Max Beerbohm hovers over the line between satire and admiration in his essay, "A Pervasion of Rouge." Though known to think highly of aesthete Oscar Wilde, he mocks his beliefs by applying them to a less cerebral form of artistry — cosmetics. Aesthetes value beauty in art, as opposed to morality or historical context. By applying the values of the aesthetes, even jokingly, to women's grooming habits, Beerbohm objectifies women. In the passage below, he describes the pleasantness of women who exist only to be gazed upon. While the essay began by praising rouge, the rouge becomes a symbol for the woman-on-a-pedestal ideology of the Victorian Era, and the work becomes more socially critical.
Old ladies may still be heard to tell how, when they were girls, affectation was not; and, if we verify their assertion in the light of such literary authorities as Dickens, we find that it is absolutely true. 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. Far more serious was it when, in the natural trend of time, they became enamoured of rinking [skating] and archery and galloping along the Brighton Parade. Swiftly they have sped on since then from horror to horror. The invasion of the tennis-courts and of the golf-links, the seizure of the bicycle and of the typewriter, were but steps preliminary in that campaign which is to end with the final victorious occupation of St. Stephen's [House of Commons B.]. But stay! The horrific pioneers of womanhood who gad hither and thither and, confounding wisdom with the device on her shield, shriek for the unbecoming, are doomed. Though they spin their bicycle treadles so amazingly fast, they are too late. Though they scream victory, none follow them. Artifice, that fair exile, has returned.
Beerbohm criticizes silly and unnecessary make-up without ever openly criticizing in the essay's first paragraph. Using rhetorical questions, he treats his readers like little children, scolding them for attempting to resist the reign of Artifice, which, like other important historical subjects, must experience periods of favor and disfavor.
1. Assuming "A Pervasion of Rouge" is consistently satirical, is Beerbohm essay somewhat feminist?
2. How do the biographical details about Cissy, earlier in the essay, color this description of womanhood?
3. In the passage above, how does Beerbohm use the satirical strategy of list?
4. For what reason does Beerbohm uses very masculine, war-like imagery when describing the liberation of women (invasion of the tennis-courtÉseizure of the bicycle . . . .that campaign which is to end with the final victorious occupation...)?
5. Does the more casual tone of "A Pervasion of Rouge," shown in Beerbohm's use of short sentences like "To Nature everything was sacrificed. Great heavens!" merely reflect the style of time, or is it an attempt to appeal to his reader?
- Salvation and Sincerity: Satire in Beerbohm's "A Defense of Cosmetics"
- Cosmetics: Artifice or Art?
- A Defence of Cosmetics and the Age of Reproduction
- The Role of Satirist and Aesthete in Beerbohm's "The Pervasion of Rouge"
Last modified 23 October 2007