work in progress – Imperfect Beauty, Imperfect Writing, Imperfect Love – On Beauty, Identity and Creativity: Is beauty active or passive? #essay #beauty #gender politics #stereotyping #binaries #literature #writing #LiteraryR

This started out as an essay, and has morphed into a book-length thesis. I would like to thank an old friend, Mercy for commenting on the original drafted essay, when this was essay size and was an inquiry into whether beauty is active or passive; now as a result of Mercy’s timely assertion that beauty is passive, I have gone deeper into the complexity of what beauty is and may mean, drawing on research from diverse sources.


For many years I have enjoyed – if that is the right word – good looks (were I not writing a story, of sorts, I would have used the word endured here instead of enjoyed, my story would be over, and I might be accused of telling and not showing). You see I am skeptical about whether or not it is possible to enjoy being beautiful since my experience of this has been largely a negative one. I realise this is a provocative statement, and yet often what seems obvious goes unchallenged simply because it seems so obvious, when, in fact, the very opposite may be the experience; to exemplify, the belief that a smile is only the reflection of pleasure; a smile may be sardonic or depressed, condescending, fake, incredulous.


For this reason I feel it is my duty to illuminate the difficulties of being classed or classified beautiful, or ugly; to interrogate received belief patterns about what this status is, does, negates, reinforced through close reading and relating to you my own experiences and life long battle with my own status.


The feeling that I had, when at the age of sixteen I turned from an ugly duckling into a swan, that I didn’t like being the object of the gaze has never left me; I didn’t want to be looked at and absorbed as an image and the psychological battles I fought with myself when people only engaged with me on one level, prompted me to look more closely at beauty and identity as the subject of a novel I was writing, a sequel to Jane Eyre entitled Bertha’s Journal: A Perfect Immelman Turn – Charlotte Bronte too had made looks – the looks of both Rochester and Jane – the subject of her novel. What did this all mean?

* * *

I was inspired to begin this essay partly when listening to Will Self begin a podcast, for radio 4’s program entitled A Point of View, with a negative suggestion about beauty; I suspect that Will Self would have gone on to oppose this negative view, since with most lectures, as we were taught as undergraduates, the speaker provides the thesis and then the antithesis, which is usually the opposite of his original stance at the beginning of his lecture; this is the point of lectures, or good essays, they are exploratory, and as has been suggested by many academics and writers, the essay as a discipline is a way of working forwards from a point of ignorance to a point of understanding; it is a process which begins with a question or a provocative statement, and undertakes to interrogate it from all angles in order to arrive at an answer; which is the beauty of the genre. However, I will make no specific reference to Will Self’s lecture (or essay on legs), here because I didn’t listen to it. I switched the radio off immediately and went away to write this because his assertion, or opening remark, had provoked anger in me.

Consider the boredom of becoming the proverbial Ozymandias (a statue), people, come in to gawp and make comments like, “isn’t she beautiful”, as if that were the only thing about you worth commenting on, or “I want high cheek bones”, as though a man was able to concentrate on more than one aspect of a woman at a time. I had endured this superficial response to my presence working in an office and on the shop floor for three years now, and I was sick of it. I was a manager running a shop with several floors and managing a team of people and yet over and over again in my interactions with people either my age or my looks took precedence over my actions. For years this had the effect of making me shun eye contact as a teenager, and worse invent a phrase which got me into trouble with the head teacher when I was reported for saying to some adult that stared at me, “have a good screw”. Now I realise what a beautiful metaphor this was; then I had no idea what it meant; for me, it felt as though people’s eyes were drilling into my soul.

Because of this unwanted attention, I became interested in beauty and Its impact on life and I wanted to read writing on beauty and to know the effect of it. Gradually, as I read more, I stumbled upon various literary works that had made beauty the focus of their plot and had explored it in depth and with insight. Having read and enjoyed Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, which title must be a deliberate satire of the work itself, because of course to limit is to contain and creatives cannot be contained, I humbly offer you a list which, of course, as many academics have observed before me, is not intended to ever be exhaustive. To return to the idea; creativity cannot be contained, you cannot be constricted, reduced like a commodity to contain only the thing itself. The very existence of structuralism undermines this idea. Because out of structuralism arises post structuralism, which challenges its birth mother’s authority, splits up and deconstructs, creating ambiguity and illuminating difference; as art arises out of the art or movement that came before it. And, in the same way, as music is born from other music and perpetually refers back to it, and references it in the same way that it does poetry.

