No period in history is as regularly misrepresented and misunderstood as is the Victorian Era.
Postmodernists (resentful of its accomplishments, and shamed by its glory) construe it as some sort of priggish, enervated time, in stark contrast to its actual character as an age that was dominated by Romantic Idealism, that brought Western culture to its fulfillment, that saw Europe spread civilization over the globe, and that saw painting, music, poetry, architecture, science, and history flourish as never before.
How could an era that gave birth to the lush harmonies of Wagner, the grandeur of Historicist architecture, the brilliance of Nietzsche's philosophy, and the boldness of Darwin's theories, ever have been distorted into the tepid caricature that it currently resembles? A reassessment of Victorian culture is long overdue.
Of course, the Victorian Era is only referred to as such in Britain, where Queen Victoria reigned over the British Empire for most of the 19th century. But whatever the period is named, the 1800s saw Western culture reach its climax--a zenith from which our modern age has been a tragic falling off.
In our recent discussions of the legacy of feminine aesthetics, we noted how the ideal of female beauty remained remarkably consistent throughout Western history, from the time of the
. The same characteristics that defined womanly beauty for the Ancients defined it for millennia afterwards, right up until beauty itself came under assault in the modernist era.
The definitive study of the feminine ideal of the 1800s was undoubtedly Alexander Walker's magnum opus,
which first appeared in 1836 (a year before Victoria ascended the British throne), and went through numerous editions throughout the 19th century.
And how was ideal femininity construed in the Victorian Era? Readers of this forum will not be surprised to learn that the same characteristics that defined womanly allure in earlier periods of Western history defined it in this age, as well.
Furthermore, in true Victorian fashion, (for this was history's greatest Museum Age--a time when the natural world was classified and studied as never before, with hitherto unknown precision,) feminine beauty was scrutinized in its minutest particulars in the 19th century. Writers such as Walker merged the rich tradition of Western Idealism with the latest discoveries in the natural sciences, to reconcile the timeless aesthetic of full-figured femininity with man's newly-discovered position within the animal order.
In his profoundly influential study, Walker links art with anthropology, philosophy with biology, to provide history's richest-ever analysis of feminine comeliness--a vertiable British Museum of Beauty. What Firenzuola's On the Beauty of Woman was to the Renaissance, Alexander Walker's Beauty was to the Victorian age.
Our study of Victorian Beauty will comprise two parts. In this first thread, we will present a comprehensive picture of the aesthetic ideal that Walker outlines, in rich detail.
In a future post, we will discuss the philosophical significance that Walker assigns to feminine beauty, and how writers of his age merged aspects of the Western philosophical tradition--from Neoplatonism to Idealism--with 19th-century advances in anthropology, to ascertain its deeper meaning. However, even in these short prose descriptions, readers will notice how the Victorians juxtaposed poetic terms with physiological and anthropological descriptions in delinating the characteristics of womanly allure.
We will commence with Walker's general remarks on feminine beauty, then progresses through his descriptions of the particular traits that define the timeless ideal (fair complexion, fullness of figure, round facial features, golden tresses, soft skin, and light-coloured eyes). We will also note Walker's explanation of how soft fullness is essential for preserving a youthful appearance, along with his juxtaposition of feminine beauty with the masculine sublime. Finally, we will observe several characteristics that Walker and the Victorians identified as defects of feminine beauty (i.e., "body flaws"), and discover how these deformities are the precise features that most media celebrities exhibit today.
And now, without further ado, here is an extensive selection from Alexander Walker's Victorian-era aesthetic guide, Beauty.
Her face is generally round; her eyes are generally of the softest azure;
her neck is often rather short; her shoulders are softly rounded, and owe any breadth they may possess rather to the expanded chest, than to the size of the shoulders themselves; her bosom, in its luxuriance, seems laterally to protrude on the space occupied by the arms;
her waist, though sufficiently marked, is, as it were, encroached on the by the embonpoint of all the contiguous parts;
her [hips] are greatly expanded; her thighs are large in proportion;
but her limbs and arms, tapering and becoming delicate terminate in feet and hands which, compared with the ample trunk, are peculiarly small; her complexion has the rose and lily so exquisitely blended,
that we are surprised it should defy the usual operation fo the elements; and she boasts a luxuriant profusion of soft and fine flaxen or auburn hair.
The whole figure is soft and voluptuous in the extreme. (141)
In general, woman is not only less in stature, and different in her general proportions, but her haunches are more apart, her hips more elevated, her abdomen larger,
her members more rounded, her soft parts less compact, her forms more softened, her traits finer. During youth, especially, and among civilised nations woman is further distinguished by the softness,
the smoothness, the delicacy, and the polish of all the forms, by the gradual and easy transitions between all the parts, by the number and the harmony of the undulating lines which these present in every view, by the beautiful outline of the reliefs, and by the fineness and the animation of the skin. . . . All these circumstances indicate very clearly the passive state to which nature has destined woman . . . (161)
The waist, which is most distinctly marked in the back and loins, owes all its advantages to its elegance, softness, and flexibility.
