By Edith Pearlman
The Ugly Duchess haunts me. She has haunted me since our first encounter, when I was seven. I was sitting with my parents on a train bound for New York reading Alice in Wonderland. The Duchess—a character in the book—was also sitting, on a stool in her kitchen. She was in a very bad mood, holding a howling baby who would soon turn into a pig—a bit of Lewis Carroll whimsy that disturbed me then and disturbs me now. A few chapters later, the Duchess showed up at a croquet game. She was aggressively friendly to Alice. The Duchess is “very ugly,” Alice thought.
When I looked up from the book, it was late afternoon. The train was crawling past an industrial Connecticut city which, reddened by the sunset, looked complicated and interesting. I learned later it was considered a blighted city, an urban disgrace. But it didn’t seem ugly to me.
The Duchess didn’t seem ugly either. In Alice in Wonderland, the Duchess’ face is not described; the artist John Tenniel takes the responsibility of rendering her. I understood his drawings to be eyewitness, on-the- scene sketches, just as I understood Alice’s adventures to be true accounts. In these drawings, the Duchess looks cranky on her first appearance, smug on her second. She is short of nose and long of lip, wide of jaw and small of eye. Her girth is draped in a loose garment that drags on the ground. A comfortable sort of sandal peeps out below. It’s the costume of a derelict, topped by a lunatic hat. But she didn’t look unattractive, at least not to my young eyes. The Duchess looked—though I was astute enough not to mention it—a little like my great aunt Elsa.
And compared to the Alice of the drawings, that starched child whose Mary- Janed feet stood stiffly in third position, and to the mannerly Alice of the prose, the Duchess was refreshingly discourteous. “You don’t know much,” she snapped at Alice when they first met. The Duchess was everything a woman wasn’t supposed to be: disputatious, unmaternal, indifferent to the squalor of her kitchen, incapable of controlling her cook. On her second and last appearance, she lobbed dissociated aphorisms at poor bewildered Alice. It seemed as if both the chronicler and the illustrator wanted me to dislike the Duchess. I resented the manipulation. I liked the lady.
Decades later, I encountered the Duchess’ predecessor. “The Ugly Duchess” hangs in the National Gallery in London. She was painted by the Flemish artist Quentin Massys in the 16th century.
This earlier Duchess is fiercer than Tenniel’s. You can see how the illustrator of Alice softened his subject. In Massys’ work, the brow is a high hairless dome; Tenniel brings the headdress down almost to the eyes, kindly concealing the baldness. The upper lip of the Massys Duchess is as long as a primate’s—this Tenniel allowed. But in the Massys painting, the Duchess’ ears stick out like a gremlin’s, her neck is leathery and lined, and her flaccid breasts are puffed up unconvincingly by a stiff cylinder of a dress. Tenniel omits these features, opting for a broader distortion more suitable for children. His Duchess is a mess, but not upsetting, whereas Massys’ old lady is a frightening study of gussied-up old age—the romantic headdress jammed onto the ancient forehead, the ringed fingers spoiled by dirty nails, the heartbreakingly expectant smile on a skimpy mouth.
Old dear! I thought, ogling the Duchess. There was still a resemblance to Aunt Elsa. I walked out of the gallery, wondering if there would someday be a resemblance to me. But I was off to meet a man for lunch and stopped thinking about the Duchess. At least for the afternoon.
I didn’t forget her face though. And I didn’t forget her appellation: ugly. Is there any word a woman dreads more? Cruel and silly are, by comparison, compliments. “I would gladly give half the wit with which I am credited for half the beauty you possess,” wrote Madame de Stael to Madame Recamier. “I am so plain,” sighed Jane Eyre. “A used-up article,” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote of herself, “never much to look at.” And after a new arrangement of her hair, George Eliot complained: “Uglier than ever.”
The Massys Ugly Duchess, hanging around my mind, began to symbolize women’s worries about their looks, especially their worries when no longer young and nubile. She began to represent the fruitless effort to beautify and the mockery it invites. I began to wonder whether anyone in 16th-century Flanders had responded to the simper of this willful old flirt.
I discovered that the Ugly Duchess never lived in Flanders. She never lived in any country other than the imagination. She had no physical existence. She wasn’t even invented by Quentin Massys. She was created by Leonardo da Vinci in a drawing that purportedly was an anonymous study of the grotesque. Grotesque!—worse even than ugly. Then came the Massys painting, then an engraving by the Bohemian etcher Wenceslaus Hollar, and finally the drawings of John Tenniel.
However unreal, my Duchess had a significant career as an artist’s model, as painter copied drawing and engraver copied painting. I still see her around. I see the determination in the Massys portrait on game old ladies who shrug off the granny uniforms society would have them wear, and go gaudy instead. I see the fatigued grimace of the Duchess in the Tenniel kitchen on harried women on buses and trains, who hold squalling children on their laps. And the overeager grin that the Duchess gave Alice at the croquet game shows up on unglamorous women at parties who refuse to be ignored, talk a little too much, and, if left standing alone, look not angry or surprised, but only a bit underappreciated.
But then we Duchesses straighten our backs, check our nails, remember to smile, and soldier on.
Edith Pearlman, a short story writer and essayist, has received two O. Henry prizes, two PEN awards, and two citations from Best American Short Stories.