|By||Julia Ward Howe||Mary E. Wilkins|
|Amelia E. Barr||Elizabeth B. Custer|
|“Octave Thanet”||Mrs. Burton Harrison|
|Mary Mapes Dodge||“Gail Hamilton”|
|Rebecca Harding Davis||Ellen Olney Kirk|
|Mrs. Edward Everett Hale||Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren|
From The Ladies' Home Journal Vol. XI No. 12 (November, 1894)
The question has often been asked, “At what period in her life is a woman supposed to be really at her best, mentally and physically?” The query, despite its repetition, has never been satisfactorily answered. For this reason the editor of The Ladies' Home Journal recently caused the question to be submitted to a number of women of judgment, and their replies are herewith appended. Whether the question can be said to have been brought nearer to a conclusion through these contributions to the literature of the subject, is for each reader to decide for herself. One fact is certain, however: the question has never received a more adequate and thoroughly representative treatment.
The question as to the mental and physical ripeness of womanhood is not one that can in its physical aspect be answered arbitrarily, and I prefer to consider the physical side first, for the sake of its antithesis. Climate, heredity, constitutional tendencies, the influences of home, of nurses, of teachers, localities and associations are all important factors, and exert influences on maturity so variable as to be beyond estimating. But it is quite safe to say that in temperate climates and under ordinarily favorable circumstances, a woman is physically at her highest point of perfection from the age of twenty-five to thirty-five.
Not earlier than twenty-five has the figure attained its noblest developments, and though the face of a girl at sweet-seventeen is a pretty sketch, the face of a woman at twenty-seven ought to be delicately finished by the graving tools of such masters as Love, Sorrow and Human Sympathy. It is at this period Nature designs her for motherhood, for then all her natural instincts are strong and perfect, and she is likely to have a reasonableness which will fit her not only to give perfect vitality to her offspring, but also to train them up with that patience and wisdom which is not characteristic of extreme youth. Delaying motherhood until this physical perfection is reached is not only the best surety for a fine progeny, but it is likewise the best preserver of the mother's physical health and beauty. English women, who as a rule do not marry until their twenty-fifth year, are often very handsome at fifty. But though this is satisfactory there is no salvation for mere physical beauty; sooner or later it must vanish, and the charm of youth pass into the dignity of middle life.
Let us be thankful that there is no such compulsion entailed on a woman's mental nature. Physically after twenty-five there will be no further growth, but mentally there ought to be a constant ripening and mellowing. The trend of the time is toward the glorification of youth, and physically the reasons are obvious, though mentally they will not bear the slightest examination. Can youth indeed be both the seed-time and the harvest-time of life? No; intellectually and physically, it is first the leaf, then the blossom, then the fruit.
This is the compensation God has given to woman for the evanescent character of her physical beauty; just at the time that it begins to decline her mental powers begin to assert themselves. For the gradual development of intellect is sure to come to every character that has any original fertility, though the patience which ripens the mind is no inactive waiting for something that will come of itself. It is rather a condition of never-ceasing fermentation, in which everything that touches the life experience is assimilated and transformed. It is only they who have lived long enough — and long enough in the right way — who can be vigorous on every side; it is only they who have kept their minds open all round, that will attain unto that deep knowledge of their own strong places, which will enable them to make the best of themselves. And the age of this mental ripeness it is difficult to fix, though it is seldom evident before the fortieth year. Thenceforward it has no definite limit; its manifest destiny is to go on from strength unto strength, if physical conditions are favorable. For it is the body that fails the mind, and not the mind that fails the body.
In the prologue to “Faust” the poet looks back on the days of his youth when he was “still forming,” when he was dealing with foes, and making love to maidens, as a time when he “had nothing and yet enough, when he longed after truth, and yet had pleasure in delusion.” But his friend reminds him that “to strike the familiar lyre with spirit and grace, to sweep along with happy wanderings toward a self-appointed aim — such is the task your ripened age imposes.”
This is the task also imposed by every noble woman upon herself. Even while she stands radiant in the physical beauty of her early youth, or clasps to her breast the children of her perfected physical womanhood, she is encouraging with a climbing patience the nobler mental graces which ripen only on the western slope of life.
