When Mr Darcy famously snubbed Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, he declared that she was: ‘tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me’. In other words he was saying that Elizabeth was good-looking but not quite good-looking enough for his liking. Austen’s words were published in 1813 and times have certainly changed. The Cambridge Dictionary online has this definition in regard to the word ‘handsome’: ‘a handsome man is attractive’. Following this definition, their example sentence reads: ‘tall, dark and handsome’. And if you type ‘handsome’ into Google Images, you will be met by reams of chiseled men.
It is clear that, at least according to the Cambridge Dictionary online and Google, the modern understanding of ‘handsome’ pertains to conventionally attractive men. However, this has not always been the case. Mr Darcy was suggesting that Elizabeth was not good looking enough to tempt him to dance, not that she wasn’t tall, dark and chiseled enough.
While the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition may not be wrong, it omits any suggestion that the word ‘handsome’ can be applied to women. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the way that the word has evolved and is being used in contemporary society. When did this change and when was ‘handsome’ disbanded as a way of describing women?
Perhaps there are good reasons for this word to experience a renaissance. The English language is a rich tapestry, which contains a great many words to describe the different aesthetic qualities of women. The words at our disposal include: pretty, cute, beautiful, lovely, fetching or charming to list a small handful. However, no other word conjures the same majesty as ‘handsome’. Many of the words available cater to describing youthful or conventional, delicate aesthetics. There is a poverty of words to describe women who do not fit into this niche. After all, handsome older men can be ‘silver foxes’ but there is no such thing as a ‘silver vixen’. And I don’t believe that many of the aforementioned words would do justice to the aesthetics of women such as Dame Judi Dench, Grace Jones or Tilda Swinton for example. They are neither cute nor pretty nor charming as such. But are they handsome? Certainly.
The word ‘handsome’ is not anchored to youth or fragility. It has a singularly, dignified quality. Of course much of this is subjective and handsome aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder. But if the beholder is able to give greater credence to pleasing aesthetics that do not conform to the conventions of beauty, perhaps language can be used in order to grant increasing freedom of expression that embraces a variety of aesthetics rather than constricting appreciation.