Fair Women, by Wm Sharp Part II
I have not time to tell all I saw and learned under the guidance of Mr. Hoppner. He introduced me to several beautiful or comely women who had sat to him for their portraits, and also to ladies who had in the same way favoured Sir Joshua and Thomas Gainsborough, Romney and Sir Thomas Lawrence, Raeburn and Sir William Beechey.
I cared most for dark-eyed and winsome Lady Kenyon and those ladies whom I met in company with Mr. Hoppner and Mr. Romney, though I was agreeably surprised with Sir William's daughter-in-art, Evelina, and more than ordinarily glad to see again, with Sir Joshua, the Duchess of Rutland, who in the early decades of our century was the reigning beauty; Mrs. Siddons, as the "Tragic Muse"; and the fair but frail Mrs. Mary Robinson, as "Perdita." Not less delighted was I to meet with Sir Thomas Lawrence, the famous comic actress Eliza Farren, Countess of Derby, as good as she was beautiful; and with Mr. Gainsborough, Mrs. Fitzherbert, the morganatic wife of George, Prince of Wales; the famous actress Dorothy Bland (Mrs. Jordan); and Mrs. Sheridan.
To my surprise I overheard some persons praising that Duchess of Devonshire whom Angelica Kaufmann painted. Possibly she was beautiful at the date when Gibbon the historian, who was enamoured of her, said that "if she chose to beckon the Lord Chancellor from his Woolsack, he could not resist obedience"; but now I, for one, looked at her without the least wish to look again.
Incidentally, I may add that I noticed with pleasure a few children, none more winsome than the dainty little maid whom Reynolds has immortalized as "Collina," none more quaint than the "auld-farrant wean," whom Drouais painted blowing soap-bubbles. What a delightful Exhibition that would be which would consist entirely of children! We all hear the innumerous murmur of little feet. Not one of us but would rejoice in a Fair Children show.
But now let me be frank. Out of all these Fair Women was there one who embodied my ideal of womanly beauty? This is a question that everyone would have to put to himself with the same apparent arrogance, as if any one individual's opinion had the least value for others, or had anything to do with the Beauty of Woman.
No. Though I saw a few beautiful, and many lovely, and scores of comely and handsome women, in no instance did I encounter one of whom in any conceivable circumstances I could say "There! she is my Eve, past, present, and for ever!"
"I am always waiting," wrote Amiel, "for the woman and the work which shall I be capable of taking entire possession of my soul, and of becoming my end and aim." Yes, with Stendhal, we all wait; and one man in a million is rewarded with "the woman," to one man in a generation comes "the work."
What is wanting? Must the glow of personal romance be present before a beautiful woman can embody for us the Beauty of Woman?
Cannot Araminta and Delia be beautiful, though Strephon may prefer Phyllis? Or is beauty in woman as incalculable a quantity as the delight men take in women's names? There are names that stir one like a trumpet, or like the sound of the sea, or like the ripple of leaves---names that have the magic of moonlight in them, that are sirens whose witchery can in a moment enslave us. What good to give this or that sweet name? Each man has in him his own necromancy wherewith to conjure up vague but haunting-sweet visions. Equally, if all Fair Women of the Imagination or of Life have names we love, there are designations that seem like sacrilege, that grate, that excruciate. There is a deep truth in Balzac's insistence on the correspondence between character and nomenclature. Still, there are many debatable names. "Anna," for example, is not offensive, yet I "cannot away with it," though tolerant of "Annie." But bear what Mr. Henley had to say:
But to return: everywhere Ideala evaded me. It was a vain quest, though again and again I caught just a glimpse of her, a vanishing gleam, a fugitive glance. Once I was startled by the sudden light in the face of "Miranda," though when I looked again I was no more than haunted by an impalpable suggestion. In the beauty of the flowing drapery, in the breath of that sea frothing at her feet, somewhere there was an evanescent grace that belonged to Ideala. Yet it was not quite hers after all, any more than the indwelling beauty, seen perhaps only for a moment, in the eyes, or revealed in a momentary light upon the face, was hersthe beauty, the momentary light in Miranda, in the gipsy-beauty of her of the Snake in the Grass, in one or two other portraits of a more delicately refined loveliness or of the higher beauty, that of the beautiful mind visible through the fair mask of the flesh. Long ago, says Thoreau in Walden, "I lost a hound, a bay-borse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail." I think She whom we seek rides afar on that fleet-horse, espied for ever by that flying dove, for ever pursued by that tireless hound.
