Max Beerbohm ends his satirical essay “The Pervasion of Rouge” with an indulgently lyric and metaphorical image of “Loveliness” sitting at her vanity. In this conclusion to his “defence of cosmetics,” the speaker’s romanticized description of the process of beautification lends an ironic tone to his seemingly sage-like panegyric on the artificiality of cosmetics.
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 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.
It is a lovely enough image: the beautiful woman in the oval mirror, fingers flitting among her powders and paints, her powder-puff moonlike, perfume the ghosts of violets, brushes of camel hair and hare’s foot. But the excessively flowery language gives away the speaker’s satirical purpose. Ariel Sabar (1992) wrote that Beerbohm mocks the “heavy-handed verbiage” of contemporary sage writers with his florid descriptions of “salvation by rouge.” The speaker’s use of highly metaphoric and imagistic language to expound on a trivial subject constitutes what is at once a mockery of the sage writer — essayists like Carlyle and Ruskin — and a parody of Aestheticism.
1. What is the effect of the extended metaphor of loveliness as a woman, painting her face at her toilet-table? Why does the speaker of the essay paint this picture for the reader?
2. What about all of the speaker’s references to nature: the “white cliffs of Albion,” the “ghosts of many a little violet,” the “fluffy eider-ducks,” the “sea and its “scarlet weed,” the “mulberries”? What can we make of Loveliness’s putting nature to work in her powdering and perfuming, in the art of artifice?
3. Who is “le belle Aubrey,” the “dancing wanton” (the noun, wanton, from the OED: a lascivious or lewd person)? Why the contradiction in gender (“le,” the masculine article, and “belle,” a beautiful woman)? Is Beerbohm referring to his friend Aubrey Beardsley, art editor of The Yellow Book (the literary journal in which “The Pervasion of Rouge” was first published) and one of Aestheticism’s defining figures?
Last modified 5 April 2011