I will attempt to interrogate and discuss several select texts, briefly in the next few pages of my denouement. Perhaps through them I can deconstruct the idea of a fixed idea of beauty.


The Collector, John Fowles

The plot of Fowles’s, The Collector expresses the claustrophobic quality of being the object of the gaze. A man keeps a woman to photograph her and to observe every angle of her beauty. She is trapped in his gaze, alive but not living, as though she were a pinned butterfly, under glass.

Often, because beauty appears superficial, it is looked upon as just that, not laboured for, or if laboured for then with futility as in that revered and great poem Ozymandias which mourns beauty lost in a mock horror tone; it is as though beauty were superficial, or capable of being broken, which, of course, at some level, it is.

The famous poem, Ozymandias, perhaps, reflects the audacious qualities of mankind when they become overreaching and exalt statues and great works beyond the power of life itself, until all is shattered and lies broken in the desert sand, and this is a powerful expression of what happens when we objectify; we live to a certain extent in a dream world focused on the essence of what is on the surface, or present to us in the moment, perhaps chasing a dream caught in an image, when at home perhaps there sits a wife whom we have discarded because we are too lazy to take the time to understand her intricately woven moods, impulses and inner beauty.

We perhaps do not understand that a woman feels and when she feels, and you make her feel, she may become turned on, which is, sometimes, the desired outcome, but can be achieved with attention, or words as well with the hands, which may provoke or trigger a physical response; now why is it that people don’t appear to know this? Attention, I suppose, is an intellectual response; I will discuss this idea in more detail later in this work.

In the case of the inanimate and crumbling statue it would be possible to argue that here the poet has projected onto the statue a certain subjective influence in that the assertion of the poem is that the statue is or was beautiful, a work of art, diminished because it is crumbling, or diminished in spite of the love that is or isn’t bestowed upon it. And if beauty is in the eye of the gaze, and not the person or object on the receiving end – consider John Fowles’s, The Collector, in which a woman is objectified, or the Grimms tale about the beautiful bird in the cage, kept captive for its beauty; consider the age old tale Rapunzel which perfectly demonstrates the suffocating love of the mother who keeps the beauty locked up in the tower away from the eyes of anyone who might desire her phallic hair and she can only escape by making use of the hair as a ladder, which utility causes her to lose the hair, since it is then cut off – then is it the gaze, the onlooker, and not the thing of beauty itself which has the power?

Of course Rapunzel might be a deeper psychological story about the agency and power of long hair. An essay could be written on this, and indeed Roland Barthes has already written hair as the phallus somewhere. And what of other tales woven into our consciousness, such as Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty and Jane Eyre; works which place beauty at the core of their denouement?

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

To a certain extent The Hunger Games series casts a spotlight onto the seemingly passive predicament of beauty, in that it almost forensically examines this relationship between the gaze and the body, although sadly this theme has been censored out of the films that were made prior to the initial draft of this essay in 2016; in fact the nudity required in a truer portrayal of this trilogy would be less gratuitous than most depictions of nudity in contemporary cinema, which often simply expresses violence or is pointless; (actually nudity is passive), there is, in Suzanne Collins’s work – – an important comment being made about the gaze, which should have been given more attention in the cinematic conceptualisation of the story. Collins’s protagonist Katniss is objectified, and yet Katniss has other qualities which, it might be seen in the denouement, eclipse her beauty, perhaps enhance her beauty. She is energetic and resourceful. Energy might be regarded as a form of beauty. It would be interesting to research further into transforming energy into beauty.

Art, wax works, such as Kylie, and statues, think Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley, do not have to feel the pain of this converted narcissism as we active humans do (is there any other way of describing this wish to devour a beautiful object with one’s eyes, to objectify it?), and yet, perhaps there is. Paradoxically, the statue in the poem might have survived were it protected and preserved by the energy of an attentive lover. Here, I am sure, I could find countless examples of the activity of attentive lovers to illustrate my point. Perhaps I will research into this further as it seems to be a window into the very essence of love and to suggest that beauty is not all. I have explored this idea of beauty in my work, Bertha’s Journal: A Perfect Immelman [n] sic Turn as a tentative sequel to a work which remained enigmatic to me for many years, and which I knew I still did not fully comprehend when I wrote my tentative sequel, which was why I chose the ending for my protagonist that I did at the point of writing it; but that is another story about inner love. Or at least, my exploration of it has arrived at that conclusion. So, perhaps we have a text that at first reading does not appear to be exactly what it is; an enigma; that text is Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

