Modernity is the underlying subject in Max Beerbohm's essay "A Defence of Cosmetics." He extols the virtues of his contemporary post-Victorian industrial society where artifice is part of the world of production and reproduction. Beerbohm is not bothered by the absence of authenticity in such a rouged and puckered world. To him, aesthetics, not depth, is of the utmost importance.

Loveliness shall sit at the toilet, watching her oval face in the oval mirror. Her smooth fingers shall flit among the paints and powder, to tip and mingle them, catch a pencil, clasp a phial, and what not and what not, until the mask of vermeil tinct has been laid aptly, the enamel quite hardened. And heavens, how she will embarm us and ensorcel our eyes! Postitively rouge will rob us for a time of all our reason; we shall go mad over masks. Was it not at Capua that they had a whole street where nothing was sold but dyes and unguents? We must have such a street, and, to fill our new "Seplasia"; our Arcade of the Unguents, all herbs and minerals and live creatures shall give of their substance. The white cliffs of Albion shall be ground to powder for Loveliness, and perfumed by the ghosts of many a little violet.

Questions

1. Why does Beerbohm use the image of the mirror in a section discussing the values of production and reproduction of beauty aids? Is the woman's "real" beauty being destroyed? Does it matter?

2. Earlier in the essay, Beerbohm talks about the early Victorian era when a "young girl" sat on the throne of England and innocence and purity were of paramount importance in women. What has changed about England (economically and politically) to make innocence more of a hindrance than a virtue?

3. Beerbohm says, "The white cliffs of Albion shall be ground to powder for Loveliness." What are the white cliffs of Albion a reference to? Why does he use this specific reference? Does he care at all about the environmental state of England as long as his mother country continues to provide his modern aesthetic comforts?

4. Beerbohm's tone throughout the essay is ironic and exaggerated. His biography, though, seems to suggest that he truly believes that aesthetics are vastly important. Does he wholeheartedly believe that the artifice of women is a good thing, or is he still being somewhat tongue and cheek?


Victorian Web Overview Aesthetes & Decadents Max Beerbohm Leading Questions

Last modified: 17 October 2003