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The mirror, friend or foe? - Sara Coleridge and the ill effects of society's judgment on female appearance


Nyffenegger, Sara D (2009). The mirror, friend or foe? - Sara Coleridge and the ill effects of society's judgment on female appearance. The Coleridge Bulletin, (33):89-95.

Abstract

Sara Coleridge claims in her essay “On the Disadvantages Resulting from the Possession of Beauty” (1826) that “[o]f all natural endowments, those of person are perhaps the most generally & the most warmly desired, & great as the influence of Beauty has been at all periods of the world, from the days of Helen even to our own, never, I verily believe, had the Goddess more numerous or more ardent votaries than at the present time. For this is the Age of Taste if not of Reason.” In my paper I demonstrate why Coleridge’s generation of young women had to hear their mothers proclaim, that “a pretty face was not half as much extolled nor a plain one criticized when they were young as is the case at present.” I argue that the differences Coleridge registers can be found in philosophical shifts in the Eighteenth Century and is also thematized in Romantic literature, particularly literature by Romantic women writers.
I apply Coleridge’s astute observations to Frances Burney’s Camilla as well as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Burney succeeds in depicting the ill effects society’s focus on female appearance has on beautiful as well as ugly women by contrasting the fate of two secondary characters. Looking at Indiana and Eugenia, both marriageable young women, I compare their merits and the treatment they receive by society. Two decades after Camilla was published, Romantic female writers still struggled with the same issue, society’s judgment and focus on female appearance. In Shelley’s Frankenstein, the subject of appearance and identity takes a new turn, as Shelley applies women’s predicament to the male creature, his quest for love and his being rejected by society. I base my reading of those two texts as well as Coleridge’s essay on the cultural and literary background female writers grew up with in the Romantic Era, taking into account such texts as Edmund Burke’s “A philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” in which he claims that the object of love and lust is female beauty, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy, as well as Dr. John Gregory’s “A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters.”
Coleridge states that women’s “happiness is dependent on the varying though faithful report of [their] mirror!” I claim that society’s focus on their exterior aspects keeps women in a liminal space, where they are – whether they are beautiful or ugly – forever bound in a lost struggle to come to terms with their identity constructed by their fleeting and ephemeral appearance, a mere façade. I argue that female writers and thinkers in the Romantic Era demonstrate that women need to reject the mirror forced upon them by society in order to progress in life.

Sara Coleridge claims in her essay “On the Disadvantages Resulting from the Possession of Beauty” (1826) that “[o]f all natural endowments, those of person are perhaps the most generally & the most warmly desired, & great as the influence of Beauty has been at all periods of the world, from the days of Helen even to our own, never, I verily believe, had the Goddess more numerous or more ardent votaries than at the present time. For this is the Age of Taste if not of Reason.” In my paper I demonstrate why Coleridge’s generation of young women had to hear their mothers proclaim, that “a pretty face was not half as much extolled nor a plain one criticized when they were young as is the case at present.” I argue that the differences Coleridge registers can be found in philosophical shifts in the Eighteenth Century and is also thematized in Romantic literature, particularly literature by Romantic women writers.
I apply Coleridge’s astute observations to Frances Burney’s Camilla as well as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Burney succeeds in depicting the ill effects society’s focus on female appearance has on beautiful as well as ugly women by contrasting the fate of two secondary characters. Looking at Indiana and Eugenia, both marriageable young women, I compare their merits and the treatment they receive by society. Two decades after Camilla was published, Romantic female writers still struggled with the same issue, society’s judgment and focus on female appearance. In Shelley’s Frankenstein, the subject of appearance and identity takes a new turn, as Shelley applies women’s predicament to the male creature, his quest for love and his being rejected by society. I base my reading of those two texts as well as Coleridge’s essay on the cultural and literary background female writers grew up with in the Romantic Era, taking into account such texts as Edmund Burke’s “A philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” in which he claims that the object of love and lust is female beauty, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy, as well as Dr. John Gregory’s “A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters.”
Coleridge states that women’s “happiness is dependent on the varying though faithful report of [their] mirror!” I claim that society’s focus on their exterior aspects keeps women in a liminal space, where they are – whether they are beautiful or ugly – forever bound in a lost struggle to come to terms with their identity constructed by their fleeting and ephemeral appearance, a mere façade. I argue that female writers and thinkers in the Romantic Era demonstrate that women need to reject the mirror forced upon them by society in order to progress in life.

Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > English Department
Dewey Decimal Classification:820 English & Old English literatures
Language:English
Date:2009
Deposited On:11 Mar 2010 07:44
Last Modified:08 May 2016 16:59
Publisher:Friends of Coleridge
ISSN:0968-0551
Related URLs:http://www.friendsofcoleridge.com/Coleridge-Bulletin.htm (Publisher)

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