In Max Beerbohm's treatise "The Pervasion of Rouge," the speaker treats the inevitable age of artifice as a female subject. He focuses specifically on the renaissance of cosmetics among women and, in the second sentence of the essay, uses the word "queen" to describe this comeback. He then follows by referring to the more masculine incumbents of sovereignty, the king with his sceptre and the sorcerer with his wand. Throughout he hints at the benefits of the coming of artifice, and he criticizes the effects of Nature on women:
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" . . . 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 from action, which is ours.
Beerbohm, or at least his narrator, associates Nature and its pursuers (in this case, women) with frivolity, which in this context he does not embrace. Ironically, he offers the solution of accepting artifice — materializing for women in the form of cosmetics and the betterment of the physical self — and welcoming the indulgences associated with it. He says the acceptance will improve the quality of life for many women:
Surely, without any of my pleading, women will welcome their great and amiable protectrix, as by instinct . . . Artifice's first command to them is that they should repose. With bodily activity their powder will fly, their enamel crack. They are butterflies who must not flit, if they love their bloom . . . Hers is the resupinate sex. On her couch she is a goddess, but so soon as ever she put her foot to the ground — lo, she is the veriest little sillypop, and quite done for. She cannot rival us in action, but she is our mistress in the things of the mind.
Once again, Beerbohm's choice of diction highlights how he characterizes artifice as female (-trix is a Latin suffix often denoting a woman subject). He intertwines the realms of the artificial and femininity in hopes that "surface will finally be severed from soul," much in the way the two sexes are distinguished. The surface will become the domain of women, as Beerbohm's narrator feels proper, while men may utilize full control over the soul once again.
1. Beerbohm makes reference to a Maria, Countess of Coventry, who died due to the toxicity of many of her cosmetics, and says this problem will no longer plague women. Were regulations on cosmetics ingredients responsible for make-up's boost in popularity? How much might regulations have inspired Beerbohm's essay, and even the so-called age of artifice as a whole?
2. Beerbohm speaks of relegating women to passive roles and frivolous pursuits. Yet at the same time he mentions how men treat women, ruled by Nature, as "dear little creatures," thus infantilizing them. Does Beerbohm seek to empower or subjugate women? How does his satire inform the interpretation of these statements?
3. How does Beerbohm's use of cyclical time differ from that of Swinburne's, such as in "The Triumph of Time?" How do subject matter and tone encourage viewing the concepts of time differently, or do they in fact parallel each other?
4. The woman of Swinburne's "Laus Veneris" shoulders much of the blame for the narrator's plight. Does Beerbohm intend to similarly blame women either for the defects of adhering to Nature or the advent of superficiality? Or does Beerbohm not concern himself with culpability at all?
5. Beerbohm capitalizes the noun Nature in every instance of its use but does not do the same for artifice. Was this an intentional stylistic choice, or did grammatical conventions dictate the technique? How might this amplify or change the relationship between artifice and Nature?
6. Even when talking about women's roles under a regime of artifice, Beerbohm still alludes to Nature, such as by calling women "butterflies who must not flit" and using the word "resupinate," a botany term. Why does Beerbohm do this if he possibly aims to criticize the detractors of artifice? What effect does this have on the essay in its entirety?
- 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"
- Beerbohm's Skin-deep Satire
Last modified 19 April 2009