lthough Beerbohm's "A Defense of Cosmetics" satirizes sage writing, there are passages which seem overwhelmingly convincing, as though he really believes the absurdity of what he is arguing. It is difficult to tell if Beerbohm is overstating his point for satire's sake or if he is trying to be a sage. In the following example Beerbohm argues that the rising age of cosmetics will keep women in their place and out of men's business unlike in previous times because "Artifices's first command to them is that they should repose. With bodily activity their powder will fly, their enamel crack."
Women appear to have been in those days utterly natural in their conduct — flighty, fainting, blushing, gushing, giggling, and shaking their curls. They knew no reserve in the first days of the Victorian era. No thought was held too trivial, no emotion too silly to express. To Nature everything was sacrificed. Great heavens! And in those barren days what influence did women exert! By men they seem not to have been feared nor loved, but regarded rather as "dear little creatures" or "wonderful little beings," and in their relation to life as foolish and ineffectual as the landscapes they did in water-colours. Yet, if the women of those years were of no great account, they had a certain charm, and they at least had not begun to trepass upon men's ground; if they touched not thought, which is theirs by right, at any rate they refrained [113/114] from action, which is ours.
Beerbohm's statement that women should repose so their make-up is not ruined seems like it could be viewed as satire by today's reader, but that in 1894 it probably was not meant to be funny. How do the two different interpretations change the meaning of the text? Which one do you think Beerbohm was trying to achieve?
Is it only the difference of the time in which we live and the fact that the women's movement has taken place in the intervening time that makes this seems unreasonable to today's reader? What are other possibilities?
What, if anything, gives Beerbohm creditability to say that women should be reducible to a cosmetic face rather than being active citizens? Even if he didn't need this creditability in his time, he needs it now, is he able to build it?
Last modified 17 October 2003