. Ultimately, I'm the only person who has to like my looks (and I don't have to be pretty); admittedly, it's an added bonus if my boyfriend does as well. However, it sure is hard to remember this - especially if, like me, you're drawn to Victorian literature.