Depictions of Beauty in the Victorian Era

Depictions of Beauty in the Victorian Era

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Depictions of Beauty in the Victorian Era
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"What is beauty anyway? There's no such thing." (Pablo Picasso)

The Victorians' obsession with physical appearance has been well documented by scholars. This was a society in which one's clothing was an immediate indication of what one did for a living (and by extension, one's station in life). It was a world, as John Reed puts it, "where things were as they seemed" (312).

So it is not surprising to find that the Victorians also placed great faith in bodily appearance. To the Victorians, a face and figure could reveal the inner thoughts and emotions of the individual as reliably as clothing indicated his occupation. There is abundant evidence of the pervasiveness of this belief in the literature of the period. According to Reed, "Victorian literature abounds with expressions of faith in physiognomy" (336). He quotes a passage from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre to prove the point: "Jane Eyre, for example, trusts her initial perception of Rochester, whose brow 'showed a solid enough mass of intellectual organs, but an abrupt deficiency where the suave sign of benevolence should have risen'" (146; ch. 14, Reed 336).

In the Victorian novel, physical appearance was a primary means of characterization (Lefkovitz 1). A hero or heroine's beauty (or lack thereof) was probably the most important aspect of his or character. As Lefkovitz points out, beauty is always culturally defined. How then, did the Victorians define it?

For women, that definition is a strange mixture of ideals. The Victorians admired both the strong, hearty, statuesque lady (modeled on Queen Victoria herself) and the weak, fainting beauty, who Lefkovitz uses the French word mourante to define: "dying, languishing, expiring, fainting, fading" (36). The former type was most popular in the first half of the century, according to Federico:

A woman's body in the first decade of the century was . . . under considerable scrutiny, and the ideal against which she was measured was tall and statuesque, stately, elegant, refined . . . nothing is considered so outre [excessive] as a slender waist, while the en bon point is the ne plus ultra [utmost point; meaning a towering, powerful-looking woman] of feminine proportions. (30)

Many writers embraced this strong, sculpted, large-bodied female type, if only to use her as a comparison to the more delicate beauty that became popular later. According to Lefkovitz, the two conventions meet (and clash) in George Eliot's Adam Bede: "Bessy Cranage .

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. . is the first to phrase the question of beauty, and she contrasts two traditional types . . . [she] has a vague notion that types of beauty are meaningful and legible, and she cannot settle upon which is the 'better sort of beauty'...she wonders if the look of frailty may not surpass in beauty the look of robust health" (163). Perhaps Eliot is not the first to set up this opposition, though; in Bronte's Jane Eyre we see a similar set of opposites in the unfashionably petite Jane and the more robust, classically formed Blanche Ingram.

The latter type arose later in the nineteenth century (perhaps in response to the ne plus ultra ideal) and represented a physical confirmation of the popular Victorian notion that women should be powerless. Women's rights movements were just beginning to take hold (Reed 35) but already women who sought any type of independence from men were considered unstable, scary, even insane. The Victorians found sexually attractive women inherently threatening because they represented a powerful force that men could not resist or control (except through figurative death, as we will see). This idea had its origins in the Book of Genesis, when Adam fell victim to Eve's temptations. Women could supposedly wield these terrible powers over men through their beauty, so a physically frail woman would probably be less aggressive, therefore less threatening and the preferable type. Reed quotes Katharine M. Rogers, from her "Troublesome Helpmate:" "Insistence on women's weakness and the sweetness of submission was a gentle way of keeping them in subjection, and in subjection, they were prevented from doing harm" (35).

The most extreme form of this "subjection" of women can be found in the figure of the beautiful dead woman, which also became a convention in Victorian literature. It was common enough to become a cliche, which rendered an attractive woman innocuous then on two levels: literally, because as a corpse she is no longer a sexual object, and metaphorically: "Cliche restricts sexual and intellectual arousal, making more possible a limited degree of enjoyment but erasing the potential for adventure" (Michie 89). According to Dinah Birch, "Murdered woman - women who become nothing but bodies - feature regularly in Victorian literature" (104). Birch calls this phenomenon "sanctified beauty." In order to be safe, beauty must "become lifeless" (106). She cites the ultimate example of this in Tennyson's "Maud":

Pale with the golden beam of an eyelash dead on the cheek,
Passionless pale, cold face, star-sweet on a gloom profound;
Womanlike, taking revenge to deep for a transient wrong
Done but in thought to your beauty, and ever as pale as before
Growing and fading and growing upon me without a sound,
Luminous, gemlike, ghostlike, deathlike . . .

As these lines show, Victorians would reduce a beautiful woman to a corpse, and as such is no longer dangerous because "[I]t has ceased to be a body in any sexual sense . . . a safely pallid corpse" (Birch 111).

Victorian novels also produced interesting contradictions of male beauty. Abartis describes the typical (Gothic) hero in general terms as "strong and handsome" (257). Perhaps most popular was the "beautiful beast" the Byronic hero: dark, brooding, and full of "sexual energy" (Gilbert 338). Based, of course, on the adventurous and dangerously hedonistic (and therefore very exciting) Lord Byron, this convention characterized what Lefkovitz terms the "middle class ideal" (148). A typical Bryonic hero has a nontraditional moral code as well as rather a rather rugged, even savage appearance. In Jane Eyre, Rochester is in many ways Byronic (he looks like a "monster," he attempts bigamy) which in its unconventionality makes him an ideal match for the also unconventional (plain) Jane. Or as Lefkovitz says, "Bronte appeals to the literary tradition to sanction their beauty and to undermine the beauty of her conventionally attractive, but unappealing, characters" (148). Although the Byronic hero was very popular, other male conventions persisted, including that based on classical Greek beauty.

This "Hellenic tradition" as James Eli Adams calls it, has interesting applications to the Victorian Era. Classical Greek art is all about balance, and it may seem strange that this tradition would appeal so much to the rather repressive Victorians, since the adjective "balanced" is not often linked to them. Perhaps this lack of harmony between the intellectual and the physical is the reason they sought out classical beauty. Adams examined the Victorian-era writings of Walter Pater, who explores in his essays the use of the Greek ideals in Victorian culture: "The Greeks both define and solve the eternal problem of culture as balance, unity with one's self, consummate Greek modelling...the body as represented by the Greek sculpture is not only a triumph of sensuous form, but a consummate moral and psychological achievement" (157). According to this model, if female beauty/sexuality can be transcended by death, male beauty can be successfully tempered if it is accompanied by strong moral standards. At any rate, the Greek ideal implies a definite, if delicately defined, sense of power, which Adams says causes "the supreme beauty of Greek art to be rather male than female" (173).

The fine and precise sculpting that characterized Greek beauty also implied an inherent sense of self-control, which appealed to the Victorians. Adams suggests "The Greek mind had advanced to a particular stage of self-reflection, but was careful not to pass beyond it" (165). Greek sculpture further suggests a coldness: "Passionate coldness . . . to burn with a hard, gem-like flame" (175). To the Victorians, the Greek ideal means more than just "handsome"; it is far closer to physical perfection than that general term implies. Greek beauty, then, may be summarized this way: a perfect, balanced combination of intellect and physique.

Although physical beauty was unquestionably important in the minds of the Victorians, they were willing to embrace it in many different forms. The frail, delicate beauty, the dangerous femme fatale, the chiseled, perfected classical hero and the dark and wild "savage" all vie for a place in the Victorian novel. Even if indeed there "is no such thing" as beauty, the Victorians were certainly not remiss in attempting to define it.


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