In “The Pervasion of Rouge” (text) Max Beerbohm satirizes the Decadent movement by means of a discourse on cosmetics. As he depicts the allegory of Artifice as an entity that holds some sort of power over women, his satirizes the prominence of artifice in Decadent writing by laying a thick layer of it onto his own writing:
Surely, without any of my pleading, women will welcome their great and amiable protectrix, as by instinct. For (have I not said?) it is upon her that all their strength, their life almost, depends. 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. Now, setting aside the point of view of passion, from which very many obvious things might be said (and probably have been by the minor poets), it is, from the intellectual point of view, quite necessary that a woman should repose. 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. Let her not by second-rate athletics, nor indeed by any [115/116] exercise soever of the limbs, spoil the pretty procedure of her reason. Let her be content to remain the guide, the subtle suggester of what we must do, the strategist whose soldiers we are, the little architect whose workmen.
Beerbohm's sharp satire uses the material of cosmetics and the concept of "Artifice" as vehicles to express his standpoint on the Decadents' thematic and stylistic approach. His language fits the particular aesthetic, employing stylized images and elaborate descriptions to simultaneously mask and intensify his commentary on Decadence. The women who apply makeup "are butterflies who must not flit, if they love their bloom," a statement whose meaning seems subordinate to the composition of the image. This style of language points directly at its own artifice, the thematic focus of the above passage, and satirizes the Decadents' use of such language. Resting atop the surface of his satire is an outcry against the very decadence of society itself, which Beerbohm manifests in the subject matter of cosmetics and the sarcasm with which he treats it.
The satire, however, targets women as his subjects of discussion regarding cosmetics, and to some extent are objectified as Beerbohm consistently refers to women's relationships with their cosmetics in order to satirize society. The women in "The Pervasion of Rouge" are used as a means by which for Beerbohm to make his argument, and have no voice further than Beerbohm's parody-voice within the piece.
To draw a comparison to materials related to cosmetics and fashion in society, The Illustrated London News around the time Beerbohm was writing and publishing "The Pervasion of Rouge" featured a weekly column titled "The Ladies Page," which discussed the current fashion and popular styles. The February 1, 1896 issue features Paulina Pry's commentary on the latest fashion in evening dresses:
to describe those two Illustrations which appear on this page. The one [titled "A Satin Evening Dress"] shows a distinct Empire tendency, and is most charming at that. I can imagine it achieving special success made in one of the Liberty satins on a faint green tone, with the décolletge outlined with bonds of green sequins and white pearl embroidery, the same embroidery being brought beneath the arm to form a bow in the centre and hang with the fringed ends below the knees; the short sleeves are caught in the centre with a small band of trimming again, while the hem of the skirt is elaborately embroidered in sequins and pearls traced with gold thread. By the way, how wonderful are the embroideries to-day! With what infinite ingenuity and skill are they devised, and with what patience are they not executed! Many of the newest gowns from Paris have now traceries of gold and pearls and sequins down either seam, and the labour involved in this is something prodigious when we come to consider the vast widths of the skirts of to-day, which, in parenthesis it may be mentioned, is by no means growing less. [Paulina Pry]
Looking purely at tone and voice, we see the obvious similarities between Pry's writing and the loftiness and attention to detail of Beerbohm's essay. Paulina Pry's column unabashedly delights in all of the details of high fashion, and Beerbohm's work mimics that delight in cosmetics and the value of artificial beauty. Contrasting "The Pervasion of Rouge" with Pry's column, however, raises questions with regards to Beerbohm's use of women to build his satire of the decadents.
What exactly are the implications of Beerbohm saying, "Hers is the resupinate sex" (115)? [resupinate means “Inverted or seemingly turned upside down, as the flowers of most orchids,” the favorite flower of the decadents. What else might the word suggest? GPL]
Why does he use women as a representation of the artifice of Decadence? Were there any possible male equivalents that could have conveyed qualities of the Decadents more clearly?
While we certainly see a number of prominent women writers, poets, and artists in the nineteenth century, what was it like for women writers in periodicals? What was the status of women's rights at the time?
Were there significant stylistic/thematic differences amongst women and men Decadents/Aesthetes?
Does the subject matter of the "Women's Corner" suggest the existence of certain limits on what it was socially accepted for women to discuss and have mastery over, as well as what freedom women had when writing for periodicals? Are there any counterexamples of periodicals directed towards women that focused on areas outside of their socially accepted realms?
- Resting Women
- "Little Sillypops" or Strong Women?
- Madame Rachel’s Costly Arabian Preparations [on mid-Victorian cosmetics]
Last modified 23 April 2010