auding the separation of surface from soul, or the decadence achieved through cosmetics, the narrator in Max Beerbohm’s satirical essay “The Pervasion of Rouge” urges his audience to welcome Artifice, or to “wisely acquiesce” that “it is the times that can perfect us, not we the times.” Therefore, as much as Beerbohm protests against the artifice of cosmetics itself, he protests against the Victorian men and women who sacrifice their belief and responsibility in social change upon the “toilet-table of Loveliness.” Following the trend of the times is no innocent act, but a choice to apply the pulverized “white cliffs of Albion,” “ghosts of many a little violet,” or “blood of mulberries,” upon the skin. “Fashion has made Jezebel surrender her monopoly of the rouge-pot,” but Fashion cannot make society surrender its morality. In the following passage, the narrator portends, or rather anticipates, society’s fate:

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 up 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 ebarm us and ensorcel our eyes! Positively 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 [England] shall be ground to powder for Loveliness, and perfumed by the ghosts of many a little violet. The fluffy eider-ducks,, that are swimming round the pond, shall lose their feathers, that the powder-puff may be moonlike as it passes over Loveliness' lovely face. Even the camels shall become ministers of delight, giving many tufts of their hair to be stained in her splendid colour-box. and across her cheek the swift hare's foot shall fly as of old. The sea shall offer her the phuchus, its scarlet weed. We shall spill the blood of mulberries at her bidding. And, as in another period of great ecstasy, a dancing wanton, le belle Aubrey, was crowned upon a church's lighted altar, so Arsenic, that "greentress'd goddess," ashamed at length of skulking between the soup of the unpopular and the test-tubes of the Queen's analyst, shall be exalted to a place of consummate honour upon the toilet-table of Loveliness.

All these things shall come to pass. Times of jolliness and glad indulgence! For Artifice, whom we drove forth.) has returned among us, and, though her eyes are red with crying, she is smiling forgiveness. She is kind. Let us dance and be glad, and trip the cockawhoop! Artifice, sweetest exile, is come into her kingdom. Let us dance her a welcome!

Loveliness that results from the exploitation of a country’s substance is arsenic to the soul and the society that cannot perceive this artifice, as its poison, can only descend into Dionysian prodigality and disorderly abandon “Positively rouge will rob us for a time of all our reason; we shall go mad over masks.” However, the Victorian era has not come to its end. Society will see “the day of sancta simplicitas [holy simplicity],” if they see Artifice in truth, as the creation and not the creator of their time.

Questions

1. What contextual information, of the social, literary, or industrial issues and movements specific to the Victorian Age, must we have to understand the arguments of Beerbohm’s essay?

2. What effect or purpose does the extensive personification of abstractions, such as loveliness, artifice, nature, and beauty, create or serve in “The Pervasion of Rouge?” In these following passages, how does Beerbohm’s personification of nature in “The Pervasion of Rouge,” compare to Carlyle’s in “Signs of the Times?” How does each author use this technique to comment on the relationship between man and God?

From “The Pervasion of Rouge:”

After all, the old prejudice is a-dying. We need not pry into the secret of its birth. Rather is this a time of jolliness and glad indulgence. For the era of rouge is upon us, and as only in an elaborate era can man, by the tangled accrescency of his own pleasures and emotions, reach that refinement which is his highest excellence, and by making himself, so to say, independent of Nature, come nearest to God, so only in an elaborate era is woman perfect. Artifice is the strength of the world, and in that same mask of paint and powder, shadowed with vermeil tinct and most trimly pencilled, is woman's strength.

From “Signs of the Times:”

Thus does man, in every age, vindicate, consciously or unconsciously, his celestial birthright. Thus does Nature hold on her wondrous, unquestionable course; and all our systems and theories are but so many froth-eddies or sandbanks, which from time to time she casts up, and washes away. When we can drain the Ocean into mill-ponds, and bottle-up the Force of Gravity, to be sold by retail, in gas jars; then may we hope to comprehend the infinitudes of man's soul under formulas of Profit and Loss; and rule over this too, as over a patent engine, by checks, and valves, and balances.

3. Like most initial readers of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” those who read Max Beerbohm’s “The Pervasion of Rouge” did not grasp the satirical purpose of these essays. Is this potential misunderstanding a fault, or contrastingly a strength, in either author’s style of prose or moral reasoning?

4. What parties or beliefs does Beerbohm attack in his satire? Does his ironic use of the narrator as sage indicate an attack or ridicule of the sage or the techniques of sage-writing as well?


Victorian Web Overview Aesthetes & Decadents Max Beerbohm Leading Questions

Last modified 7 March 2011