Fair Women, by Wm. Sharp   Part I


What a blight upon ordered sequence in narrative, phrase dear to the grammarian, discursiveness is! Yet I cannot help it. To borrow from George Meredith on the subject of fair women, from Lucy Desborough and Rhoda Fleming to Clotilde von Rüdiger and Diana Warwick and Aminta Ormont, is as seductive as the sound of the sea when one is panting on the inland side of a sand-dune. In sheer self-defence I must find an apothegm so good that it would be superfluous to go further. This is irrational perhaps; but then, with Diana I find that "to be pointedly rational is a greater difficulty to me than a fine delirium." There are Fair Women, and fair sayings about fair women, in each of these ever delightful twelve novels. Epigrammatically, The Egoist and Beauchamp's Career would probably afford most spoil to the hunter; but here in Richard Feverel is the quintessential phrase for which we wait. "Each woman is Eve throughout the ages."

This might have been the motto for the catalogue of the "Fair Women" Exhibition at the Grafton Gallery. For, truly, to every lover the woman of his choice is another Eve. He sees in her the ideal prototype. It is well that this is so; otherwise there would be no poetry, no fiction, and scarce any emotional literature save passionate Malthusian tractates!

Despite the resemblance, to a fashion of the moment, in the dressing of the hair of the Graeco-Roman lady who leads off the delightful show in question, and even of the antique Beauty herself to some among her remote sisters in these latter days, I doubt if the most fervent idealist would be able to discern his Dream in this particular Fair Woman, or rather this effigy of her, which has been rescued from a mummy-case in Egypt. But the Greek, or Roman, or Greco-Roman, who may have painted her may have found her passing fair--a face to dream of, to die for! Thus blithely goes the whirligig of change.

It is not often that picture-gallery catalogues contain either humour or philosophy. There is a naIve humour, a genial philosophy, in the prefatory note to that of the Grafton Exhibition. "As," so the note runs, "there are included certain pictures of Women possibly more celebrated for their historical interest, their influence, or their wit than for their beauty, some exception has been taken to the title of the Exhibition. The Directors, however, do not know of any fixed standard by which such pictures can be judged, and, further, they believe that in the eyes of some one person, at least, almost every woman has been considered fair."


In other words, "each woman is Eve throughout the ages." There are many Audreys, alas!--indeed, sometimes, within a square mile even, there seems to be an epidemic of Audreys!--but a far-seeing Providence has created many Touchstones. So we will believe that in the eyes of at least one person each woman has been considered fair, though, to be truthful, "a man may, if he were of a fearful heart, stagger in this attempt," as saith the blithe fool of Arden himself.

After all, these clowns and wenches in As You Like It are nearer the poetry of truth than that cynical prose of fin-de-siécle sentiment of which this is an example:

LADY (looking at a sketch, then at the Artist). So---this is your ideal woman?
ARTIST. It was.
LADY. Then you have changed?
ARTIST. Yes; I met her.

As a matter of fact, men who have nothing of the ideal in them are, in the eyes of true women, as a sunless summer. These women, like Clara Middleton of "the fine-pointed brain," have a contempt for the male brain "chewing the cud in the happy pastures of unawakenedness."

Women, plain or fair, do not readily forgive. Man should remember this, when he acts upon what he considers his hereditary right to joke upon the frailties of his enslaved goddess. He is apt to think that they are absolutely reasonless in the matter of their looks, forgetful that marriage is a salve to all prenuptial display. They do not mind back-handed compliments: they will smile at Victor Hugo when he says that woman is a perfected devil; they have a caress in their heart for Gavarni when he whispers that one of the sweetest pleasures of a woman is to cause regret; and they take a malicious entertainment in the declaration of a man of the world like LangrEe that modesty in a woman is a virtue most deserving, since we men do all we can to cure her of it. But they will not forgive Montaigne himself when he affirms that there is no torture a woman would not suffer to enhance her beauty.

"Unfolded only out of the illimitable poem of
         Woman can come the poems of man."