The most attractive age of a woman's life is the period when she is still young enough to be pretty and old enough to be sympathetic. For as grace is a woman's greatest beauty so sympathy is her greatest charm. A graceful and sympathetic woman is bound to be attractive to the end of her days. If she adds a taste in dress and some sense to her equipment for pleasing, and does not grow deaf, I see no reason why she should not be fascinating in her old age. Since the question, however, concerns itself only with the most attractive age of woman I must give the answer in my first sentence. What that age as measured by years may be, ought to vary with the individual. Youth is not sympathetic; it is admiring, adoring, enthusiastic, a dreamer of dreams, a seer of visions; but it is neither wise enough nor tolerant enough to be sympathetic. Perhaps that is why young girls contrive so often to fall in love with the wrong man. Worth is not always brilliant, and manliness is often shy, and a girl under twenty is inclined to admire handsome, pretty-mannered, well-clad people, and to pass by all the cardinal virtues should they wear rusty boots or a frock coat instead of a swallow-tail. It takes four or five or ten years to teach a girl that commonplace, tedious people have a right to live; indeed, often are living heroic and saintly lives. From twenty to twenty-five a girl is likely to be so absorbed in the novelty and romance of her own emotions that she has not any place for a point of view. She thinks of herself, of her lovers and her amusements, of her husband and her children, of the beauty or the pathos of life and the marvelous wonder of love. She does not think of other people. How can she? Her heart and mind are too full! But from twenty-five to thirty she is seeing the world from another point of view. She has a wider vision. She has learned to be interested in human nature. It is an immense gift, this interest in human nature, in men and women as men and women, not as our friends or our enemies. Whoever has it will not be dull, though she be plain and quiet and obscure. It is a magic talisman to good will.
During this same period a woman acquires another treasure; that is, if it is written in the book that she shall ever acquire it, namely, sense.
She also learns how to use her own gifts; she learns the invisible power of tact. At the same time at thirty a woman should not have lost the beauty of youth, only its freshness. Therefore, though with hesitation, simply as an individual opinion, I venture to say that a woman's most attractive years are between thirty and forty, or perhaps I shall be wiser to adopt the world's fair phraseology and say between thirty and upward!
Somewhat in despair at my own dullness on this question, I recently propounded it before a luncheon party where young girls predominated, and at a dinner illuminated by the witty presence of certain men and women of advanced experience in society. The voice of the young girls was almost unanimous in fixing a limit not greatly to surpass the age of twenty-six. That of their elders graciously extended the perfection line for women to between the ages of thirty and forty. But almost every one had some instance to quote of feminine charm so outliving the actual sum of years that its fortunate possessor remained as indifferent to fleeting time as the fly in amber. A famous (but apocryphal) instance of this is the story of Theodore de Banville — of a young provincial, who meets at a fête of the great world in Paris a charmer who sings and dances his heart out of his keeping. At supper he sees the same lady presiding with their host over the table of honor, where, in the act of giving a toast with unequaled vivacity, she is stricken with sudden illness and carried out of the room. Next day, when all Paris is mourning the death of the charming duchess, the young man asks the cause. “But, my dear fellow, do you not know?” was the wondering reply. “It was nothing more than old age.”
I should say that the age in which a woman is at her best mentally and physically depends very much upon the woman. Some women are older at thirty than others are at sixty. Heredity and environment have much to do in determining the matter. But the more I think about it the more convinced I become that it is not a question of years after all.
Not time, but circumstance; not intention, but character and experience, make a woman at her best either mentally or physically.
As to time, it undoubtedly is true that if she has been designed through heredity for a Juno she will require more years for a satisfactory completion of the plan than if she were of the Psyche type. Medea requires time; Norah Crena does not. Venus de Milo is eternally an older lady than Venus de Medici. Queen Elizabeth was “at her best” probably when she stood for that picture of Her Majesty “at eighteen,” which so delights and holds visitors at Hampton Court to-day, but history has paid very little attention to her at that extremely pretty and pleasing stage of her career. I have known blasé girls of twenty, and joyous, eager, wide-awake women near the seventies. Looking back upon a number of years, one of the finest women, the most intelligent, most hearty and beautiful I can recall, was a girl of eighteen, whose life, closing two years afterward, is vivid in my memory as heroic and noble beyond the creations of romance. Another picture in my mind is that of a grand old woman of eighty — yes, eighty years. Physically, she still was beautiful; like Sydney's sister, charms which youth had concealed shone revealed in her countenance, and enhanced her true grace of action. Though undoubtedly she had been physically “at her best” half a century before, mentally and spiritually she was at her zenith at eighty. In all her life she never had been more keenly alive to public and private interests around her, more clear-sighted, more liberal, more witty. Those who had known her well in her bright and earnest middle-life, have assured me she was still brighter, still more earnest, in what was technically called her old age. The two instances I have given are extremes, I admit; but there is a long range between — a Midway Plaisance, as it were — wherein one may find instances of all nations, all conditions, to meet their own special theories in this matter. I purposely have not referred to biographical dictionaries, or to “noted females” past or present; but have preferred to take a survey from personal experience; and the outcome of it is I must give a woman's answer:
A woman is “at her best,” mentally and physically, when she is “at her best” — and that is all there is about it.