No doubt it was absurd to expect to find Ideala even among portraits of women who may have been her kindred in the eyes of one or two persons who could discern not only the outward beauty, but the inner radiance. Moreover, the company was not exactly that amid which one would pursue one's quest. Diane de Poitiers, Nell Gwvnne, Mrs. Jane Middleton, the Countess of Grammont, the Comtesse de Parabére, "Perdita," Lady Hamilton, Mlle. Hillsberg, Lady Ellenborough, Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliot, and Elizabeth Foster, Duchess of Devonshire, were one and all charming as well as beautiful women. But presumably Charles did not discern his soul's counterpart in Nell Gwynne, nor the Regent Philippe in "la belle Parabére," nor the amorous George in "Perdita," nor either Prince Schwartzenberg or the Arab Sheik in Lady Ellenborough.
In order to judge, one must know. We, who do not know these Fair Women of the past, cannot judge. We must each seek an Ideala of our own. After all, as some one has said, women are like melons: it is only after having tasted them that we know whether they are good or not.
We must be content with some one short of Perfecta. Unequal unions are deplorable. Moreover, it is very unsatisfactory to emulate the example of the celebrated Parisian bouquineur, who worried through life without a copy of Virgil, because he could not succeed in finding the ideal Virgil of his dreams. Ideala is as the wind that cometh and goeth where it listeth. Rather, she may be likened to the Wind for ever fleeting along that nameless but always discoverable road, which leads the wayfarer to the forest of beautiful dreams.¹
¹Vide Mrs. Wingate Rinder's Introduction to her recently published delightful anthology of Poems of Nature.
Moreover, She may appear anywhere, at any time. Remember Campion's "She's not to one form tied." Possibly, even, she may be called Nell Gwynne; for to every Nell there will be a lover to whom she will be Helen.
It is a pity that where a Helen is so evident to one passionate pilgrim, she should merely be Nell to the world in general. But so it is; and, alas! the very last person to perceive the connection with Psyche is often Nell herself. Poets get little gratitude, as a rule, for the glorification they effect. Poor bards! they are apt to address as Ideala those who would rather be called Nell, and dedicate their deepest life-music to a mistress who, while flattered, really understands neither the poetry nor the poet, and can be more eloquent over a gift of gloves than over a work of genius. Thus hath it ever been; doubtless thus it shall continue. As long as there are fair women, there will be strong men ready to lose their highest heritage for a mess of pottage. As among the inuumerable kinds of flowers where the bee may roam and gather honey there is that flower of Trebizond whose fatal blooms allure the unwitting insect to madness or death, so among women there are some who irresponsibly lure men to sure calamity. Who was the man who said that fair women are fair demons, who make us enter hell through the door of paradise? Doubtless he loved a flower of Trebizond. Idealists, ponder!
Nevertheless, though we would not naturally seek Ideala among the Nell Gwynnes, it would be a mistake to rise to the high remote air where dwell the saints who have not yet transcended mortality. A touch of sin must be in that man whom we hail as brother, that woman we greet as sister. There was shrewd worldly wisdom in the remark of a French prince, that, however virtuous a woman may be, a compliment on her virtue is what gives her the least pleasure. Concurrently we may take that instructive passage in Cunninghain's British Painters, where we learn how Hoppner complained of the painted ladies of Sir Thomas Lawrence that they showed "a gaudy dissoluteness of taste, and sometimes trespassed on moral as well as professional chastity," while by implication he claimed for his own portraits purity of look as well as purity of style; with this result---"Nor is it the least curious part of this story, that the ladies, from the moment of the sarcasm of Hoppner, instead of crowding to the easel of him who dealt in the loveliness of virtue, showed a growing preference for the rival who I trespassed on moral as well as on professional chastity."'
Women should not be wroth with men because that each male, sound of heart and brain, is a Ponce da Leon. Parenthetically, let me add---on the authority of ArsEne Houssaye!-that all the energies of Creation do not succeed in producing throughout the whole world one hundred grandes dames yearly. And how many of these die as little girls-how few attain to "la beautE souveraine du corps et de l'Ame"? "Voilá," he adds---"voilá pourquoi la grande dame est une oiseau rare. Oú est le merle blanc?" "The Quest of the White Blackbird"; fair women, ponder this significant phrase. We all seek the Fountain of Youth, the Golden Isles, Avalon, Woman (as distinct from the fairest of women), Ideala, or whatever sunbright word or words we cap our quest with. If wives could but know it, they have more cause to be jealous of women who have never lived than of any rival "young i' the white and red." Yet, paradoxically, with a true man, a wife, if she be a true woman, need never turn her back upon the impalpable Dream; for, after all, it is her counterpart, a rainbow-phantom.
Fair Women, all men are not travailing with love of you! There are Galileos who would say e pur se muove, though Woman suddenly became passée, nay, though she became a by no means indispensable adjunct. It is even possible there are base ones among us who may envy the Australian god Pundjel, who has a wife whom he may not see!
Alas, Fair Women only laugh when they behold Man going solitary to the tune of