When we were first constructing this Web project, one of the earliest pages
that we built was the "Judgment of Paris Survey," which eventually gave its name to the whole site. On that page we listed a host of quotations, largely from Victorian novels, that describe the most gorgeous female characters in 19th-century literature. Most of those vixens are fair-haired, and all are full-figured.
Anyone who has studied Victorian literature, or who has read it for sheer enjoyment, has surely imagined how these plus-size goddesses would look if they existed in real life. But where might one turn for inspiration to conjecture their appearance? With the possible exceptions of Kim Novak and Anita Ekberg, Hollywood has never permitted any physically comparable starlets to appear on film.
The emergence of plus-size models finally provided living paragons of loveliness who matched the alluring descriptions of Victorian literature's greatest beauties, and so our survey page was born.
Perhaps the most exciting of all of these Victorian vixens is Ginevra Fanshawe, the blonde coquette from Charlotte Brontë's Villette.
It was not coincidental that on our survey page, we matched her description with an image of Shannon Marie, the most gorgeous plus-size model of all time. (Ginevra also featured prominently in our "Proportionate Equality" post
, which remains the core statement of this site's philosophy.)
Ginevra is irresistible for many reasons. As a personification of the Victorian ideal
, she is fair-haired, blue-eyed, girlishly feminine, but she also has "an excellent appetite" that she cannot keep in check--nor does she try to. Brontë describes her intoxicating appearance as "the beauty that strikes the eye like a rose—orbed, ruddy, and replete" with "plump, and pink, and flaxen attributes," and notes every detail of her seductive weight gain, saying at one point that "she had become quite plump, her cheeks looked as round as apples." More exciting still, Ginevra is adorably spoiled and greedy, and doesn't restrain her appetites, but indulges them, knowing that her opulent beauty entitles her to get everything she wants.
One of the intriguing paradoxes about Victorian literature, and particularly about the novels that we quote on the Survey page, is their authors' ambivalence about plus-size goddesses. Writers like Brontë couldn't deny the superlative attractiveness of their full-figured blonde beauties, but mixed this aesthetic adoration with a heavy dose of Victorian moral censure. In this, they were at least superior to the post-modernists of our own time, for whom the resentment of beauty has grown to the point where even the aesthetic
appeal of full-figured vixens is denied. However, one can see in the Victorian questioning of the "beauty = goodness" association (a philosophical idea that reaches back to Plato) the first troubling stirrings of the levelling impulse that eventually metastasized into the resentment-based ideologies of Marxism and feminism.
Indeed, it is not at all surprising that as feminism developed, it seamlessly appropriated the Victorian moral disapproval of characters such as Ginevra, and merely reiterated this censure in new dogma. Whereas the Victorians decried their full-figured, appetitive coquettes on religious grounds, the feminists decried them on political grounds. The essential similarity of the two ideologies, puritanical religion and puritanical feminism, was never more clearly indicated than in this case. Meanwhile, the Nietzschean interpretation, the aesthetic interpretation, remained unwritten.
Well, fast-forward to our own decade, and we may now, finally, be seeing the first stirrings of a revaluation of values vis-à-vis the curvaceous Victorian coquette. It is still saddled with too much feminist baggage, but the work of at least one scholar indicates that the redemption of the full-figured flirt may finally be at hand.
In a book titled Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body
(2002), author Anna Krugovoy Silver offers a reinterpretation of Ginevra Fanshawe that could have been written by the Judgment of Paris. The author acknowledges Brontë's ambivalence about beautiful full-figured women, but observes that
two of the secondary characters in Villette, Paulina Home and Ginevra Fanshawe, modify the negative depiction of female appetite found elsewhere in the novel. Paulina's and Ginevra's sexual drives and intellects are clearly reflected in their contrasting physical types: Paulina is tiny and almost bodiless whereas Ginevra is full and fleshy. Surprisingly, however, Brontë draws a largely positive rendition of Ginevra side by side with a highly conflicted portrait of Paulina. (109)
Silver admits that
to claim that Brontë favors Ginevra is, of course, to go against much of the text's own evidence, for Lucy several times points out Paulina's superiority to her cousin. (109)
Yet Silver recognizes that while Brontë may be morally committed to the self-denying (and prototypically modern) Pauline, Brontë's aesthetic sensibilities secretly incline her towards the self-indulgent traditional beauty, Ginevra.