In the view of the materialist the great objects of life are most fully attained during its greatest period of physical vigor and activity. Without claiming to be an expert in these theories I may say that this period would usually extend from the twentieth to the fortieth, and in some cases to the fiftieth year. The third and fourth decades of a woman's life are those upon which she can but rely for active and energetic service in any direction. She will naturally be at her prettiest between the age of sixteen and thirty. Her imaginative productivity, if she have any, will probably reach its highest turn by or before her fortieth year. After this period the exuberance of animal spirits and the extravagance of fancy will be apt to decline. From this point of view a woman who has outlived both her good looks and her active worth is to be respected for what she may have been and for what she may have done. What she is adds little to the sum of social values.
To the moralist there are deeper considerations which considerably modify those just presented. The intellectual plan of a life has very much to do with the growth and duration of its value.
The development of character does not correspond with the period of physical growth and maturity. The bond of heredity is most felt in and after middle age. The good or evil traits inherited from either parent, and not eradicated by education, often fail to appear in youth, but create surprise by cropping out in later years, thus justifying the assertion that “man is made up of contradictions.”
The studies which nowadays so largely retard the participation of young women in general society are calculated, I think, to prolong all that is best in the period of youth. The great pleasure of learning what is best worth learning tends to give the mind a cheerful and even joyous tone and habit. The college-bred girl cannot be pardoned for indulging any thoughts of “the uselessness and outer disappointment of life.” She knows better, having had delivered to her the keys which will open to her a thousand sources of satisfaction, arts, sciences and good works of every kind, for the pursuit of which human life is only too short.
The woman who keeps the simplicity of her girlhood, its generous impulses and quick sympathies, and who adds to her natural gifts the enlargement of study and the crown of experience, is always at her best and never past it. When the exterior attractions of form and color diminish and depart, as they mostly do, the radiance of our inner illumination will more than compensate their departure. But, in order that this should be so, her moral must equal her intellectual gain. She must be willing to learn, not only her own powers, but her own defects also, and to court the good influences which can help her to escape from the delusions of sense and the fatal tyranny of self-consciousness. She must discard the petty measures of vanity and self-seeking, and learn to love her race, her country, and the humanity which she should help to adorn. In this way the fading charm of her early bloom will seem poor in comparison with the beauty of her maturing womanhood. She will be glad to live while she can serve, and she will continue to serve with dignity and grace until the final, sweet dismissal.
It seems doubtful to me whether the mental and physical heights are co-existent, and I scarcely see how the periods of attainment can be fixed, separately or otherwise. So much depends in this matter upon environment and individual temperament. It might be easier to strike an average were the question limited to the women of different climates. It is probably true that the average woman of the torrid zone reaches her prime under twenty; it may be approximately true that the average woman of the temperate reaches hers between thirty and forty. Still there are so many exceptions that it would be difficult to proclaim a rule even with this limitation. We all are acquainted with many notable cases in which women have done their best mental work and also attained their highest measure of physical strength earlier and later than the periods named.
The question can probably be resolved into the one of nutrition and assimilation. Upon the measure of the former depends the possibility of growth and maturity, but even given the same measure of nutrition, the power of assimilation varies in individual cases. Plants may produce their flowers at earlier and later periods because of unequal provisions of sun and rain and fertile soil, but even plants in the same bed do not always flower simultaneously. We cannot establish an unswerving rule for their times, since they depend upon the capability of individual plants for grasping and making use of the conditions of growth.
It is curious to watch the concentration of brain that this question considered causes. If I ask an old woman she looks back to the time when she enjoyed life best and when she was most admired and liked.
A courageous young woman — setting aside the vanity which is apt to give our own age, whatever it may chance to be, as the desirable one in all points of view — thinks forty the age for women physically and mentally. She partially concedes though to a physician's idea that at the termination of the fourth decade of the seven years' changes in the body, twenty-eight, is a desirable time of life if considered purely in a physical light.
Balzac has gained the gratitude of many a woman who had resigned herself to being ancient history as far as looking upon herself or being considered by others still mentally or physically attractive. His heroines at forty are enough to reconcile any one to that doubtful age. But the truth is he is simply fearless enough to present his characters at their real time of life. The novelist who caters entirely to the public — that public which refuses to submit to anything but eighteen-year-old heroines — pictures to us, girls all bloom, innocence and simplicity. Then he endows these young creatures with attributes which reveal depth of character, talent and the subtle charm which come of worldly wisdom.