Thus Walt Whitman. But he does not tell us how variously the poets scan that poem. What would be the result of a plebiscite among civilized women themselves, if they were given by the Powers that Be the option to be beautiful, to be fascinating, or to be winsome? The woman who believes herself predestined to be a wife and a mother will prefer the third; the born adventuress will choose the second; the least domestic will select the first. On the other hand, it might be the other way round. Who can tell? Woman is still the Dark Continent of man. If one were to live to the age of Methuselah, and act on the principle of nulla dies, sine linea, with every line devoted to the chronicle of woman's nature, the volume would be behindhand even on the day of publication. A copiously margined and footnoted edition would be called for immediately. Even if by that time only one woman were left, there would be prompt need of an appendix. There would also, as a matter of fact, always be a St. Bernard to grumble, "Woman is the organ of the Devil"; a Michelet to say with a smile that she is the Sunday of man; a cynic to hint that love of her might be the dawn of marriage, but that marriage with her would be the sunset of love; a poet to exclaim that she was the last priestess of the unknown.

"Feed me with metaphors," says a poet in a recent romance, "and, above all, with metaphors of Woman. I know none that do not make me love women more and more."

Did he know his Balzac? Somewhere in that vast repository of thoughts on men and women I recollect this: "La Mort est femme--mariée au genre humain, et fidéle. Où est l'homme qu'elle a trompé?"

Some day a woman will compile a little volume of women's thoughts about men. These will be interesting. Men will read some of them with the same amazed pain wherewith recently ennobled peers peruse articles on the abolition of hereditary aristocracy.

Here, for example, is one:

"The greatest merit of some men is their wife."

It was Poincelot, a man, who said this. But let a woman speak:

"Physical beauty in man has become as rare as his moral    beauty has always been."

Once more:

"It is not the weathercock that changes; it is the wind."

Since the days of Troy--or of Lilith--men have delighted in calling women weathercocks.

After all, we have been told many times that one of the principal occupations of men is to divine women; but it was a wise philosopher who added that women prefer us to say a little evil of them rather than say nothing of them at all.

Nos moutons nous attendent.

We have agreed, whether we have been to the Grafton Gallery¹ or not, that there is no such thing as a standard of beauty. There is not even an accepted standard of beauty among those who admire the same general type. To the most favoured dreamer Ideala will still come in at least threefold guise, as those three lovely sisters of the Rushout family whom, not Cosway, but, like him, one of the finest of miniaturists has preserved for our delight. There are a million villages as fair as the one in which we were born, but for us there is only one village. When we quote "Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain," we have one particular locality in our mental vision, as, no doubt, the poet of the Song of Solomon had when he sang: "Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields: let us lodge in the villages." Doubtless, too, he had one particular beloved in view veiled behind his bardic rhapsody. Each of us has a particular Eve behind the phantom of an ideal type.


¹ These pages were suggested by the Exhibition of Fair Women held at the Grafton Gallery in 1894. A few pictures by artists who were represented at that interesting exhibition by other examples have been added to the present edition.                        Publisher's Note.

Of course, there are both "villages" and "Eves" that exist only in the mind. There are dreamers who prefer either when most unsubstantial. "Ma contrée de direction," says the Flemish novelist Eeckhoud, "n'existe pour aucun touriste, et jamais guide on medecin ne la recommandera." Some, too, having found an Eve, will crave for her isolation from the rough usage of the common day, lest she fall from her high estate. They are not altogether foolish who can do so, and can say with a young living poet:

"I fear lest time or toil should mar,
  I fear lest passion should debase
  The delicacy of thy grace.
  Depart! and I will throne thee far,
  Will hide thee in a halcyon place
  That hath an angel populace;
  And ever in dreams will find thy face,
  Where all things pure and perfect are,
  Smiling upon me like a star."¹

This is a temper beyond most of us, who are all hedonists by instinct, and in the bodily, not the spiritual, sense. Flaubert, the man, was not representative of us, his weaker fellows. "Je n'ai jamais pu emboiter Vénus avec Apollon," as he wrote to George Sand when she advised him to try domestic happiness, or, at least, a little flirtation.

¹Granite Dust, by Ronald C. Maefie.

"But how to know beauty in woman when one sees it--that is the question," said to me a disappointed bachelor friend the other day. "If there is no absolute beauty, and if the type is so much distributed in various guises, how is a man who cares only for dark women to see the insignia of beauty in those who have red hair or yellow, and blue eyes, and are like curds and cream stained with roses in the matter of complexion?"

Alas for these uncertain ones, there is nothing for it but a steady course of gratifying and extending the appreciative faculties! To my querist I replied in the words of Gautier as Edgar de Meilhan : "Go straight as a bullet towards your beauty; seize her by the tip of her wing, politely but firmly, like a gendarme."

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