Consider the characters Jane Eyre and Bertha, who for me is Jane Eyre, but her other side; the plot so obviously based on Rapunzel: the caged, trapped beauty with the jealous mother figure hovering on the periphery of the novel, always there in so many guises, step mother, girl friend, fiancé, house keeper, the essence of the caged animal so cleverly personified in all the women who haunt the novel. The main essence of the feminine in all these stories is that all are captive; the female protagonists are metaphorically captive: one in a house, one in tower, which makes the metaphor stronger, since the tower, visually, is representative, with its obvious restrictive qualities, of a prison, and the other in a cage: viewed, but never free.
The plot of Beauty and the Beast appears to completely reverse the concept brought to us in the psychological battle created through the drama of the towers that trap the beauty in Rapunzel and Jane Eyre. And yet the trapped beauty which the Beast hides is also present in Bronte’s characterization of Rochester; his femininity and tenderness is suggested in a scene in the plot where he dresses as a woman to tell the fortunes of his guests and to understand the workings of the mind of the woman he loves. His use of the feminine to penetrate the masculine aspects of Jane Eyre’s indifferent and yet passionate gaze reveal a dynamic which suggests that the gaze is nurturing and important.

‘Don’t be alarmed,’ continued the strange being; ‘she’s a safe hand is Mrs Poole: close and quiet; anyone may repose confidence in her. But, as I was saying: sitting in that window-seat, do you think of nothing but your future school? Have you no present interest in any of the company who occupy the sofas and chairs before you? Is there not one face you study? One figure whose movements you follow with at least curiosity?’

She responds,

‘I like to observe all the faces and figures.’

(Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, London, Penguin, 1847, p. 230)

Here we have a clue. We ‘idiot Lecteurs’, as John Fowles called us in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, are being shown that it is Rochester, and not Jane that is the trapped beauty. And in this sense, since she describes him as a Beast in every sense of the word, it must be his inner beauty that is the subject of the novel. This is a profound statement, since, from the research I have done, many readers see Rochester in a very negative light and completely overlook his vulnerability and feminine side. (There are many conversations about Rochester, such as those still raging on Goodreads.)

The proverb ‘beauty is skin deep’ alludes to a depth which is unfathomable when seen through the superficial lens of the surface. Charlotte Bronte uses all her powers as a writer to exemplify this through her careful narrative; Rochester is deeply undesirable and, to a certain extent, spoilt; Jane too is spoilt in that she is allowed to believe that she is not lovable; both characters have a profound deficit of love. This suggests that they do not find it easy to love themselves. They are adrift as if on the Wide Sargasso Sea that Jean Rhys describes in her 1966 prequel or prelude to the work. This insight allows the reader to read the work through a different lens, allows the reader to see that the dynamic of the tale of Beauty and the Beast is at work here, and that the Beast has as much to learn as the Beauty in this story. And it is here that the masculine and feminine are intertwined.

The beauty of which we speak in the narrative of Jane Eyre, then, is not superficial beauty after all. As it is possible to love a destroyed beauty, or to keep in the imagination the dead love of a lover as though it were still present and vibrant as it was on the first day, so beauty is less superficial than it seems, which tends to diminish the proverb ‘beauty is skin deep’. Or perhaps the proverb has been the victim of the proverbial Chinese Whispers phenomenon, and really means something entirely different, such as ‘your idea of beauty is skin deep’ or ‘your idea of beauty is superficial’. For, ironically perhaps, the beauty which tends to surface on the outside is in effect evidence of depth of inner beauty and strength revealed on the outside as a radiant light that shines out of the face of, for example, a person who has just made love or been on a long trek outdoors. Perhaps that skin-deep beauty you have glimpsed is evidence of a life well lived, of the luck of being able to eat well and to possess the luxury of free time, the wherewithal to make leisure time health enhancing, or perhaps it is kindness, forgiveness and grace, or perhaps the face is a satellite, a receptor for all the love it receives, a guide to show us the potential in not overworking and neglecting our workers, so that their individual beauty may have a chance to thrive and they may reach their true potential; or is beauty a mask to hide from the love that it has lost? Just as a smile can be a mask for a person afflicted with a sorrow that cannot be voiced. For sometimes beauty is as fleeting as a moment shared with a stranger across a crowded tube station, and it cannot be examined under a glass:

‘No, but I can scarcely see what Mr Rochester has to do with the theme you had introduced.’

