After a week where we discussed the merits of a portrait of Jane Austen, I thought it highly appropriate to review this fascinating book, which has been recently published by Yale. It would make the prefect present for anyone interested in the history of the perceptions of female beauty, that ever-changing ideal that is almost impossible for any one woman to attain. Aileen Ribeiro, Emeritus Professor at the Courtaluld Institute, has written a thought provoking and carefully researched book on this most elusive of subjects. Though it deals with a long time period- from 1540 to 1940- the detailed chapter on beauty in the Enlightenment period is worth the cover price of the book alone.
Jane Austen lived though a period when ideals of beauty changed almost 180 degrees. When she was born, in 1775, powdered and pomaded hair, teased fantastically high, above a powered, rouged and patched face was the fashionable norm. The picture, above, taken from a fan made in the 1770s is a satire of a fashionable woman at her toilette. Jane Austen would surely have seen women who aspired to this type of beauty. Indeed, a small, delicate rouge pot is kept in the collection of the Jane Austen’s House Museum which is thought to have been the property of her fascinating cousin and eventual sister-in-law, Eliza de Feuillide . You can see it below in one of my own photographs.( Note, this is not included in the book)
However, by the turn of the century , 1800, that had all changed.
The more natural elegance of Justine Recamier, above, though no less artful, was more favoured after the upheavals of the French Revioluton and the overthrow of the old order:
Compared with the Renaissance, the eighteenth century was a period of personal comfort, of improved hygiene and of bodily intimacy, all of which turned the toilette into a high art, in which the theatre of dressing and undressing was an much an enjoyable entertainment as making up the face. The century regarded beauty as a whole, the body as well as the face…
Professor Ribeiro discusses in immense detail how (mostly) male writers sought to comment on women’s beauty and, by these means, also attempted to control their behaviour. Look at this passage about Jane Asuten’s favourite poet, William Copwer, with his somewhat familiar arguments agasint the over use of cosmetics:
The poet William Cowper pursued the idea of deceit in make up by asking how far the eye was really deceived if the face was overly made up. In France, according to his argument, woman’s use of paint was not intended to mislead because the artifice was too obvious; Englishwomen, however, tried to mislead by more subtle make up, for they wanted “to be thought beautiful and much more beautiful than nature has made them” and so they were “guilty of a design to deceive”
In the early 19th cnetury, neoclassicism and its emphasis on the natural look inspired by the Greek and Roman statuary , flourished, as personified by this portrait of Queen Louise of Prussia by Joseph Grassi ( 1804)
But it was a type of beauty that emphasised the young and the youthful. Professor Riberio notes that at this time:
Youthfulness was a crucial component of beauty-that is, a slim figure enhanced by light and simple dress and a youthful complexion that remained well beyond the juvenile age.
This print by Robert Deighton, Fashionable Lady in Dress and Undress dating from 1807 shows the sheer amount of work and artifice that was necessary to present this appearance of youthful beauty as a woman aged…
As Professor Riberio wryly comments:
Even when the vogue for the classical flourished at the turn of the century, not every woman abandoned face paint or cosmetics; make up, like certain favoured styles of dress, is so much a part of sense of self that it is often retained beyond youth, when no longer fashionable. Many women, especially those of a certain age, must have felt more comfortable when dress assumed a natural waist level, when the arms were covered and when, by using cosmetics, they could ‘ baffle time in his invidious warfare against comeliness”
What I particularly loved was the detailed documentary on the cosmetics that women have used throughout the period covered by the book. All in the hope , sometimes a desperate and dangerous hope given the ingredients used, of appearing youthful and beautiful.
The foundation for a healthy and glowing face was unblemished skin, which was softened with a scented oil or a wax-based pomade…
The pomades which would give the appearance of a youthful skin were prepared and bought by women, rather in the way we buy age defying formulas today. Fascinating.
I can wholly recommend this beautifully produced and sumptuously illustrated book to you. Professor Riberio has a great style which is entertaining, elegant and erudite. You will love this book, and reading it will give you some insights into why Caroline Bingley was so dismissive of Elizabeth Bennet’s tan ,and why, indeed, Darcy found her glowing complexion so compelling ;)