I could have fancied her

Angela Carter

  • Beauty in History: Society, Politics and Personal Appearance c. 1500 to the Present by Arthur Marwick
    Thames and Hudson, 480 pp, £18.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 500 25101 0

Back in the Sixties, a decade which evidently I enjoyed rather more than did your contributor, Janet Watts (LRB, 8 December 1988), Kenneth Clark published a contribution to art history called The Nude. A disgruntled friend of mine opined that if the author had any integrity, he’d have started off his opus: ‘Wankers, ahoy!’ (Oh, the jaunty irreverence of those days of intellectual ferment, and its reassertion of the best characteristics of British humour – funny, vulgar, true.)

Arthur Marwick’s book almost deserves the same put-down. Almost, but not quite, because he’s somewhat less po-faced, if a good deal more prurient, than Kenneth Clark, and perfectly vulgar himself, though not particularly funny, alas.

True? Is beauty truth, or was it ever? Not necessarily, says Professor Marwick. But he certainly knows what he likes and a fitting subtitle for Beauty in History might be: ‘Women I have fancied throughout the ages with additional notes on some of the men I think I might have fancied if I were a woman’. He does not permit himself any more complicated permutations of sexual preference than this.

Beauty in History is a big, thick, amply illustrated tome devoted to proving to Professor Marwick’s own satisfaction that physical beauty in human beings is not a socially-determined characteristic but an essential harmony of feature and proportion that does not change from age to age, or rather, does not change much, and is subject to only the mildest fluctuations of fashion. There are echoes, here of the revisionist Ruskinian aesthetic of Peter Fuller, although Marwick adds an erotic sub-plot to ginger things up, quoting Freud: ‘There is to my mind no doubt that the concept of “beautiful” has its roots in sexual excitation and its original meaning was “sexually stimulating”.’

This adds a peculiar force to his statement of intent: ‘In evaluating beauty we should not, as all previous writers have done, look simply at what painters painted or fashion writers decreed, nor even at one or two individual beauties and what was said about them; we must look at what people actually did.’ (Italicised as above, this statement is printed on the book’s jacket, so everybody can see exactly what the book is about.)

It is a relief to find that Marwick does not do anything quite so crude as to evaluate good looks, as depicted in painting and photography of the past, on a scale of ten. He also believes there was a ‘traditional’ view of beauty in Western Europe derived from Platonism and early Christianity, which saw beauty as a moral, even a spiritual quality, more to do with the soul than the body, and this meant that good looks weren’t so highly valued then as they are now, when personal appearance is, as Marwick claims, more important for worldly success than it has ever been before. (And, presumably, people have more sex, therefore.)

He is also happy to take on those feminists who argue that ideas of beauty are essentially political, part of the male plan to subjugate women. ‘All the complicated talk of politics and power struggles and male conspiracy and oppression seems to miss the simple heart of the matter: the sheer uncomplicated joy of going to bed with a beautiful woman.’ He is more than happy to concede, as a sop to feminists, that women probably feel the same way about going to bed with handsome men, although a dishy premature ejaculator may find that women shun him.

He certainly has a low opinion of the feminist sexual imagination. He applauds the way women abandoned brassières in the late Sixties, and believes that for some of the women who did so it was ‘part of the realisation that (something feminists ignored) there were few more enticing sights than the outline of breasts unconstrained by a brassière.’ There is something almost – but, again, not quite – touching about the boyish enthusiasm Professor Marwick evinces towards his subject. There are whole pages off which one can feel the acne rise. Then he adds, piously: ‘My earnest hope ... is that this book should not be sexist.’

In fact, it is beyond sexism. A man who, with a perfectly straight face, can describe the photographer hero of Antonioni’s movie, Blow Up, as having ‘a corps of lovely cavorting dolly birds at his disposal’ clearly has some difficulty in defining what constitutes sexism and the language in which it habitually expresses itself.

To castigate a man, on the one hand, for his use of sexist language and then to turn on him for lack of chivalry may seem quixotic; besides, Professor Marwick covers himself by invoking another Professor, Sir John Plumb, but these two gentlemen between them certainly have no respect for the feelings of the dead. ‘George III’s wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was so manifestly ugly that the King’s bouts of madness, Professor Sir John Plumb has suggested, may have been due to the strain of having sexual relations with her.’ Could not George III have closed his eyes and thought of England, as women were frequently told to do in the circumstances? Or put a pillow-case over her head? And obviously neither George III, nor Professor Sir John Plumb, or possibly even Freud, had ever heard the ancient piece of folk wisdom: ‘You don’t look at the mantlepiece while you’re stoking the fire.’ (Also current with the cruder variant, ‘poking’.)

This saying is either extremely sexist. Or, not. Depending on how one looks at it. After all, women traditionally copulate with their eyes shut, whether or not they think of England, and sometimes have a nice time, even so, which suggests that the mantlepiece, though mute, might have its own opinions on what makes a good stoke.