‘I was talking of ladies smiling in the eyes of gentlemen; and of late so many smiles have been shed into Mr Rochester’s eyes that they overflow like two cups filled above the brim: have you never remarked that?’ (Jane Eyre, p. 231)

And here follows the clue that the gaze is, after all, of little value, unless love accompanies it:

‘You have seen love: have you not? – and, looking forward, you have seen him married, and beheld his bride happy?’ (Jane Eyre, p.231))

‘Humph! Not exactly. your witches{‘} skill is rather at fault sometimes.’ (Jane Eyre, p. 231)

‘What the devil have you seen then?’ (Jane Eyre, p.231)

Rochester knows full well the answer; yet his courage fails him. He is weak, and not perhaps the strong and powerful villain we imagined him to be. This is a significant point in the denouement.

Perhaps our prejudice against the feminine is a subconscious bias we bring to the text, elevating Rochester to heights he does not deserve, or, indeed, possess; by this I mean heights of power. This idea came to me only yesterday as I watched an interaction between a “white” interviewer and a celebrated “black” writer which illuminated subconscious prejudice; the white interviewer was simply the conduit, and I began to wonder who was the victim in all this; I began to think deeper about the responsibility of the feminine in crushing the feminine in the masculine (ah and isn’t that a controversial statement?). I will find it, and place the link here later.

(Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, London, Penguin, 1847, p. 231)

Sparkenbroke, Charles Morgan

Much of the plot of Sparkenbroke, an old-fashioned literary work with designs on a fairy tale narrative, written by Charles Morgan an author I stumbled across in a bookshop following my degree – – and which with regard to plot shares many similarities to Little Red Riding Hood, oscillates with the paradigm of captivity and loss. The text is littered with clues about fairy tales, the literary heritage from which all our stories spring. The protagonist of Sparkenbroke is thrust from one father to another; torn between one apparently selfish lover and another; her agency is blurred by her everyday interactions with others. The plot bears remarkable similarities to that of Little Red Riding Hood; a girl frequently wanders into the woods and appears lost, whilst two male protagonists jostle for her affection. Much of the text is taken up with Freud’s ruminations on the self and Morgan’s literary works allude heavily to Freud’s writings, which made me wonder whether the two were contemporaries (Freud was born in 1856 and Charles Morgan in 1894, so it is safe to assume that he would have been influenced by Freud’s writing.) I have taken out my ruminations on Morgan’s texts as I was originally writing an essay and the ground covered in Sparkenbroke and The Fountain is too far-reaching with regard to the workings of love (but it would be an interesting study for anyone interested in Freud and the deeper idea of what love is and does in a relationship). For the subject matter that I am focusing on here I will remain constricted by my own restraints and focus. However, I may return to it later, since it is a deeper psychological reflection on the self and on love.

To continue with the theme of beauty, it would be remiss of me to exclude a children’s text which was an everyday staple of any child’s reading list when I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Nowadays children lean towards the Disney films and are probably far more influenced psychologically, by the denouement of these films than they are by the narrative of a fairy tale. But since a whole generation, perhaps two or three generations (of ancestors) of my contemporaries were influenced by these books and, as I have shown here, several generations of writers were too, it is a fitting text for this inquiry.

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty was a fairy tale I hated as a child. For me this story, above all others, represented everything I rejected about being categorized as a woman: women depicted as beautiful and inactive, unresponsive, good, passionless, acted upon, not active, loved for superficial beauty. I imagined this was a story about skin-deep beauty and I rejected the skin-deep beauty in myself which I felt that others were responding to when I turned into a swan aged 16 years and had no idea how to respond to the gaze of the other, to the comments and the wolf whistles. Perhaps, however, it is possible to find a message in Sleeping Beauty that was not evident to the child me who saw only the superficiality of the plot. Perhaps the very title Sleeping Beauty is telling us something more than that beauty is asleep and beautiful. The Beauty sleeps. The beauty is sleeping. Perhaps love can wake her. And what is love but action?
In his fascinating Ted Talks on YouTube about teaching the individual, Sir Ken Robinson notes that often we focus on one facet of a person, we prioritise it above all others and we engage with that aspect of the person to the exclusion of all the other aspects: Ken is talking about disability in one particular recording, which I have not been able to return to specifically, and can only paraphrase for you here. But this phenomenon is something Kant writes about in his work, A Critique of Pure Reason (which, for some reason, I attributed to David Hume somewhere, I think because Kant was inspired to write by Hume). This work is a fascinating study on how the mind categorizes things for expediency and how this makes for a poor paradigm of truth –

