VI. Aging Gracefully 

 “In losing her good looks, [a woman of forty] feels that she loses her existence…. Besides, a woman in Paris is never forty years old, she is always either thirty or sixty; and since no one says otherwise, the forty-year old woman does not exist.”

—Sebastian Mercier, Tableau de Paris, vol. 6 (1783)

For medical doctors, philosophers, novelists, and even art critics who weighed in on the topic of women and aging, the concept of “aging gracefully” would have been an impossible contradiction. Aging for the fair sex, was, axiomatically, a torment, a hell. By today’s standards, that hell began early: at the terrible age of forty when, her beauty and charm faded, a woman could no longer expect to inspire a man’s love. When she reached “the virile age,” as some authors termed it, and could not fulfill her two raisons d’être—pleasing men and bearing children—she ceased to be a woman, and effectively ceased to exist. If at fifty or sixty she tried to resist the torments of aging through her habits of dress and make-up, she could look forward to being the object of ridicule and of censure for caring that men love women best when young.

Though many Enlightenment thinkers banished no-longer-young women to the margins of society and culture, others—thinking, passionate women who lived into old age, such as the author, Madame Riccoboni— refused to be invisible or to accept the injunction that love is only for the young. Meanwhile, the natural philosopher and physicist, the Marquise du Châtelet wisely counseled aging women to: “think of fostering a taste for study… which makes our happiness depend only on ourselves… let us choose for ourselves our path in life, and let us try to strew that path with flowers.”


Image: Philippe-Laurent Roland. French, 1746–1816. Marie-Louise Lesaché, Madame Potain, 1788; terracotta.