I could have fancied her
- 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.)
Vol. 11 No. 6 · 16 March 1989
‘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.’ Come off what, Ms Carter (LRB, 16 February)? Neither Kissinger nor bags over heads are mentioned in my Beauty in History: Society, Politics and Personal Appearance c. 1500 to the Present, though, as it happens, I support the sentiment. Indeed, there is far more in the book about ugly men (David Hume, John Wilkes, Thomas Turner, Dudley Ryder, Oliver Goldsmith, Alexander Pope, assorted American Presidents, Louis Napoleon, Edwad VII) than about ugly women, though I do make the point that far from being universally powerful, some were deeply miserable. In the six months since publication I have learned a number of lessons, including: a. literary editors (male usually) believe that anything mentioning ‘beauty’ should automatically go to a female reviewer; and b. female reviewers, if they do not immediately encounter the comforting myths of the women’s magazines and the routine feminist denunciations of male oppression, are not prepared to contemplate the possibility that the author might have other serious purposes in mind. How incidentally, does Ms Carter know that I had a ‘perfectly straight face’ in using the phrase ‘lovely cavorting dolly birds’? In fact, as anyone not obsessed with being outraged would have appreciated, I was mimicking the language of the Sixties (as when, in defending Nell Gwyn, ‘the tart who consorted with Royalty’, I was mimicking the tones of the Establishment which calumnied her – a point lost on another female reviewer, equally set upon taking offence). My book sought, however fumblingly, to open up an entirely new area of historical investigation, bringing out, in particular, the manner in which good looks, in males and females, have become an autonomous characteristic of high value. This, in the age of Dan Quayle, is a matter of some significance, worthy of the kind of knowledgable survey one counts on the London Review to provide: what a pity your usually perceptive reviewer let silly idées fixes prevent her from writing it.
Angela Carter writes: As is well known within my circle, I use the name ‘Angela Carter’ only in order to gain publication by feminist presses and am in reality a Church of England vicar. I hope this assuages at least some of the humiliation Arthur Marwick felt at being reviewed by a woman.
Vol. 11 No. 8 · 20 April 1989
I greatly enjoyed Arthur Marwick’s amusing self-parody (Letters, 16 March) concerning the reception of his book on Beauty in History. However, the description of David Hume as ‘ugly’ was, I felt, rather uncalled for and not even very accurate (he was at least as pretty as Locke).
King’s College, Cambridge
We too could have fancied Hume.
Editors, ‘London Review’