The neck should, by the gentlest curvature, form an almost insensible transition between the body and the head. It should also present fulness sufficient to conceal the projection of the flute part of the throat in front, and of the two large muscles which descent from behind the ears toward the pit above the breast bone.
Over all these parts, the predominance of the cellular tissue, and the soft and moderate plumpness which is connected with it, is a remarkable characteristic of the vital system in woman.
While this facilitates the adaptation of the locomotive system to every change, it at the same time obliterates the projection of the muscles, and invests the whole figure with rounded and beautiful forms. . . .
To this class belong all the more feminine, soft, and passively voluptuous women. . . . The kind of beauty characterised by them is seen chiefly in the Saxon races of our eastern coast; and it is certainly more frequent in women of short stature. (211-13)
. . . To illustrate this, it will be sufficient to examine their most striking and distinctive characteristic—namely, their fair complexion, which is intimately connected with all their other characteristics, and which gives increased splendour and effect to their form and features. (183)
Independendly of this, white, as every one is aware, is the colour which reflects the greatest number of luminous rays; and, for that reason, it bestows the brilliance and splendour upon beautiful forms with which all are charmed. (184)
The whiteness, the transparency, and the colour of the skin have, in all highly civilised nations, been deemed essential conditions of beauty. The ancients regarded whiteness, in particular, as the distinctive character of beauty; and they estimated that character so highly, that the name of Venus from the Celtic ven, ben, or ban, signifies white, or whiteness; and Venus herself is said to be fair and golden haired.
Among the civilised moderns, also, a taste which women seek always to satisfy, is that for whiteness of the skin; hence the white lily, new fallen snow, white marble, or alabaster, are the images which poetry employs, when the colour of a woman is its subject. (220)
As to colour of the face, it may be observed that the forehead, the temples, the eyelids, the nose, the upper part of the superior lip, and the lower part of the inferior lip, ought in woman to be of a beautiful and rather opaque white. The approach to the cheeks and the middle of the chin ought to have a slight tint of rose colour, and the middle of the cheeks ought to be altogether rosy, but of a delicate hue.—Cheeks of an animated white are preferable to those of a red colour, although less beautiful than those of a rosy hue. (259)
SOFT FULLNESS OF FIGURE:
It follows, from all that has been here said, and this has been shown by Burke, that any rugged, any sudden projection, any sharp angle, is in the highest degree contrary to the idea of beauty. (72)
. . . female perfection is utterly incompatible with great muscular perfection or strength, which would indeed be injurious to the performance of every feminine function. (95)
It is evidently the nutritive or vital system which is highly developed in the beauty whose figure is soft and voluptuous. (152)
From this it follows that woman never enjoys existence better, than when a moderate plumpness bestows on her organs . . . all the suppleness of which they are capable.
A second physical quality, which concurs to render more mobile the various parts of woman, is their softness. (162)
. . . the vital or nutritive system everywhere presents soft forms, and rounds both body and limbs . . . (267)
The whiteness and the animation of the skin, however, do not alone constitute its beauty: there is still another quality which is absolutely necessary to it. This is the softness and the polish which, as the reader has seen, is one of the first conditions of physical beauty. (224)
ROUND FACIAL FEATURES:
Woman presents very little prominence of the frontal sinuses; the cheek-bones display beautiful curves; the edges of the alveoli containing the teeth are much more elliptical than in man; and the chin is softly rounded. . . .
In woman especially, the chin ought to be finely rounded . . . (257)
In woman, the countenance is more rounded, as well as more abundantly furnished with that cellular and [plump] tissue which fills all the chasms, effaces all the angles, and unites all the parts by the gentlest transitions. (258)
The quantity and the colour of the hair is always in relation to the constitution of the individual to which it belongs, and generally to the temperature of the place. The people of northern countries have the hair of a silky fineness and of surprising length. The hair which is most admired is not only very fine and flexible, but light coloured. Fair golden hair was, of all its tints, that which the ancient artists preferred. (225)
The hair affords an excellent instance of this agreeable complication. Soft curls agitated by the wind have been the theme of every poet. (91-92)
"A fair hue . . ." says Winckelmann, "has ever been regarded as the most beautiful; and flaxen coloured hair was assigned to the most beautiful . . ." (260)
A thinner skin permits to the touch of woman more vivacity, delicacy, and profoundness. It seizes the details which generally escape the touch of man. It is more easily hurt by hard, rough and angular, cold or hot, bodies. Hence woman requires vestments which are light and smooth;
and she enjoys more than man the pleasure of reposing on flocculent substances which softly resist her pressure. (251)
In woman, however, the most beautiful eyes, in relation to colour, are those which appear to be blue [or] hazel . . . (254)
"The eyes of Venus," says Winckelmann, "are smaller, and the slight elevation of the lower eyelid produces that languishing look [admired] by the Greeks . . ." To give this expression of gladness or of pleasure, the opening of the eyelids is diminished, in order to diminish, or partially to exclude, the excess of those impressions, which make even pleasure painful. (341)
Withal, the look is amorous and languishing, without being lascivious, and is as powerfully marked by gay coquetry, as by charming innocence. (344)
