Montesquieu

Rica to Usbek in ***


The other day I was in a com­pany where I was having quite a good time. There were women of all ages there : one of eighty, one of sixty, and one of forty who had a niece who might have been twenty or twenty-two. A cer­tain ins­tinct led me to approach the lat­ter, and she whis­pe­red in my ear : What do you say about my aunt, who at her age wants to have sui­tors, and still pre­tends to be pretty ? She is wrong, I said ; that is a role that only befits you. A moment later I found myself with her aunt, who said to me : What do you say about that woman who is at least sixty and today spent over an hour at her toi­let ? She is was­ting her time, I said, and it takes your charms to have to attend to that. I went to this unfor­tu­nate woman of sixty, and was pitying her inwardly, when she whis­pe­red into my ear : Is there any­thing so ridi­cu­lous ? Do you see that woman who is eighty years old and wears bright red rib­bons ? She is trying to act young, and she suc­ceeds, for that is close to chil­dish. Oh god, I said to myself, will we fore­ver sense only what is ridi­cu­lous in others ? It is per­haps a good thing, I then said, for us to take conso­la­tion in other peo­ple’s foi­bles. However I was enjoying myself, and I said : we have suf­fi­ciently clim­bed ; let us des­cend now and begin with the old lady who is at the top. Madame, you two look so much alike, you and the woman with whom I was just spea­king, that you might well be two sis­ters, and I don’t think either of you is older than the other. Quite so, mon­sieur, she said, when one of us dies, the other will have rea­son to fear : I don’t think there are two days’ dif­fe­rence bet­ween us. Once I had trap­ped this decre­pit woman, I went to the sixty-year-old. You must decide a wager I have made, madame : I bet that you and that lady, poin­ting to woman who was forty, were the same age. My word, she said, I don’t think there are six months’ dif­fe­rence. All good so far ; let us conti­nue. I again des­cen­ded, and went up to the woman of forty. Madame, be kind enough to tell me whe­ther you jest when you say that young lady at the next table is your niece ? You are as young as she is ; there is even some­thing wan about her face that cer­tainly does not apply to yours, and the lively tones of your com­plexion… Hold on, she said : I am her aunt, but her mother was at least twenty-five years older than me. We had dif­fe­rent mothers. I heard my late sis­ter say that her daugh­ter and I were born the same year. That is what I said, madame, and I was not wrong to be sur­pri­sed.

My dear Usbek, women who feel them­sel­ves decli­ning in advance by the loss of their attrac­ti­ve­ness would like to retreat toward youth. Now why would they not try to fool others when they make every effort to fool them­sel­ves and evade the most unplea­sant of all thoughts ?

Paris this 3rd day of the moon of Chalval 1713