We are compelled to believe in the doctrine of transmigration, for the heroine of extreme youth must have had a previous existence to have attained to that experience and judgment and rich mental endowment that years alone can give.
When Mrs. John Sherwood entertained in her own house artists, authors, society devotees, our own and foreign celebrities, she used to say, in giving informal invitations, that she could not impress her address on any one's mind more indelibly than by telling them that it represented the two ages when women are most attractive: No. 18 West Thirty-second.
I cannot enthuse over eighteen though. It is too much like a still-life landscape where we find ourselves searching the horizon for even a figure in outline. In a girl of eighteen we seldom find the expression in the face that is the real beauty.
I have long thought that at thirty-five a woman was most attractive, for she is still young, though her bloom may have gone somewhat.
We will take it for granted that by that time she has come into that best dowry that a woman can have, marriage and maternity. One awakens, transforms, elevates. The other teaches all lessons and renders unnecessary the daily battle we must all make against selfishness. St. Peter, you know, asks no questions of mothers and soldiers, he flings wide the door.
Some man says, “Give me a woman without a history,” and yet what character is perfected without the suffering and self-denial that so frequently come before thirty-five?
A woman at thirty-five has enthusiasm without gush; she discriminates and is quite sure what she likes. The abruptness of youth has given way to the softening and subduing grace of maturity. She has still passionate intensity of heart and great capability of devotion, but she has reserve, and daws do not peck at her sleeve.
Versatility and animation are hers, but underneath all is repose that makes you wish to remain in such an atmosphere.
In short, there is that poise, mental and physical, which comes of looking life and its capabilities, its duties, its delights, square in the face.
As regards intellect one would be inclined to say off-hand that a woman is at her best from the age of thirty to fifty, in some cases of marked power and decision of character and talent for administration, the limit extending to sixty years. Then, if by the term “physically” in the question before us, beauty is referred to, of course, the loveliness of early youth, with its rose-leaf texture and coloring and its roundness of contour, touches the head, the heart, the sense as no later charm of person can do. If physical strength, instead of beauty, be meant, then its fullest development must lie between the ages of twenty-five and forty.
But it is not possible to insist upon the absolute when the absolute does not exist. It might be said that women are like flowers in a garden, and find their blossoming time according to their aptitudes anywhere from April to November. Yet even this general rule may not be accepted without hesitation, for we have all known happily-endowed women who from youth to age were gifted with perennial beauty and talents, which at each stage when they were obliged to yield something to time, gained in its place some added attraction or capacity.
And if for the average woman it is no easy matter to prescribe fixed limitations, what can be said of the woman of genius? The Brontés accomplished immortal work in early youth, while George Eliot was thirty-eight when she began writing her novels, and as a further contrast Miss Austin took up authorship as an alternative to needlework all through her mellowing girlhood, and died when forty-two.
What the modern woman, the college-bred woman, is to do in the way of extending the period of feminine power and charm must be measured by the next generation. But women are women, and no doubt centuries hence, as now, most of them, after reaching forty years of age, will confess to a half-tender, half-ironical, it might be said an almost æsthetic envy of youth and its advantages. And this feeling has been embalmed in a hundred aphorisms and paradoxes which show with what a glamour of beliefs mankind and womankind alike look back to that period when they were forming — when all life beckoned to them. “If youth knew, if old age could!” “That beautiful time when I was so young and so unhappy.” “Write,” said George Sand to Flaubert, “while you are young and while the gods and not memory dictate to you.”
“At what age, in your opinion, is a woman at her best, mentally and physically?”
At her marri-age, especially if that involve, as is not uncommon, her dot-age.
It would be as impossible for me to find a rule applicable to the development of all women as one which would regulate all of their digestions. Human plants differ in their flowering and seed times quite as much as do plants in the garden.
Remember the many infantile poets whose verses at ten won plaudits from both critics and the public, and who at thirty had sunk into dull, unable drudges. Or, on the other hand, look back at those marvelous old women born in the last century, who, developing late, carried into extreme old age a bodily strength and mental force unknown to the modern, nervous and weaker woman. I have known one or two of these women, forced out of the world at ninety, fight death inch by inch with all the vigor of their tough, old bodies, and with all the shrewdness, the wit and the fierce fire of youth.
Then who does not know women — gray, old grandmothers perhaps — whose brains stopped growing when they were sixteen? They are not responsible for the folly and kittenish tricks which annoy us. Arrested development is an actual cerebral disease, and not rare among us.
These are but a few things which prove how impossible it is to name an age at which every woman is at her best.
