When Beerbohm published “The Pervasion of Rouge” (or “A Defence of Cosmetics”) in The Yellow Book, a periodical associated with the aesthetes and decadents, he assumed that readers would take it as the biting satire that he intended. For most of his audience, however, the humor missed its mark by about a mile. Taken seriously, it even inspired parodies of its own, such as “Ars Cosmetica” — Punch's response with a parody of both “A Defence of Cosmetics” and Isaac Watts.

Forced to defend himself from such misinterpretations, Beerbohm assured his readers

that I had no notion that it would be taken in? Indeed, it seems incredible to me that any one on the face of the earth could fail to see that my essay, so grotesque in subject, in opinion so flippant, in style so wildly affected, was meant for a burlesque upon the ‘precious’ school of writers” (Letters of Max Beerbohm 2, quoted in Shaw)

Although indeed “wildly affected,” “The Pervasion of Rouge” initially fell flat in part because Beerbohm played his part just a little bit too well; his mock outrage and far-ranging predictions hew all too closely to the conventions of the Victorian sage. Many of the lines seem — almost — as if they could be lifted directly from Ruskin or Carlyle. For example, in the second paragraph: “The old signs are here and the portents to warn the seer of life that we are ripe for a new epoch.” Still, Beerbohm undermines a serious reading of his essay through his appropriation of the rhetoric of sage writing, and the uses to which he puts these techniques.

Question 1 What sage-writing strategies does he mimic? How does he use them? Good resources here include Homay King’s “Mocking the Victorian Sages: Beerbohm’s ‘A Defense of Cosmetics’” and Ariel Sabar’s “Beerbohm’s ‘Defense of Cosmetics.’” According to King, Beerbohm

manipulates devices such as the prophetic voice, symbolical grotesques, acts of interpretation, and the establishment of ethos or credibility. . . . Beerbohm employs the high language [of the sage genre] to discuss the trivial topic of cosmetics, thus belittling Carlyle’s lofty intentions. . . . .Rather than interpret the grotesque as a symbol of the general threat to society that superficiality poses as the sage would do, he labels Georgina an exception to the norm and continues with his agenda of instilling faith in and praising artifice. . . . He does not need to build up ethos or credibility in the same manner that Ruskin does and need not sway the audience into sympathizing . . . .Beerbohm further plays upon the tradition of the sage by appropriating the use of broad, general statements about human nature [when he defines self-beautification as a societal norm]. [complete text of esay]

From Sabar:

Beerbohm simultaneously parodies the techniques of sage writing and — by wresting the sage genre form its traditional historical context — displays, in practice, the consequences of viewing all art as artifice . . . In flagrant disregard of the earnestness of his predecessors . . . ..Beerbohm’s anti-sage makes himself a willing slave to his age. [complete text of esay]

Question 2. Another reason that Beerbohm’s first readers misread his essay has to do with the ambiguity of his tone and intention. What was Beerbohm’s aim? Who, or what, were his true targets?

We can identify several plausible possibilities here, none of which are necessarily mutually exclusive. According to Sabar,

he could be attacking the Decadents’ worship of artifice; he could be mocking the pretensions of those who argue against artifice; he could be unearthing paradoxes and contradictions in the Decadents’ platform as a self-indulgent academic exercise; he could be mocking the intellectual laziness which a belief in artifice encourages.

In addition, we ought to consider that his essay functions as a traditional satire: that is, it condemns what it pretends to support or celebrate (e.g. Swift’s “Modest Proposal” — text). In this sense, we can read the “Defense of Cosmetics” as a surreptitious “Attack on Cosmetics.”

Question 3. Why might Beerbohm choose cosmetics as a target? What was the status of these commodities at the end of the nineteenth century? Why, and to whom, would they present a threat?

Two Punch cartoons. Left: Feline Amenities. 1890. Right: A Painted Lady. 1894. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

At this point I want to turn to two illustrations from Punch, the British humor magazine, both of which are roughly contemporaneous with Beerbohm’s essay. The second, in particular, illustrates how very “pervasive” rouge had become; no longer associated only with prostitutes and whores, it had found a place even in the homes of respectable ladies. Nevertheless, cosmetics were not the sort of possession that such ladies would want to make public.

