I've long been fascinated by the horrible things late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century Englishwomen of means did to their faces, in order to conform to a standard of beauty that was largely prescribed by literature. What standard? Eyes like suns or stars, skin like snow (except for the cheeks, wherein red and white roses were to be mingled), lips like cherries, teeth like polished alabaster. (Somehow that reminds me of George Washington.) Many people know Shakespeare's famous poetic critique of this (when you think about it) bizarre visual ideal, Sonnet 130, which begins, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," and includes the line "coral is far more red than her lips' red." Not so many folks are familiar with the kind of poetry Will was reacting to, so here's a sample, from his contemporary Thomas Campion: "There is a garden in her face / Where roses and white lilies grow; / A heav'nly paradise is that place / Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow." Now, let's stop right there. The woman may have a fungal skin disease, and on top of that, the fruits in her face are flowing, like, maybe, applesauce. Yet there's more. "Those cherries [the lips] fairly do enclose / Of orient pearl a double row [her choppers] / Which when her lovely laughter shows, / They look like rose-buds fill'd with snow."
This is hardly grammatical. Campion clearly stuck the word "They" in the last line
just to fill up the meter. But this is the least of our problems. Now we must picture, not a woman charmingly laughing, but a woman with a snowball stuck in her mouth (which happened to me once, thanks to my brother, and he was the one laughing). Well. Enough expert literary analysis. Let's move on to the problem such lines make apparent (and since there was far, far better Renaissance poetry that sported with similar images, the problem was not only one of literary quality). Shakespeare called it in Sonnet 130: women don't look like this. And yet! Thousands of Elizabethan and Jacobean ladies tried valiantly to recreate this poetic standard in their flesh, often with disastrous results to their health. The lily skin might be approximated by the chalky whiteness of ceruse, a lead-based cosmetic containing hydroxide and carbonite. Smoothness might be aimed at with a mercury solution, which did indeed reduce spots and wrinkles -- by burning through the skin. Secondary effects? Madness and breathing problems. Fucus, a red paint, was less harmful than ceruse when laid over the whitewash, but the belladonna ("beautiful lady") drops which imparted luminousness to the eyes were also poison. Why did women do it? Because other women did it. And because the queen did it. Here's Elizabeth as played by Glenda Jackson: a monarch well into her sixties, still trying to match the literary and poetic quasi-deifications of her as an ageless beauty, a Diana, an Astraea.
It's not a pretty sight. And no, that's no longer her real hair, but its color had long been widely adopted by the women of her court; as was her name, for their daughters. Don't even get me started on Elizabethan hair-dye.
Of course, the greater number of Elizabethan Englishwomen didn't bother much with face-painting. I like to think the merry wives of Windsor wouldn't have been caught dead with a charcoal pencil. But those who did aspire to courtly attention were caught in something of a literary bind. On the one hand, blason poetry like that of Campion and his betters shaped views of what was attractive, and attractiveness in women was prized as though it were a virtue. (Thank God it's not like that anymore.) On the other hand, moralists condemned the face-painters as vain and frivolous. Sometimes the moralists were Hamlet (such a Puritan). "God has given you one face, and you make yourself another!," he chides Ophelia. Sometimes the critics were social reformers like Philip Stubbes, a tract-writer who derided cosmetic and sartorial fancifications (my word) in either men or women. Many reformers didn't like the theater, since there men painted themselves to look like ladies all the time. (A recent book on the subject is Andrea Stevens's Inventions of the Skin: The Painted Body in Early English Drama.) There were many such moralists, and their numbers increased as the seventeenth century wore on. Most annoyingly, the critics of face-painting were sometimes the very same writers who jeered at women who got wrinkly and old. (Yes, Ben Jonson, I'm talking about you.) Thus a popular early-seventeenth-century play that praises a woman's "sweet neglect" of the cosmetic arts -- the unpowdered face, the undoctored hair -- also criticizes "autumnal [female] faces" whose age nakedly shows. To paint or not to paint? What was a woman to do?
I got interested in this question, and dreamed up a novel about it. The picture at the top right of this post, featuring the woman with paint running down her written-on face, is the cover of Paint, my new book. Paint's protagonist is based on an actual Elizabethan woman who tried to shape her own identity and image amid this welter of expectations. She was Emilia Lanier, a poet in her own right, and perhaps the very mistress whose eyes, Shakespeare wrote, were "nothing like the sun." In my book, if they weren't sunlike, it wasn't for lack of trying on Emilia's part. In Paint, she devises her own strategy of self-presentation, and finds a startling way both to meet and defy the standards of the poets. Of course, her brilliant disguise gets her into a world of trouble. Would it be a novel, otherwise?
It would not.
It would not.