Chestnut has been busy reading A Little Princess, and I have been striving mightily to keep my big mouth shut about how excellent it is, and "Do you know what you should read next?" and all that sort of thing, because I don't want to ruin everything. I realize as a mother my job is to ruin lots of things, but I particularly want not to ruin this.
We were walking to school soon after she started, and she was going on about how nice Sara was. Yes, I said. And how wonderful, Chestnut went on. Oh yeah, she's wonderful, I admitted. And then she said, "And she's pretty, too."
It gave me pause (as so much does). Because I tried to remember back in case I was wrong, but as far as I can remember Sara wasn't pretty. She just wasn't. It's right there, I find, in the very first sentence:
Once on a dark winter's day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.
(And doesn't that first sentence make you want to go back and read the whole freaking book again?)
But her lack of prettiness was part of the whole appeal, and clearly something that mattered to Frances Hodgson Burnett, because Mary (of The Secret Garden) isn't pretty either. And it's not just that she never says they're pretty, she makes a point of their plain little faces, sallow and thin and wan. There are moments when she says, "And in the excitement her cheeks flushed and she was almost pretty." But there's that almost.
So I said, "Actually, she isn't pretty."
Furrowed brow on Chestnut's part. Consideration. "But she is sort of pretty, right?"
I wouldn't let it go. "No, she's not pretty at all." Silent thought for a block or so. Then I relented. "But she's so wonderful she seems pretty, is that it?"
And Chestnut nodded gratefully. "Yes, that's it."
But I feel I wasn't entirely honest. Because she isn't pretty, she isn't! And there's something disrespectful in trying to make her pretty, to make her fit more with our notion of girls: unobjectionable, pretty, nice. I mean, these books aren't groundbreaking feminism or anything, but they're something more powerful perhaps, with their subversive insistence on accepting their odd little characters, with their imperfect exteriors.
We ended up talking about Victorian notions of childhood beauty, with its fair skin, dimpled cheeks, and golden ringlets. She had some fun trying to figure out which of her classmates would fit that narrow definition, and there was something comforting in that: some realization that pretty wasn't an intrinsic truth but a (somewhat arbitrary) definition located within a time period. She wanted to know what today's definition of beauty was, and we couldn't come up with anything more exacting than "thin;" possibly because notions of childhood beauty have relaxed, probably because we are so deeply within its expectations that we can't even see our prison's walls (gee, is that dramatic enough?). And so much of today's children's literature is first person it's hard to know whether heroines are pretty or not; there's no objectivity (this is in longer novels of course, not the horrific religion of prettiness with which Disney poisons our reservoirs of imagination).
I don't mean to get worked up about this; I appreciate prettiness, both in things and in people. And it was a great, tricky, interesting conversation to have. It's just…odd sometimes, to realize how intense the pressure and the expectation is on all of us, so much feel for the necessity of prettiness.
As for our title up there: I've never fully understood the phrase Pretty is as pretty does. Does it mean that if you behave well, do nice things etc, that makes you pretty? Or if you're pretty but you act like an ass it makes you not pretty anymore? Something in there, right? It's one of those idioms that have long escaped me. And for what it's worth, neither of those translations seems true to me (with regard to the world, not the accuracy of its meaning vis a vis the phrase). Any ideas?