I was born in 1984, and I took the beauty lessons of the era to heart from a young age. My first concept of beauty wasn’t so much about the presence of anything, but the absence of what I then saw as flaws. My first beauty role model was Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years, who seemed to me perfectly beautiful because (to my eyes) she had no imperfection. Winnie had big eyes, a small nose, a big mouth, and impossibly glossy hair. It was around this time that I broke my nose badly in an accident. In later years, I came to see that accident as a defining moment in my life, which had drawn the dividing line between my prelapsarian young self—inoffensive, asexual, perfect—and my later self, whose imperfections were served up, on my face, for all the world to see. Everything that went wrong with my body after that, all the gross and traumatic evolutions of puberty, for instance, seemed to be epitomized by the brokenness of my nose.
That’s probably why I thought a lot about noses, and beauty, as I watched the conclusion of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. I had seen Waller-Bridge’s previous show, Crashing, in which her character makes a passing, sardonic reference to her nose as her personal “tragedy.” Season two of Fleabag begins with the image of the main character (unnamed in the show, but generally referred to as Fleabag) wiping blood from her nose, then flashes back to the start of a family dinner that crescendos towards a series of punches to the face which unfolds with the perverse logic of a multi-car pile up. By the end of dinner, the noses of four people are bloodied. I was touched, too, by the moment in season one where Fleabag’s best friend Boo accidentally insults Fleabag by trying to reassure her: “There’s nothing wrong with your nose,” she says soothingly, subtly implying that Fleabag must know there is.
And by ingenue standards, she’s right. Waller-Bridge’s nose is provoking. Atop her lithe form, her nose juts out at a caricaturish angle. I’m sure Waller-Bridge knows this, and uses it to her advantage, drawing attention in promotional photo shoots to the sharp angles of her beautiful face. As an adult, who sees beauty as the presence of something wonderful, rather than merely the absence of flaws, I find her luminous. And though Waller-Bridge’s characters make a few nose jokes, most fans seem to agree: as a recent spate of articles on the “Fleabag effect” testifies, fans find Waller-Bridge so appealing that her costumes have rapidly sold out and her hairstyle is having a moment.
As I watched Season Two, falling more and more in love with Waller-Bridge’s writing as I did, I kept thinking about another woman writer who is dear to me, who had a famously problematic nose: George Eliot. In particular, I kept turning a memorable passage from Eliot’s 1859 novel Adam Bede over in my mind:
These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people—amongst whom your life is passed—that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people whose movements of goodness you should be able to admire—for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience. And I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields—on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice.
Here the narrator pauses the story and explains her theory of realism to the reader, defending her declared intention to describe life not as it should be but as it is. For Eliot, realism contains its own ethical imperative: through it we learn how to accept, with grace, the imperfections of ourselves and the brokenness of others. Most of all Eliot’s realism is colored by a deep, thoroughgoing, even radical affection for humanity, in all its brokenness. She pairs an unflinching view of human frailty (“these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people”) with a transcendent account of the power of human love to improve the world.
That Eliot and Waller-Bridge both alight on the nose as a symbol of human frailty won’t be a big surprise to those familiar with the writers’ lives. Both have been treated, in the media, as women whose success is in part due to their unconventional looks. The consensus of the historical record tells us that Eliot was an ugly woman with a huge nose. A number of her contemporaries, even those not trying to be unkind, described Eliot as “horse-like” in appearance. Henry James called her, with characteristic elan, “magnificently ugly—deliciously hideous.” He described her “vast pendulous nose” and a chin that went on, as he put it in French, “for days.” And yet, commentators like James often derided Eliot’s appearance en route to complimenting her great mental presence. As Rebecca Mead details in My Life in Middlemarch, both Eliot’s contemporaries and her biographers have treated her genius as if it is somehow indebted to her (perceived) ugliness. The pressure which we seem to feel to link her literary output to her looks testifies to how deeply we still struggle to understand the role of the female artist.
Waller-Bridge, too, has been repeatedly asked about her nose in interviews, because successful women in our culture are always invited by the media to reflect on their potential insecurities. She told Vogue that she remembered being called an “elephant” by a boy in grade school, an anecdote which the magazine’s profile treats as an origin point for the rage that inspired her art.
I don’t particularly go in for these theories about beauty (or lack thereof) contributing to women’s art. Yes, women are conditioned to some degree by the way the world responds to them, and yes, how others perceive them (as beautiful or ugly) will certainly have an effect on that. But I don’t like the uncomplicated relationship between inwardness and outwardness implied by such arguments; I don’t want to be a writer merely because I’m compensating for a lumpy nose, just as men don’t really buy big cars because they have small penises. Most of us, thankfully, are more complicated than that.
That said, I do think noses are important in the work of these two women, because they seem to be one route into their shared view of human complexity, which treats inconsistency and imperfection as the essence of life. Noses are an easy (and perhaps personally resonant) symbol for Waller-Bridge and Eliot because they condense a lot of the issues both writers want to keep in constant play: that we can’t control so much about ourselves, both inside and out; that we constantly want to be better; that women are expected to be small in all things; that we intrude on others, sticking our noses where they don’t belong. Noses are treated by both as simultaneously serious and trivial; if, in the world of the show, Waller-Bridge’s Crashing character believes her nose is a “tragedy,” Waller-Bridge, as the show’s creator, knows that isn’t true. Both Waller-Bridge and Eliot are interested in zooming in and out on their character’s experiences, looking at “tragedies” from both the perspective of individual experience and from a broader, more collective perspective, wherein an individual tragedy might be funny, and a funny self-deprecating joke might actually be tragic.
