Of cosmetic value only: make-up and terrible old ladies in Victorian literature

Sara Eileen Zadrozny

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By looking at the figure of the painted older woman in nineteenth-century novels, this article examines how changing attitudes to cosmetics punished ageing women who clung to the make-up of their youth. As a warning against such continued practices, Catherine Gore’s ageing Lady Ormington demonstrates how devotion to make-up cannot hold back the signs of ageing. In a similar manner, Dickens’s Mrs Skewton shows how Georgian make-up, her ageing features, and her corrupt personality are equally contaminative. Finally, Percy Fitzgerald’s ‘Terrible Old Lady’ shows how heavy make-up is a literary motif that better delineates the ravages of female ageing than biological change alone. I conclude that in nineteenth-century novels, cosmetics do not function as a worrying disguise or serve as a medical warning, but rather act to depict the ageing woman as extraneous, purposeless, and aesthetically irrelevant.
Original languageEnglish
Article number3476
Number of pages20
Journal19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 2021


  • Victorian fiction
  • Ageing
  • Women
  • medicine
  • cosmetics
  • gerontology


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