The assumption that men and women are biologically dissimilar and experience age differently was promoted in Victorian fiction too. Authors including Charles Dickens, Henry James and H Rider Haggard seemed to delight in embellishing the details of female decrepitude. And, in much of their fiction, ageing women seem to be at fault for declining in the way they do. It’s worth thinking about how these aspects of ageing still niggle away at women today. Henry James’s Juliana Bordereau is depicted as a living corpse, whose grip on life equates to temerity, especially as she was once a beauty. Dickens’s Miss Havisham, meanwhile, crumbles into an old hag because of the bitterness of marital rejection. His poisonous Mrs Skewton cannot hide her hideous interior, or exterior – even when she is caked with cosmetics. Yet the author insists that she looks even worse without make-up.
Most pertinently, H Rider Haggard’s novel Ayesha makes it clear that his heroine Ayesha is up to something. Even as the narrator is attracted to her body, he senses something deathly around her person. This is because Ayesha is more than 2000 years old. She still looks beautiful because she has found the elixir of youth in the form of a fire. There is little doubt that using such a substance is morally wrong, since Ayesha is punished for it. By overdoing the treatment, Ayesha dies, covered in a million wrinkles.
Echoes of all of these sorry tales are seen in the puzzling narrative of today’s anti-ageing culture. If a woman makes no attempt to maintain her looks – or to hide the effects of ageing – she has failed. If, on the other hand, she succumbs to temptation and tries to cheat the ageing process, she may end up damaging her face – through plastic surgery or otherwise. Female celebrities who maintain their looks are scrutinised in the media, with the view that if we watch them long enough, they will surely begin to disintegrate. Who would have thought that we could blame the Victorians for this dilemma?