Having an understanding of projection is important, because without it, we cannot understand the behaviour of others when they meet us and then respond to us in a particular way. They are simple responding to an idea they have created of us in their heads, which is a restricted idea, but enables them to recall us and relate to us quickly so that they can converse with us on a superficial level; and this, sadly is all they will ever do unless they become our friends and truly take the time to get to know us. I will leave that idea there for the time being.

Perhaps – even though we are so much more than where the mind, as it struggles to catagorise us so that it can recall us in an instant, places us – in the end it is difficult to resist erotic interest (as Kylie – the pop artist – has mentioned on Desert Island Discs, there becomes a need to embrace this part of yourself, since it is an obvious part of yourself which other people are drawn to), so that rather than repelling it or giving in and eating cake to fit in you can instead embrace this facet of yourself or this, if you like, gift of discipline or positive self-image which permits you to be an object of the gaze. The problem will arise if you allow this to be an overarching facet of yourself, which you promote to the exclusion of all others, like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s statue which appears lost without the gaze of love. It is perhaps important to develop ourselves in spite of the lack of interest in other aspects of ourselves by others. The same caution might be aimed at the onlooker who does not listen to your words but gazes on your beauty.

It is here that the hidden flaws of the character Jane Eyre might be discovered and illuminated, since her pastime is to gaze on Rochester, while his is, apart from being the object of the female gaze, to question her, in the guise of a fortune teller, about the gaze, which she has projected onto others, Miss Ingram and Rochester included, with unflinching passion.


I put this essay away, only to return to it when another podcast on A Point of View was aired on radio 4, this time by Tom Shakespeare, who was wondering why women are so keen to cosmetically alter aspects of themselves they feel are not desirable. Tom Shakespeare asserted that we should allow a variety of different body images.

As a child I was often mistaken for a boy. I used to spend a great deal of time active, picking blackberries, in trousers scuffing my shoes and riding my bike. Later I joined a theatre group and performed a gender-bending exercise with a friend to that song Vienna in front of an audience. The song, had a long instrumental piece in the middle which enabled me to change from a woman to a man simply by taking off my lipstick, applying a moustache to my face backstage and changing into a trouser suit. The song acted as a vessel upon which I made my point, articulated it in the limited language I possessed then, as a young woman of 16 or 17. I must have known something then about gender and performance, or felt that gender is, to a certain extent, a construct. I had not read feminist theory then. Yet I still feel that our society’s obsession with gender, to a certain extent dictates what beauty is or is not and imagines image for us, which is limiting and dangerous. For we are complex, and many things. Our identity is not fixed, as Gandhi observed in his work, The Story of my Experiments with Truth. We can be persuaded, and change our minds, which was why Gandhi was not sure he wanted to write his autobiography in the first place.


In opposition to a fixed solution to a problem, which is a mathematical answer, is Art’s ability to resist the social pressure to conform or perform our identity. Art forces others to see us differently. Seeing things from a different angle or perspective is like looking at things anew and this creativity can produce change. Art reminds us that we can change perception. Art, as David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Mark Almond, Madonna, and many other creatives show us, is about different performance, about breaking out of the “normal”, and to a certain extent, putting on weight or an outrageous wig, or bending our gender illuminates human complexity.

Something is sinister about a society that wishes us to perform not only our identity by playing the part of, for example, a character, say Marlowe or Kurtz, as in ‘Heart of Darkness’ (Joseph Conrad perfectly articulates this dangerous assumption in this much discussed and referenced work); a name is supposed to teach us what a person is, Jane Eyre errs; the juxtaposition of the characters, Beauty, and Beast is not an accident, and yet as Conrad showed us in ‘Heart of Darkness’, there is much more at work in the activity of a human being than a name suggests, and as writers like Hilary Mantel now feel able to tell us, writers draw from experience, yet writers centuries ago already knew about the internal struggle of the act of writing, and wrote against, or in opposition to, history which is projected from one, for example, western, perspective just as a superficial view of a situation can produce multiple perspectives on what happened or is happening.

