Beerbohm seems to celebrate the demise of the old and the beginning of the new in his "A Defence of Cosmetics." However, throughout the essay he suggests similarities between the old ways of thinking and new ways. Beerbohm accomplishes this satire by sarcastically questioning why we do not paint lilies:
Surely the common prejudice against painting the lily can but be based on mere ground of economy. That which is already fair is complete, it may be urged — urged implausibly, for there are not so many lovely things in this world that we can afford not to know each one of them by heart. There is only one white lily, and who that has ever seen — as I have a lily really well painted could grudge the artist so fair a ground for his skill? Scarcely do you believe through how many nice metamorphoses a lily may be passed by him. In like manner, we all know the young girl, with her simpleness, her goodness, her wayward ignorance. And a very charming ideal for England must she have been, and a very natural one, when a young girl sat even on the throne. But no nation can keep its ideal for ever, and it needed none of Mr. Gilbert's delicate satire in "Utopia" to remind us that she had passed out of our ken with the rest of the early Victorian era. What writer of plays, as lately asked some pressman, who bad been told off to attend many first nights and knew what he was talking about, ever dreams of making the young girl the centre of his theme? Rather be seeks inspiration from the tried and tired woman of the world, in all her intricate maturity, whilst, by way of comic relief, he sends the young girl flitting in and out with a tennis-racket, the poor . . . [Greek: wasted image. B.] of her former self. The season of the unsophisticated is gone by, and the young girl's final extinction beneath the rising tides of cosmetics will leave no gap in life and will rob art of nothing.
Typically associated with the grand nineteenth-century virtues of chastity and purity, the lily likely represents Queen Victoria herself. Therefore, the loss of the young girl and of the pure lily leaving "no gap in life" and robbing "art of nothing," suggests a lack of sadness over the loss of Victorianism. The irony of not missing youth draws attention to the satirical nature of Berrbohm's essay. Earlier he stated, "the use of pigments is becoming general, and most women are not so young as they are painted," thus illustrating the attempts of women to look younger. If these women painting their faces still value youth, then why does no one mourn its death? At the end of the Victorian era people still grasp to their old ideals while they pretend to accept new ones. People choose to disguise the old as something new rather than actually create new ideas.
1. Beerbohm involves his audience in the discussion by frequently using questions, and he uses the two questions in the passage quoted above rhetorically. What purpose does this rhetorical strategy serve?
2. Beerbohm seems to disassociate himself from England's Victorian past and instead plays the part of a historian looking back upon a past in which he did not actually live. How does this distanced narration affect the reading of the essay?
3. How does Beerbohm's use of the color red compare to Swinburne's in his poem "Dolores?" Specifically, how does Dolores's transformation into the goddess of pain reflect how a young, innocent, lily white girl applies rouge?
As of old when the world's heart was lighter,
Through thy garments the grace of thee glows,
The white wealth of thy body made whiter
By the blushes of amorous blows,
And seamed with sharp lips and fierce fingers,
And branded by kisses that bruise;
When all shall be gone that now lingers,
Ah, what shall we lose?
4. When first published, audiences did not understand Beerbohm had written "A Defence of Cosmetics" satirically. What would cause them to read it seriously?
5. In literature, authors frequently associate the lily with innocence and chastity and, more specifically, with the Virgin Mary. Do you think Beerbohm intends for the lily in the passage to have a religious significance in addition to a political meaning?
- Salvation and Sincerity: Satire in Beerbohm's "A Defense of Cosmetics"
- Cosmetics: Artifice or Art?
- A Defence of Cosmetics and the Age of Reproduction
- The Role of Satirist and Aesthete in Beerbohm's "The Pervasion of Rouge"
- Beerbohm's Skin-deep Satire
Last modified 22 April 2009