Most basically, however, in their repeated references to broken and misshapen noses, Eliot and Waller-Bridge find a location for their meditations on the brokenness of humanity. Both writers’ works suggest that we are all broken, and that in that fact lies humor, pathos, and redemption. It’s there in Fleabag’s portrayal of stepmothers who habitually comment on the quality of the wine, priests who drink far too much, and women who want haircuts to save their self-esteem. It’s there in so many of Eliot’s novels, but particularly in her 1872 masterwork Middlemarch, where the protagonist must realize that it is the ubiquity of imperfection which binds her to her fellow humans. It is from a recognition of the shared imperfection of humanity that Dorothea Brooke finally learns that she can and must participate in the world, that she is “part of that involuntary, palpitating life,” not a “spectator,” but a participant like all others. Yes, human frailty can be desperately sad, but it can also be a source from which affection springs. Eliot and Waller-Bridge both place human imperfection and human grace intimately close together, wanting their audiences to experience the two together, not because they are in conflict, but because they are one in the same.
A counterexample demonstrates this nicely. Throughout all of Fleabag, the Godmother’s statue has been an important object, traded back and forth between the characters, stolen by multiple people, the source of many accusations. The object itself is an attractive bronze bust of a nude woman from shoulder to thigh. When Fleabag first encounters it, in Godmother’s studio, she calls it a “poor fucker” to which Godmother responds: “she’s a symbol of how women are subtle warriors” whose “innate femininity” is stronger than muscles or weapons. The first episode of the series ends with Fleabag making a cab driver uncomfortable by opening her jacket to reveal only a bra and the concealed statue, whose momentous breasts offer a stark comparison to Fleabag’s own, which she has previously joked “don’t get her anywhere.” Without a head or hips, the statue is woman distilled to what Godmother sees as our “essence”; a running joke throughout the series is Fleabag’s dismissal of this account of female power. In fact, when Godmother passive-aggressively accuses her of having stolen the statue (which she has), Fleabag replies that it was bound to get lost, because “if you rid a woman of her head and limbs you can’t expect her to do anything but roll around.” In the same episode, while they discuss the statue, Claire tells Fleabag to “keep her nose out of other people’s marriages,” a moment which contrasts Fleabag’s own tendency for precocious boundary-crossing to the statue’s mute perfection.
In the second season, the statue takes on greater relevance. When Fleabag uses it as a placeholder for the “Best Woman in Business” award (which she broke), the Best Woman in Business receives it with a wry smile and the remark: “I was going to say this is a bit on the nose, but she doesn’t have one.” That this icon of ideal femininity doesn’t have a nose speaks to the unreality of the image. A woman without a nose, in the world of the show, is a woman without the complications and imperfections that make her a person. When we, in the last episode of the series, learn that Fleabag’s mother modeled for the piece, we understand that Fleabag’s attraction to the statue is rooted not in its essentialism but its particularity. It makes sense that Godmother has elided Fleabag’s mother’s complexity in her representation; and yet through that stylized portrait, Fleabag has recognized something real, something she recognizes as her mother, who Fleabag, Claire, and Dad repeatedly remember—with deep affection—for her inconsistencies and difficulties. The statue, for all its perfection, can’t hold a candle to the memory of the complex, lovable person it purports to represent. The last moments of the series, which show Fleabag taking the statue with her as she bids goodbye to the audience, suggest that she finally accepts the power and beauty of this complex inheritance.
Almost any scene from the final episode of Fleabag reinforces the value of complexity over perfection. I’ll choose the moments Fleabag spends in the attic with her father, while he lamely tries to free a mouse he believes has been caught in what he terms a “friendly trap” (that is, a no-kill mouse trap). Of course, he is also talking about himself, and the trap he has fallen into, in which he has chosen to pass his time with a glamorous and selfish woman so self-absorbed she can’t always remember his name. Dad knows that his future wife isn’t quite the person she should be, but then neither is his daughter. In acknowledging to Fleabag that he loves her without always liking her, he reminds her that grace isn’t just for winning heroines with appealing asymmetrical haircuts and perfect red lipstick, but also for cunty stepmothers, and uptight sisters, and disappointing dads. It’s for the lovable and the unlovable in equal measure. In the empathy with which it treats its flawed, ridiculous, often cruel characters, Fleabag suggests that we all deserve love—or, at least, that loving each other is our best strategy for surviving a flawed world.
This is a very Eliot-esque notion: that people deserve love and fellow-feeling not because they are good, but because they are here with us, and thus are our only option. Other people are both our albatrosses and our life rafts, and we offer them the same mixed blessing in return. Or as the best businesswoman puts it, when Fleabag complains that most people are shit: “People are all we’ve got.” Ultimately, beyond serving as a tribute to God and Fleabag, the Priest’s homily at Dad’s wedding works on a third level: it suggests that we don’t love because to do so is right or good, but because love feels like hope, and hope is our only option in a flawed world.