When we work in an office in 2013 or 2014 we must eat cake like everybody else (we must play our part) and put on a little weight in order to be like everybody else and if we do not play our part, and we are active so that rather than passively accepting cake to be like everybody else or accepting a middle-age-spread, because we are middle aged, then we are confusing. Now, of course, as I edit this in 2018, the NHS is waking up to the idea that health and diet are connected and choosing to be more articulate about this. When I worked for the NHS several years ago the office culture was to present cakes and eat cakes and if you refused, as I did, you were strange, different, non-conformist; a bit odd. Culture had dictated the middle-aged-spread, conditioning people to buy into the idea and allowing people to eat as much cake as they liked and not to connect consumption and a sedentary life with a change in body shape; and hence the inability to connect the idea of not eating cake with a slim figure, which resulted in questions like “why are you so slim?” (The assumption that this question carried with it was that as a mother of five, I ought not to have access to a nice figure any longer.) Nowadays, when I go on a long walk and obtain an instant face lift from the activity, it is inferred that I have used Botox. This is a restricted form of thinking and based on expectations and conditioning. A creative and active response would be different. I know that there are exceptions to this argument about weight; however, I am qualified to make this assertion because I have spent a year sitting down doing a course and eating cake because I was on a low income and made some hard choices in order to save money resulting in my becoming overweight for the first time in my life for a year. I lost the weight by giving up cake, eating consciously, and taking up cycling on a daily basis once I found another job.

This binary representation of what it is to be human, which expects and dictates what we are, rather than acknowledging out complexity is false and is challenged in our literary history, particularly in the narrative of Jane Eyre where it is the feminine that devours the masculine. And yet we persist with this false, binary thinking. Perhaps this is because we do not look deeply enough and because we lazily interact superficially. Historically, we have been told as writers by some coaches to stick to one genre so that we are saleable. Yet, as Roland Barthes so perfectly illustrated in his essay, “The Death of the Author”— and his work SZ on perception and identity, illuminating brilliantly the way both text and identity is a construct of the reader, as Charlotte Bronte instinctively knew when she addressed us in the future as, “Reader”, reading is active, not passive; essentially is it not the gaze of the other that defines who we are? The Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote about resisting the projections of others. It was only once the sleeping beauty awoke and became active that she truly began to live (which is another essay about the transforming power of love). We all have a responsibility, this tale suggests, to transform latent beauty. Latent beauty is, rather like latent consciousness, capable of being brought forward: invisible; like truth, waiting to be uncovered and loved for what it is. Beauty loved the Beast until he revealed his true identity; she allowed herself to become incarcerated in his home and to withstand his moods and rages, as Jane Eyre withstood the moods and rages of Rochester. She was present with him through his ugliest moments of rage, which suggests an activity in the act of the gaze, a conscious process taking place; the difficulty here in this analysis lies in the fact that Bronte was an author and authors are compelled to observe, and to a certain extent Bronte would not have completely separated her author self from her character Jane Eyre, which makes the experiment of interrogation of the text a flawed one with regard to uncovering the truth about beauty. And yet, as Freud observed in his preface to The Interpretation of Dreams, we all censor as we live and as we write.

And yet, what of passive beauty? Should we lock it away in a tower? Should we hide our writing away because it is not yet perfect? Perhaps that depends on what level of imperfection we will tolerate as a society.

I was struck by some of the work in – by the fact that, although many of the stories are very interesting to read, the sentences are sometimes poorly constructed and could be improved. I wrote to the administrator and creator and offered my help. She politely declined. Her policy appears to be to allow imperfections to prevail in the writing that she publishes. This is interesting. Perhaps I am imagining these imperfections, or I am being overly critical. After all, not all the writing is imperfect. On XFactor and The Voice musicians become better by being watched and critiqued. Why not allow writers this same process of visible growth? I feel I have been challenged by years of applying myself to my craft, going back to my work over and over again to perfect it. However, as a young and inexperienced writer, I could have gained more experience from being given a platform or thrown a life line to explore my imperfections; something a beauty rarely experiences. Paradoxically, perhaps, instead, like the beast, I have been compelled to a life time of interiority; not a bad thing for a writer; although, I have distorted the truth somewhat to articulate a point; the truth is that my personal experience was to attend university part-time time for five years, to research for a PhD for three years, to become chair and secretary of competitions for a year, to attend many writer’s events and conferences, and workshops; I did not hide away; what I mean is, in the sense that I have written far more than I have been able to show, until now.


