Dear Book Doctor,
I always compare myself to other people and think how much thinner, younger or better looking they are than me. How can I stop doing this?
SF, by email

Your mistake is not that you look, but that you judge. Like JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, you prize everlasting youth over a whole and giving life. This error is widely replicated in fiction, of course – far too many novelists use beauty as shorthand for goodness, and ugliness or deformity as a proxy for evil.

Think of the villains in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels: Mr Goldfinger’s henchman Oddjob has a cleft palate; in Diamonds are Forever a villain sucks constantly at a wart on his thumb. For Fleming, innocent women are beautiful; Russian secret agents odious.

Jilly Cooper’s bonkbusters use the same rules: famous stud Rupert Campbell-Black is bad but gorgeous – so he is always forgiven; arch villain Sir Robert Rannaldini becomes ever more hideous.

What you should really do is ditch your thoughts of fat thighs and cellulite and get a life. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet didn’t spend her days jealous of her older, more beautiful sister – and she nabbed the best man of all.

Jane Eyre, by contrast, did muse that she was unworthy of the imposing Mr Rochester – but when she found happiness in the end it was not through matching beauty but matching minds that she achieved “perfect concord”.

Though I tell you to get a life, Dickens would tell you also to get yourself a new outfit. As he writes in Martin Chuzzlewit: “Any man may be in good spirits and good temper when he’s well dressed.”

bookdoctor@ft.com

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