Silver goes on to say of Ginevra that
though critics have branded her an “idiot beauty,” “worthless,” and trivial, such epithets do not take into account her many positive characteristics. Lucy's sardonic description of “bearing on my arm the dear pressure of that angel's not unsubstantial limb” reveals that whereas Paulina lacks “substance,” Ginevra is “not unsubstantial. ” . . . Sensual rather than self-denying, “unsparing[ly] selfish” rather than selfless, and almost thoroughly uninterested in intellectual achievement, Ginevra's character (like Blanche Ingram's) is embodied by her fleshy figure. (114)
For most feminists, the above would be a statement of censure, not praise. For a modern scholar to speak favourably of a "selfish" character "uninterested in intellectual achievement" is a radical turnaround of common thinking in academia, where many female scholars and students favour the underweight, mousy, bookish Jane Eyre types because they see in them a reflection of themselves, while they see in the Ginerva Fanshawes a reflection of the cheerleaders and prom queens whom they resented in high school for their superior beauty and popularity.
Yet while Silver describes Brontë's coquette as "the flirtatious and sensual Ginevra, who is in large part defined by her physical appetites and body
" (110) and notes her "fondness for sensual delights" (114), in no ways does she present these descriptions as criticisms of Miss Fanshawe. On the contrary, she celebrates them; even going so far as to assert that "Ginevra is also the healthiest character in the novel" (196).
She speaks positively of Ginevra's self-indulgent tendencies:
While Paulina and Lucy have in common the quality of self-denial, Ginevra and Lucy's symbiotic friendship is founded on their shared appetite. Both women crave food, but, unlike Lucy, the hedonistic Ginevra does not repress her appetite. Instead, she “fed on creams and ices like a humming-bird on honey-paste: sweet wine was her element and sweet cake her daily bread.” (114)
This assertion could have come right from a post on this forum. Silver boldly asserts that Ginevra's feminine appetitiveness is a kind of freedom and self-assertion:
Ginevra's indulgence of appetite symbolizes her ripe sexuality. No “vestal flame,” she spends her free hours scheming to illicitly meet Alfred de Hamal. . . . She finds [the Homes] family “quite sickening,” especially Graham's cool insistence on “prohibiting excitement” . . . She says and does exactly what she wants . . . In our final vision of Ginevra, “she got on — fighting the battle of life by proxy.” Ginevra is finally more active and energetic than Paulina, as well as a more faithful friend to Lucy. Lucy's friendship with the schoolgirl suggests that, at least in Ginevra's case, Lucy tempers the dislike of corpulence that she manifests throughout the novel. (114)
Without saying so, Silver recognizes that Ginevra is a Venus, a Helen of Troy, reincarnated amid the Victorian world, and still governed intuitively by her Classical values rather than by Puritanical or feminist mores. Yet--and this is the key--Silver does not censure her for this, as either a Christian critic of the C.S. Lewis/F.R. Leavis school once would have done, or as most feminist critics would do today. Rather, Silver recognizes Brontë's own secret attraction to Ginevra Fanshawe and brings it out into the open, revealing the proto-Nietzschean strain in Brontë that here manifests itself in a celebration of a feminine character embodying the Beautiful, just as in Jane Eyre
Brontë's proto-Nietzschean tendencies enabled her to celebrate Mr. Rochester as a personification of the Sublime.* * *
What makes this development doubly significant is the fact that the modern university is, for good or ill, the shaper of the values of today's "chattering class." Most students enter university without a well-defined moral or ideological compass and are soon brainwashed by their professors into adopting whatever political values the professors themselves hold. The modern university is thus an "activist factory," producing one generation after another of blinkered, left-wing foot soldiers who end up spreading the cultural-Marxist gospel that they have been taught.
However, if Silver's book is an indication, then perhaps the aesthetic of timeless beauty is making inroads into these academies of resentment. Perhaps an appreciation of Classical ideals is taking root. In denouncing pro-anorexia in literature, Silver was compelled to champion the positive qualities of Brontë's most compelling full-figured coquette, despite the fact that Ginevra is a living reproach to feminist ideology. For once, a scholar put loyalty to a body type (plus-size) over loyalty to politics.
If Silver is not alone in this, and if her students, as well as other scholars, echo her approach, then we may finally be seeing a long-overdue reappraisal of the well-fed beauties of Victorian literature, an acknowledgment of their subversive attractions, and a celebration of the Classical values that they embody.
Albert Joseph Penot, A Ravishing Beauty (c.1896), Gavin Graham Gallery, London:
(Click to view larger.)
Silver, Anna Krugovoy. Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.