Another aspect of beauty that I would like to consider is that of seduction. Were we all wondering around naked then the only seduction available would be in the shade of a tree or the ripples of water; this for me would be more sensual. I often feel there is a lack of seduction of women by males; perhaps we have lost this art as we reduce everything to the body of the female and forget about the beauty of the male form, and the seductiveness of, for example, an erect penis and no I do not mean a static photograph of one; for me this is not erotic; what creates the erotic is movement and the hidden and not visible. Barthes has written about this somewhere….

Writing is erotic, isn’t it? The habit it performs, of slowly revealing truth to us is a process of seduction. Roland Barthes has written about this in various works, such as The Pleasure of the Text.

Like the hidden and sleeping aspect of beauty, writing often remains hidden and unseen especially in our world where the people who are good at marketing get pushed to the top of the charts for Best Seller, when a more worthy writer might be lurking somewhere in the shadows.

I was happy to find an especially good essay by a lecturer at Times Higher Education online digital edition, on the response recently to his lectures on beauty from a class of undergraduates; you can read it here:

Collecting the proverbial rejection slips while you morph into a beauty?

Keep sharing your work and any beauty you create; don’t stifle it because it challenges others…

Like a beauty sleeping, a well-crafted story needs the love of an editor to breath life into it. I have learnt this through years of collecting rejection slips for my stories and through the accident that most of my work has not had the love of an editor or agent to enhance and promote it at the current time of writing this essay. I use the word most, because for Bertha’s Journal: A Perfect Immelman Turn I worked with an editor who suggested several small changes (most of which I listened to), except the overuse of the word “small” when describing the perspective of a child; this was deliberate; the character was inarticulate and did not possess the language of an adult. I discovered, only this year, when challenged by a Twitter user to type up the paragraph I was now reading, I have looked it up and it was a more profound sentence that I chose than this one, but it is a good example of simplicity for characterization, so perhaps I will look it up for you and include it here in a later re-write, that Hemingway, Ernest, who was derided by some for his prose style, and admired greatly by others, not least his contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who he mentored, also used the same technique, repeating the word small several times on the same page in A Farewell to Arms. As I continue to work on this writing, I have returned to studying poetry and attempting to write a Villanelle–(we were told to seek inspiration from our favourite writers)–something drew me to page 158 of the book I mentioned a moment ago, and there, on page 158 and 159, were the words ‘goodnight’ and ‘gentle’ repeated over and over again. Those of you who are avid readers might be interested in looking this up; my copy is an old Jonathan Cape, 1934.

I was advised to take out the cliches from the first chapter of my debut when I entered a launch competition for – in 2008. This was fantastic advice, and really helped me improve the first chapter and grow as a writer. It is rare to receive gratuitous assistance as a writer. I pay this forward whenever I am able to.


If passivity is an active part of beauty, I owe my sister an apology. I always thought that the activity of Little Red Riding Hood was a more honest history, while she preferred Sleeping Beauty; I disliked Sleeping Beauty because I thought that it was a story about a woman who was passive and perfect that lay around doing nothing; yet perhaps it was Sleeping Beauty that held the deepest clues to life and love and what beauty truly is. Little Red Riding Hood was sent out alone; she was the object of beauty. She was admired for her red cape, for her beauty, sent to run errands because of her wish to help and love, and she was surely abused by the wolf. Sleeping Beauty was awoken by a prince who was prepared to love her even though he barely new her; the seven dwarfs presided over the coffin of Snow White until she woke up, perhaps feeling guilty because she actively gave them love so freely in exchange for a roof over her head, and perhaps it is only through the patient and often seemingly passive activity of brave love that we can truly know what it is to live and to transform beauty so that it is not passive but active.

Early on in this essay cum critical text I quoted some passages from Jane Eyre, only a page or two following those exchanges there are more clues as to the activity of love when Rochester asks Jane for help in a moment of vulnerability:

‘Well Jane, do you know me?’ asked the familiar voice.

