'For though beauty is seen and confessed by all, yet, from the many fruitless attempts to account for the cause of its being so, enquiries on this head have almost been given up"
William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, (1753)
Not very encouraging words, but if the great artist William Hogarth felt himself up to the task, we can attempt at least to follow his lead. That beauty is enigmatic goes almost without saying. Different ages, different cultures, and even different individuals, will have their own definitions of "beauty." The problem is more than skin deep. Any term that can be so widely and irregularly employed is bound to trap the casual researcher ... Or reader ... Or viewer ... Or for that matter, any other human being who attempts to define what is and what is not "beauty." People, places, things -- even ideas dreams -- can all be beautiful. Each can be beautiful for a different reason. Sometimes beauty is a kind of code word for "harmonious," or "slim," or "profound." It all depends on the context, and on your point-of-view. A man of the Eighteenth Century, like Daniel Defoe, would likely have had a very different conception of beauty from a woman of the Twenty-First Century. On the surface, Defoe's ideas about beauty might appear very similar to our own. Or, we might not even think that they could be different. We might read Defoe's descriptions of Roxana, and think that she is fortunate because she is beautiful, and that we understand her beauty in exactly the same way as did her creator nearly three centuries ago. Yet much has changed since Daniel Defoe penned Roxana, The Fortunate Mistress -- the way we light our homes, the kinds of entertainment we enjoy, and very possibly, even our ideas of beauty. Beauty was a central and determining factor throughout the fictional Roxana's life. Her beauty conditioned how others saw her, and treated her. You might even say that Roxana's beauty was Roxana's fate ... Or as others might put it -- her fortune. Yet what exactly was the fortune of a beautiful woman in Defoe's day?
Much of the Eighteenth Century's understanding of beauty was based on age-old norms and assumptions. Beauty -- in the physical sense -- was derived from the largely classical notions of form and proportion that had held sway for centuries among Europe's educated elite. Thinkers like Vitruvius and Alberti had defined beauty in an architectural and artistic sense. Their kind of beauty could be reduced to mathematical formulae, to a rigid canon of what was acceptable and what was not. A Corinthian column could only be so tall in relation to its diameter. An ionic capital must have volutes. An ornate frieze does not fit with the Doric order. Their conception of beauty amounted to a canon -- a set of rules and regulations that must be followed. Eccentricity and individuality were not valued if they conflicted with the general precepts. Conformity and obedience were the handmaids of beauty. These ideas applied in other ways too. Long before Defoe's time, other great minds had turned their thoughts to creating the rules of other disciplines. They also had decided what was beautiful and what was not. Music, literature, painting -- even conversation -- possessed their proper forms and techniques. The accomplished individual was exactly that -- one who had completed the study of what could and could not be done. What was "right" was also "natural" in so much as it conformed to God's laws and to the laws of nature. The natural laws were God's laws, and like any other laws they could be recorded; their infractions punished. Human beings, too, conformed to "natural" laws.
The Eighteenth Century held time-honored views of morality and on humanity's place and role in the universe. Just as people were entirely different from, and superior to, all other forms of life -- the male and the female of the human species were intrinsically different one from the other. The world -- and human society -- such as it existed was founded upon divine laws. In accordance with these still essential medieval beliefs, it was held that,
Human beings were created by God to love and serve Him forever. Thus, each of them has a purpose or function. In the same sense in which it is true of John's heart that its function is to pump blood, it is true of John that his function is to love and serve God forever. But, unlike a heart, which has no choice about whether to pump blood, a human being has free will and can refuse to do the thing for which it was made. What we call human history is nothing more than the working out of the consequences of the fact that some people have chosen not to do what they were made to do.
The laws of the universe -- God's laws -- may be obeyed. It is desirable that men and women do as they are supposed to do, nevertheless there are those men and women who choose to break the law. In other words, the existence of a divinely-granted "free will" is of the utmost importance in considering the paths chosen by any individual. One knows and understands the norms, and then chooses whether or not to adhere to them.
Again, these "norms" have a lot to do with beauty -- that is, beauty in the sense of harmony, proportion, and what we could call "pleasingness." That which is beautiful is pleasing both to God, and to Man. Human society, like art, is governed by a code of aesthetics. The worlds of the intellect, and of action, were considered exclusively male preserves. A woman was behaving in a decidedly unpleasing -- and therefore ugly -- fashion, if she showed too much of a will, or too great a desire to seek to determine her own destiny.
Sophisticated male Londoners also described women as weak, child-like subjects who needed to be governed. Thus, William Tregea told John: 'I think women are like young birds which fly out but can't find the way home unless the old ones come to be their guide.' His analogy illustrates the dominant social construct that females were dependent by nature and needed male oversight. It also reflects the idea of two separate natures and bodies.
Life, like art, was predicated on a proper relationship of parts. The female complimented the male in the same fashion that the dark portions of a painting complimented the light. A woman's beauty was reflected in the extent to which she did not reflect the qualities and ideals that were deemed specifically masculine.
A man could be considered "beautiful" -- in harmony with God's creation -- if he were active and intellectual, so what were woman's qualities if not these attributes? No doubt, she must be passive. Her impulse must be to procreate, rather than to create. Creation is active and masculine because it involves the bringing forth of something new. On the other hand, with procreation, something is brought forth. The Eighteenth century saw the womb as essentially a "nest" from which the future human being emerged when he or she was sufficiently mature. Up until the very moment of birth, the fetus (or even earlier, the embryo) is not an independent human being. It is a part of the mother, an entity entirely without individuality. It cannot and does not exist on its own. Once more, this notion of the feminine has a religious parallel:
[The] attraction to feminine encompassment, and yet maintenance of a safe distance, is mysticism. One seeks salvation not by supplication of a divinity, but by an effort to melt into it. Such an ecstatic melting is an expression of a deflected and yet a safe mode of attachment to the maternal origin. Thus, the Mystical salvation is a search from a hidden place for the origin. Transcendent reflection of mystical unity becomes the obverse of unity with the origin.
A male child must one day go out into the world, whereas the female child is forever tied to her place of origin -- the home.
It is natural thus, that many Eighteenth Century ideas regarding beauty emphasized the passive, and the self-contained. The qualities that enhanced a woman's beauty were not learned, in the sense that reading, or mathematics, is learned and acquired. Physical beauty, the most completely inborn characteristic of beauty, is a collection of God-given attributes. A person cannot decide to become beautiful, anymore than she or he can decide to be born a Frenchwoman or an Englishman. The fundamental nature of physical beauty accorded well with established concepts of the order of things. In a world that had been made and ordered by God, it was only to be expected that beauty, like all else, was determined from, or even before, birth. Edmund Burke, the well-known Eighteenth Century thinker and politician, put…