Taking for its form a sarcastic rendition of Victorian sage writing and for its content a tongue-in-cheek manifesto of the Aesthetic movement, Beerbohm's "A Defence of Cosmetics" is a creature of its time. It should not be surprising, then, that Beerbohm chooses to illustrate his argument for the ascendancy of artifice with what were regarded at the time as the most patently superficial individuals in society: women.
Cosmetics, almost exclusively the province of the beauty-conscious woman, was probably chosen because it provides a salient example of how art and artifice function in the world. There is a "prejudice," Beerbohm reports, "due to the tristful confusion man has made of soul and surface." (111) Man has "come to think of surface even as the reverse of soul." (111) This issue was taken up most notably by the prominent aesthete Oscar Wilde, in his book "A Picture of Dorian Gray". But why the "tristful confusion"? Beerbohm posits that it has its origins in the assumed duplicitousness of beauty, or, more precisely, the beauty of women: "And so perhaps came man's anger at the embellishment of women — that lovely mask of enamel with its shadows of pink and tiny pencilled veins, what must lurk behind it?" (111) In other words, one suspects artifice because it usually has something to hide.
Beerbohm provides as his anti-ideal the attitude of the Victorians towards artifice; this hostility is likely a backlash, since the early Victorians are, after all, his direct predecessors. Again, he explains the issue in terms of women: since cosmetics were shunned and women were encouraged to be active, in those days "they seem not to have been feared nor loved" by men. (113) The snide reference to Machiavelli (who said that "it is better to be feared than loved") demonstrates the dire extent to which these Victorian women were deprived.
By contrast, the late nineteenth century woman is enlightened. She is encouraged to decorate herself and lead a life of passiveness and inactivity. Beerbohm insists, "No longer is a lady of fashion blamed if, to escape the outrageous persecution of time, she fly for sanctuary to the toilet-table; and if a damsel, prying in her mirror, be sure that with brush and pigment she can trick herself into more charm, we are not angry. Indeed, why should we ever have been? Surely it is laudable, this wish to make fair the ugly and overtop fairness..." (110) Artifice furthermore is a device for woman's empowerment: "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." (112) Beerbohm also makes repeated reference to the ability of cosmetics to "take the sting out of marriage."
Peppered with phrases such as "it is, from the intellectual point of view, quite necessary that a woman should repose," (115) and being so focused as it is on the nature and use of the aptly-termed "make-up", one is led to wonder by the end of the piece if Beerbohm's treatise doesn't have an ulterior motive. The rhetoric of "A Defence of Cosmetics" ambiguates its intent and meaning, making it difficult to determine his loyalties and prejudices. Do you think that the essay is merely about mocking the Victorians and lauding the aesthetes (indeed, is it possible that he is mocking the aesthetes, as well?) Could Beerbohm be using the debate as an excuse to discuss his own prerogatives? Is his commentary simultaneously an argument for the inequality of the sexes?
Last modified: 12 March 2001