‘Only take off the red cloak, sir, and then–‘ (ah but is he the wolf in the cloak of Red Riding Hood?)

‘But the string is in a knot – help me.’

‘Break it, sir.’ (She will not; this is a dynamic moment in the denouement, since it suggests she witholds the activity of love from Rochester.)

‘There, then – “Off, ye lendings!”‘ And Mr Rochester stepped out of his disguise.

‘Now, sir, what a strange idea!’

(Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, London, Penguin, 1847, p. 234)

Rochester here gains access to the voice of a woman by dressing in her clothes. He becomes Red Riding Hood in order to gain access to the feminine, as if this access has not been available to him, except by subterfuge and cunning. This suggests that the masculine has lost something through the subjugation of the feminine and that opening up to female power, will enhance the life and awareness of the masculine, benefiting both male and female aspects of the self.

NB. This is a work in progress and my research continues. I shall update my work here as it develops.

I would like to acknowledge and thank Mercy Morris, an old friend I lost touch with aged 11, and found again on @Strava and here on for her response to this essay when I prepared and published the first draft in 2016, as her comment about passivity really challenged me to go deeper as I sought to articulate what beauty truly is from the perspective of both my experience and my research.

I have referred to, but not quoted directly from all of the following:
Shelley, Bysshe Percy, “Ozymandias” 1818 (various sources)
Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre (London & New York: Penguin, 2006)

Collins, Suzanne, The Hunger Games triology, (United States, Scholastic, 2008)
Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness, 4th Edn (London, New York: Norton, 2006)

Fowles, John, The Collector (Great Britain: Vintage, 1998)

Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams ( Oxford University Press, 1999)

Grimms, Grimms Fairy Tales, Rapunzel (Grosset & Dunlap, Inc, 1945)
Grimms, Grimms Fairy Tales, Little Red Riding Hood, Grosset & Dunlap, Inc, 1945.
Grimms, Grimms Fairy Tales, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), Grosset & Dunlap, Inc, 1945.

Grimms, Grimms Fairy Tales, Snow White (Grosset & Dunlap, Inc, 1945)

Gabrielle Suzanne Barbot, La Belle et La Bette, 1740, publisher unknown (Beauty and the Beast; various)

Hemingway, Ernest (Florin Books, Jonathan Cape: London, 1934)

Morgan, Charles, Sparkenbroke, (New York, The Macmillan Company, 1936), Looks Matter, A Point of View, Radio 4, Will Self, Sunday 11th October 2015. Accessed 08/04/2016 Sing a new Song, A Point of View, Radio 4, Tom Shakespeare, 26th January 2016. Accessed 08/04/2016 Desert Island Disks, Kylie, 18th December 2015
Accessed 08/04/2016

Ken Robinson, On Creativity

accessed 08/04/2016

My apologies for the layout of the text, as I am unable to correct the spaces on this site, currently. I am currently working to improve this essay.

If any of the ideas expressed in this work have inspired your work, please do me the justice of acknowledging this. Thank you.


Published by hermionelaake - Awards-nominated writer and associate editor O:JA&L

Whilst working on long fiction, Laake/Wilds write short stories, poetry, essays and blogs weekly. Laake appeared on Blog Talk Radio in 2016 in an interview across continents with Susan Wingate. Laake is an awards nominee, Jointly-published and Indie writer. Nominated for the Avon and Authonomy First Lines prize, 2014 and the H. G. Wells Grand Prize for Fiction, 2013 for the original #MYFRIENDALIEN out on AMAZON BOOKS in 2022. Flash fiction is published with Open: Journal of Arts and Letters. Laake has an MA from KU with distinction and a BA in English Literature.

6 thoughts on “work in progress – Imperfect Beauty, Imperfect Writing, Imperfect Love – On Beauty, Identity and Creativity: Is beauty active or passive? #essay #beauty #gender politics #stereotyping #binaries #literature #writing #LiteraryR

  1. A very relevant and thought-provoking post. This truly is an issue that many don’t really understand…how other’s perceptions can actually be constricting.

  2. An interesting an thoughtful piece. I think that beauty is indeed passivity, it is unthreatening and allows the beholder to create their own interpretation without argument. Thought, personality and opinion are active and less malleable.

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