FULLNESS AS PRESERVER OF YOUTH:
These lines very under different circumstances: much embonpoint produces round lines, and leanness or old age producing straight ones. (90)
Impassioned women, on the contrary, do not so long preserve their freshness: the expansive force, from which the organs derived their form and colouring, abates; and a less agreeable flaccidity succeeds to the elasticity with which they were endowed, if the plumpness which adult age commonly brings does not sustain them. (165)
At this period, in well-constituted women, the [plumpness], being absorbed with less activity, is accumulated in the cellular tissue under the skin and elsewhere; and this effaces any wrinkles which might have begun to furrow the skin, rounds the outline anew, and again restores and air of youth and freshness. Hence this period is called "the age of return." This plumpness, though juvenile lightness and freshness be wanting, sustains the forms, and sometimes confers a majestic air . . . (166-67)
As, in pregnancy and suckling, the abdomen and mammæ necessarily expand, and as they would afterwards collapse and become wrinkled, were not a certain degree of plumpness acquired, that acquisition is essential to beauty in mothers. Meagreness in them, accordingly, becomes deformity. (214-15)
The result of these circumstances is that, while man possesses force and majesty, woman is distinguished by beauty and grace. The characteristics of woman are less imposing and more amiable; they inspire less admiration than love. As has been observed, a single trait of rudeness, a severe air, or even the character of majesty, would injure the effect of womanly beauty. (163)
The hardships of mountain life are favorable to the stronger development of the locomotive system, which ought more or less to characterise the male; and the luxuriance of the plains is favorable to those developments of the nutritive system, which ought to characterise the female. . . .
Beauty is also, in some measure, a result of civilisation. Women, accordingly, of consummate beauty are found only in civilised nations. (173-74)
DEFECTS OF BEAUTY:
5. If the secreting vessels, being inactive, furnish neither the plumpness necessary to beauty . . . (354)
6. If the neck form not an insensible transition between the body and head, being sufficiently full to conceal the muscles of the neck and the flute part of the throat.
8. If the waist, tapering little further than the middle of the trunk, and being sufficiently marked, especially in the back and loins, by the approximation of the expanded pelvis, be not also slightly encroached on by the plumpness of all the contiguous parts . . . (355)
10. If the abdomen be not moderately expanded, its upper portion beginning to swell out . . .
13. If a remarkable fulness exist not behind the upper part of the haunches, and on each side of the lower part of the spine, commencing as high as the waist, and terminating in the still greater swell of the distinctly separated hips; the flat expanse between these and immediately over the fissure of the hips, being relieved by a considerable dimple on each side, caused by the elevation of all the surrounding parts . . . (356)
14. If the cellular tissue and the plumpness which is connected with it, do not predominate, so as to obliterate all distinct projection of the muscles: because this likewise shows that an important portion of the vital system is feeble, and it deprives woman of the forms which are necessary to love . . . (357)
Nothing else can completely compensate, in woman, for the absolute want of plumpness. The features of meager persons are hard; they have a dry and arid physiognomy; the mouth is without charm; the colour is without freshness; their limbs seem ill-united with their body; and all their movements are abrupt and coarse.
18. If the almost entire absorption of adipose substance have finally left the bones angular, the muscles and other parts permanently rigid, and the skin dry; because that indicates decay of the vital system, and characterises age. (357-58)
19. If the skin be not fine, soft, and white, delicate, thin and transparent, fresh and animated; if the complexion be not pure and vivid; if the hair be not fine, soft, and luxuriant; and if the nails be not smooth, transparent, and rose-coloured: because these likewise show the feebleness of that system which is most important to woman. (358)
In the final section, above, we have illustrated Walker's descriptions of the "defects of beauty" not with examples of models who suffer from these aesthetic impediments, but with models who are free of these defects--and in fact, who embody the ideal of feminine beauty that Walker specifies throughout his text. (This is done in the interest of keeping this site a waif-free environment.) It would be all-too-easy to find examples of women who exhibit these aesthetic flaws. One need only turn on a television, or watch a Hollywood movie, or glance at the magazines on the news-stands, to see countless examples of women who suffer from all of the deficiencies listed above.
And that, ultimately, is one of the greatest lessons that we can learn from this exploration of Victorian Beauty. The aesthetic ideal of the 1800s was, point for point, an inversion of our media-imposed modern standards. There is absolutely no reason why today's "beauty guidelines" should be considered superior to those of the Victorian Era. In fact, it is obvious from any examination of aesthetic history that it is we who are in the wrong, that our modern standards are an artificial aberration, and that the Victorian veneration of soft fullness--identical as it was with the concept of beauty of every era that preceded it--is the natural and healthy feminine ideal.
Let us hope to see this timeless ideal of beauty return to cultural prominence, in our own day and age.
Walker, Alexander. Beauty; Illustrated by an Analysis and Classification of Beauty in Woman, with a Critical View of the Hypotheses of Humen, Hogarth, Burke, Knight, Alison, etc. and of the Hypotheses of Beauty in Sculpture and Painting, by Leonardo da Vinci, Winckelmann, Mengs, Bossi, etc. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1852.