Then again, if having sex with an ugly woman sent George III mad, the neurasthenia to which married women of the 18th and 19th centuries were so notoriously prone might well have sprung from having to go to bed with the monstrously ugly old men their fathers picked out for them for pecuniary reasons. This reintroduces the problems of politics, and of conspiracy and oppression (male), into the scenario again by a convenient side-door, but Professor Marwick himself is perfectly prepared to do so under certain circumstances, provided the boot is on the foot of the opposite gender.

‘Angie Dickinson, successful, influential, wealthy, middle-aged Hollywood actress, famous for her affairs with men much younger than herself, put a practical perspective on the matter when she revealed that she was well aware her young men did not find her particularly sexually desirable but hoped that she would help them in furthering their film careers.’ In other words, one woman’s ‘uncomplicated’ joy in going to bed with a handsome man is a toy boy’s cynical power politics. Or perhaps Ms Dickinson is simply more prepared to acknowledge the complications than, say, Henry Kissinger, or any other of the ill-favoured middle-aged men of wealth, status and power who enjoy the company of attractive younger women. But Ms Dickinson, come off it! is far prettier than Henry Kissinger, even if she won’t see fifty again, and I doubt her boyfriends urge her to put a bag over her head unless that is what they always like to do.

However, horizontal mobility has been characteristic of the careers of great beauties of both or all sexes for millennia, and the potted histories with which Marwick illustrates his thesis that good looks assist social advancement are full of it. Indeed, the better-looking you are, the more you are, or seem, forced to do it: Marilyn Monroe slept with some repulsive studio bosses on her way to fame, alcohol and barbiturate abuse, psychiatric illness, emotional shipwreck and premature demise. (Marwick is decent enough to note briefly that being beautiful does not necessarily make a person happy.)

But Marwick is prepared to down-pedal the lure of status and the imperiousness of power when it belongs to a man the cut of whose jib he admires: ‘I would surmise that, without the magic of royalty, Charles II would still have been pretty successful with women.’ Except that, like what song the siren sang, or whether or not Rubens really liked fat women (something Marwick makes much of), this is beyond conjecture.

Now what is particularly irritating about this presentation of the past as a giant Miss Universe pageant, with a lady-pleasing subsection for dishy gents, is that tucked away within it, and relatively unexplored, are some interesting propositions. One of them Professor Marwick puts with, I trust, calculated banality: ‘if it was a woman’s duty to be beautiful, could a beautiful woman exploit her looks without having to utilise her sexuality? If she did grant sexual favours, could she remain respectable?’ He says these questions became pressing issues in the 19th century, although, if literature is any evidence, they have been of intimate concern to women since the time of Homer. (And the answer to the second question is obvious, anyway: yes, of course, provided nobody found out.)

But the way in which appearance functions as a kind of visible sexuality for women only ceases to matter in periods of sexually-relaxed behaviour. Marwick’s book is a study in an eroticism of the eye that does not take into account the fact that the eye is not a sexual organ, as such: the eye envies, the eye desires on its own account. He remarks that the model girls who became famous in the Sixties – Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy et al – were beauties who, unlike the fabulous courtesans of the Belle Epoque, led wholly respectable private lives, according to the manners of the time. (In fact, their private lives in those days, involving cohabitation without marriage, would have been sufficiently scandalous at the turn of the century.) Their romances belonged to a different order of fantasy than the liaisons of women like Polaire and La Belle Otéro, Cora Pearl, ‘Skittles’ and so on. Twiggy and Justin de Villeneuve, Jean Shrimpton and David Bailey, Jean Shrimpton and Terence Stamp – these affairs were not the stuff of male erotic reverie but of female fantasy.

And their appeal was primarily to women. However much men may have admired them, it was women who made Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton stars and they modelled for women’s magazines and the women’s pages of newspapers, not for Men Only. They were offering themselves to be looked at by women; even if the photographers who mediated the images were men, the editorial staff who promoted the various ‘faces of the year’ were largely women and the consumers of the imagery almost wholly so. There is a complexity to this that Professor Marwick, with his implicit criterion of beddability, does not explore, even if he is keen to explore the vexed question of Twiggy’s bosom in the days of her early fame and confirms that, yes indeed, she was adequately endowed. ‘Twiggy, with her 31 inch bust, had beautiful, small but perfectly proportioned breasts, as can be seen from the photograph of her in a bikini reproduced III,116.’

It is surely the kindest thing to regard this bizarre trip around yesteryear’s pin-ups as a one-off aberration from a perfectly reputable historian who has stretched out a simple, if debatable proposition – that, through Western European history, all human beings have always fancied the sort of people he fancies – to accommodate a degree of, to me, incoherent theorising which is not without its unintentionally comic side.