If you examine, indeed, into the effect of a forced mental growth upon her body, you may write tomes.
A witty French woman, who was here last winter, saw one side of that subject. “Ah, no!” she sighed. “We women in Paris do not grapple with such grave studies as you in Philadelphia. We do not coöperate; we have no public virtues. But,” with a shrug, “neither have we nerve prostration!”
The only general assertion which one can safely make is that every woman is at her best in body and mind at the age when she is most fully occupied with her true work in the world, whether that be art, cookery, lecturing or child-bearing, provided that she goes to it simply and humbly. It is not their work that prostrates the nerves of women or vulgarizes their natures. It is the incessant squabbling and posing and boasting about their work. No body or mind at any age can be in healthy condition which is perpetually busied with examining and exhibiting itself before the public.
Dr. James Jackson, who was for many years the great medical authority of Boston, put the period of the perfection of manhood much later than most people would be inclined to admit. He said that physical strength began to decline long before experience and acquisition were at their height, so that our lives touched the other at a time decidedly past the middle of life. The matter is more difficult to settle in the case of woman, because physical beauty counts for so much with her, though the wise Doctor left it out entirely in speaking of men. Therefore these things are to be considered in settling what cannot possibly be settled without constant exceptions, at what age a woman is at her best, physically and mentally — the age at which beauty is at its perfection, the age of greatest physical vigor, and the age when the mental powers are at their best, and, also, when experience and accumulated knowledge help on most thoroughly the matured powers of mind.
If one considered only beauty there would be no difficulty, for youth is generally, no doubt, absolutely essential to the perfect charm of beauty. We must feel it an evasion when one quotes the well-worn instances, mostly French, where peoples' lovers continued through their lives, even including unknown grandsons. And even the comforting saying that it is every woman's own fault if she is not a beauty at sixty fails to persuade us that the beauty of middle age or age is the real thing, when compared with the charm that takes everybody off their feet, and even upsets respectable middle-aged gentlemen, and devout elderly spinsters, if an undeniable charmer, a raving, tearing beauty appears in the next pew! If beauty only were in question we must reckon a woman's best days to be from eighteen to twenty-eight or so, but with us other considerations must come in. For physical vigor, if we were the healthy animals we were meant to be, from twenty-five to thirty-five, or even forty, may certainly be called the prime of our powers, but in our age of constant employment and excitement deep conscientiousness as to woman's sphere, and, for the more frivolous, wonderful possibilities as to charming clothes and house decoration, only limited by the limits of human strength, nervous prostration steps in and often makes that very period of life utter weakness, instead of triumphant strength.
To some extent the same may be said of a woman's mental powers, but here we have the experience of actual fact to fall back upon. For certainly most of the best work of women belongs to middle life, and often has reached beyond it. George Eliot, George Sand and Mrs. Stowe certainly did not do their best work before forty, and though “Jane Eyre” was written earlier, who can tell what might have been written but for Miss Bronté's early death? With so many considerations, all pointing to different conclusions, we can only say that from twenty-five to forty seems to embrace the best possibilities of a woman's life, and that if it is necessary to limit it further, from thirty to forty must be given, while if The Ladies' Home Journal demands its pound of flesh, and will have a fixed date, thirty years of age comes nearest to combining all.
“She shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.”
Whether we accept as legend or revealed truth, the scriptural account of the formation of woman, this wisdom is to be gleaned from its application: that woman is at her best when she fulfills the law of her being.
She will thus be harmonious yet diverse. To be harmonious she must be in unison with that plan of her creation which makes her the symmetrical complement of virile vigor. She thus becomes the crowning glory of the world's progress. As a rule, creative effort belongs to man, and directive and assimilative power to woman. Out of this perfect primal law comes her wonderful privilege of maternity, which is her resplendent gift and her chiefest grace as well. Modern society is pagan and not Christian, whenever it looks upon motherhood as a misfortune.
No nation can safely ignore that this position is woman's highest prerogative.
I once knew a lovely woman, the mother of seven children, who prepared her sons for college, and taught sons and daughters the classics and various accomplishments. She was vivacious and had a society training that might have led her to prefer social triumphs to her severe occupations. In her rounded life, notwithstanding heavy crosses, womanhood was at its best.
Out of this logic comes woman's adaptations, which are arbitrations and pacifications. Men fight the world's battles, but the mothers of men are the neutral force that harmonizes differences and allays irritations.
Evolved from this principle, too, arises the necessity of woman refraining from participation in the fierce excitements of public life.
Of course, I do not mean to say that woman must marry, but I do reassert that when woman is an enlightened and Christian mother she is at her best.