By the 1890s, when Beerbohm wrote this essay, the popularity and respectability of cosmetics had risen in tandem with women’s increasing visibility in the public sphere. But if cosmetics had achieved a marginal level of respectability, they still carried a taint of suspicion: “Degeneration, Max Nordau’s best-selling 1895 diatribe against the excesses of modernity, calls women’s hair dye a ‘symptom’ of cultural degeneration’ (8). Cesare Lombroso’s criminological study The Female Offender, also published in England in 1895, claims that ‘the art of making up . . . disguises or hides many characteristic features which criminals exhibit’” (quoted in Miller 91).

In this context, consider these lines from Beerbohm’s essay, which address the apprehension concerning cosmetic aids:

The very jargon of the hunting-field connects cunning with a mask. And so perhaps came man’s anger at the embellishment of women — that lovely mask of enamel with its shadows of pink and tiny penciled veins, what must lurk behind it? Of what treacherous mysteries may it not be the screen? Does not the heathen lacquer her dark face, and the harlot paint her cheeks, because sorrow has made them pale?

Such anxieties about cosmetics — which Beerbohm dismisses as residual prejudice — spoke to deeper fears about women’s potential for deception. With the aid of rouge and powder, a woman could conceal her age, her emotions, her natural beauty, and even, to some extent, her ethnicity.

The very substances that made up Victorian cosmetics contributed to these fears. (In addition to more harmless substances, cosmetic ingredients included arsenic and belladonna.) In Beerbohm’s ironic grotesque, Maria, Countess of Coventry, who died from “poisonous rouge,” represents an unfortunate past; “Nowadays [cosmetics] cannot, being purged of any poisonous element, do harm to the skin that they make beautiful.” But fears of poison in beauty aids lingered, and they pointed not only to concern for women, but also to a concern about them. As late as 1883, a woman charged with murdering her husband by poison had used the “ ‘cosmetic defense’ to explain why [she] possessed arsenic at the time of the [man’s] death” (Miller 97).

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the sale of cosmetics in Victorian England elicited anxiety about women’s power in a capitalist context. The burgeoning beauty business was associated with women’s emerging position as consumers and presented one of the only outlets for female entrepreneurship. In a sense, then, it spoke to women’s power as well as the performance of a certain idea of gender. “The cosmetic boom near the end of the century hinged upon women having enough social and financial freedom to buy such products” (Miller 89).

Beerbohm’s essay claims that the artifice of cosmetics keeps women confined — “Artifice’s first command to them is that they should repose” — and that it thus places them in a position of power. But in Victorian society, the sale and consumption of cosmetics actually heightened women’s presence in the public sphere.

Question 4. In light of this historical context, what do you think Beerbohm really means to satirize in his piece?

To conclude, I want to suggest that Beerbohm’s piece also indicates a sort of gender anxiety (whether this anxiety is sincere, or another of his satirical targets, is up for discussion). Consider this 1894 statement by the British physician, pioneer sexolist, and social reformer, Havelock Ellis:

artifices of the toilet’ are proof of women’s natural, ‘almost physiological’ tendency to deceive, a trait leftover from the pressures of sexual selection: ‘a woman instinctively hides her defects, her disorders, if necessary her age — anything which may injure her in the eyes of men. (quoted in Miller 91)

Thus, the discourse of evolution also entered discussions about natural and painted beauty. But in Darwin’s Descent of Man, the emphasis is actually on the “charms” and “pomp” of male birds that served no other discernible purpose than to attract female mates. In The Flirt’s Tragedy, Richard A. Kaye argues that Darwin’s “theory of sexual selection ‘implicitly questioned Victorian conceptions of the passive female and . . . rendered the conventional Victorian male, with his austere, well-managed attire, an aberration in history” (90, quoted in Landow).

Even though Beerbohm’s essay focuses on the use of cosmetics by women, it leaves open the possibility that this artifice could extend to both sexes: “The painting of the face is the first kind of painting men can have known. To make beautiful things is it not an impulse laid upon few? But to make oneself beautiful is an universal instinct.”

Question 5. How do you understand discussions of nature and artifice in this piece in light of the discourse of evolution? Where is the natural located? Where is artifice?

Victorian Web Overview Aesthetes & Decadents Max Beerbohm Leading Questions

Last modified 23 April 2010