Fascination, or, the Art of Pleasing

by Albany Poyntz

No individual of the human race, but at the bottom of his heart is ambitious to please! But the charm is not more unequal in distribution than the means are various. So various, indeed, and so uncertain, that in our attempts to please we frequently produce the contrary effect.

This universal propensity has given rise to absurd prejudices and ridiculous efforts; and to a thousand arts, and trickeries, affording an amusing subject for consideration.

The desire of pleasing tended greatly to enhance, in the earlier stages of society, the reputation and influence of sorcerers, fairies, and supernatural beings; whose power was often invoked to increase the personal attractions of their votaries. The wild efforts of Medea to secure the affections of her faithless Jason are sufficiently known. Love potions and philtres were a favourite resource of the ancients, never weary of consulting sorcerers and enchantresses concerning their aptitude to please. Virgil, Ovid, Tibullus, Propertius, all allude to the love charms which could be procured at the hands of different magicians. Ovid, who has so poetically described the delicate mysteries of the art of love, laughs, it is true, at these incentives.

“Had magicians,” says he, “the power of inflaming lovers’ hearts, would Circe have allowed Ulysses to abandon her?”

Horace accuses Canidia of killing children for the purpose of composing love-potions; ignorant, apparently, that animal substances were inadmissible in their composition. Vervain and rue, with a few other mystic plants, gathered by the light of the moon, formed their chief ingredients. According to some, a sovereign charm consists of enula campana, or St. John’s wort, plucked on the eve of that Saint, before sunrise, ambergris, and other substances, of which the virtue would be forfeited unless superscribed with the word “Scheva.”

One of the most ingenious authors of antiquity, Apuleius, has given, in his work of the Golden Ass, a recipe for a love-charm composed of different fishes; the claws of crayfish, crabs, and oyster shells. He was accused of having tried its influence in obtaining the affections of his wife to induce her to make a will in his favour. This recipe is the only one of the kind not limited to the vegetable kingdom.

Pudentilla, a rich dowager, who had been a widow for fifteen years, chose for her future husband, the young, handsome, and clever Apuleius, who, according to the account of the “Golden Ass,” pleaded his cause as follows before the tribunal.

“I am accused,” said he, “of sorcery, because Pudentilla espoused me after fifteen years of widowhood. But would it not be better to inquire why she consented to remain a widow so long? In support of the accusation of magic, you say that I instructed fishermen to bring me fish for unlawful purposes. Ought I to have employed a lawyer, a blacksmith, or a bird-catcher? I am accused of collecting vermiculated oysters, striped cockle-shells, and sea crayfish. But when Aristotle, Democritus, Theophrastus, and other naturalists made collections of Natural History, did you infer that it was for the confection of love-charms? A child accidentally fell down, in my presence, on my return home, and I am accused of sorcery! For the future, then, I presume I shall be bound to hold in leading strings all the children that approach me; and to prevent all little girls from stumbling, I must pick up the stones in the street, and do away with the threshold of my door, lest any one make a false step in entering my house. Pudentilla, it seems, informed her neighbours that I was a magician. She might have seen fit to call me a Consul; but would that have elevated me to the consular dignity?”

Having pleaded his own cause in this vein of pleasantry, the judges acquitted Apuleius, seeing clearly that so amiable and graceful a man needed no love-charm for the conquest of the old widow.

In those times, sovereigns as well as subjects were in the habit of purchasing love-charms! According to Suetonius, Cesonia administered a potion to her husband, Caligula, which increased both his madness and his cruelty. The death of the poet Lucretius was caused by a similar potion administered by his mistress, Lucilia. Eusebius mentions a Governor of Egypt, who died from the same cause, and there are innumerable instances of these potent decoctions producing insanity, as well as fatal enfeeblement of body. Ovid furnishes the true recipe for love: “Ut ameris, amabilis esto!” “To be loved, be amiable!” But such a charm being out of the reach of many, it seems easier to purchase cosmetics at the perfumers, which are about as effective in the creation of the tender passion as the magic potions of darker ages.

A pretension to youthful habits and appearance at an advanced period of life, is perhaps one of the most effectual methods of becoming distasteful and ridiculous.

Still, however, a suitable attention to the care and variations of the toilet, proves a great enhancement to beauty in its civilized state; nor can there be a more vulgar error than the dictum of the poet, proclaiming:

“Beauty unadorned, adorned the most.”

In the female bosom, the love of dress is an instinctive passion. Look at two children of the same age, a girl and a boy; the one will be seen to delight in feats of strength and agility; the other, as if in evidence of the desire of pleasing instinctive in the opposite sex, is sure to prefer a doll, a ribbon, or a pretty frock, in place of the drum or gun chosen by the boy. Both have intuitively adopted their different vocations. Both are ambitious to conquer by means suitable to their several sexes.

What prodigies of art have been effected in France in consequence of the love of dress generated in the fair sex by a desire to please; from the period when the fair Gauls attired themselves in a sheep-skin fastened at the throat with a thorn; but were not the less coquettish for this enforced simplicity.

At that period, their notions of coquetry consisted in having fanciful designs tattooed upon their persons; and instead of pearls and diamonds, by way of adornment, cockle-shells were suspended from their ears. Their sole cosmetic consisted in unguents, which we now abhor as characteristic of the Hottentots.

Can the present inhabitants of Paris be really descended from these savages? At that time all the elegance and refinement of dress, arising from the desire to please, were concentrated in Rome; nor have modern times raised the fair Parisians to a similar state of refinement. Juvenal relates that it was thought indecent by the Roman ladies to spit or make use of a handkerchief in public; and at Athens, the fair sex never presumed to leave their chambers when suffering from a cold. What would they have thought of the disgusting habits of the Parisian belles, who contaminate their handkerchiefs by taking snuff, and yet ornament them with embroideries!—But the ladies of the antique world scrupulously avoided all that could provoke disgust—an essential preliminary in the art of pleasing.

In the early age of the Republic, the most refined cleanliness distinguished the habits of the fair Romans. Under the Cćsars, and after the conquest of the East, a taste for luxury, perfumes, and futilities of all kinds was first indulged; while the sumptuous prodigality of the table surpassed all precedent. The science of cosmetics then attained perfection; and there appeared no limit to their coquetry.

Pliny states that the Roman ladies, in order to make their skin white, made use of a juice expressed from the seeds of the wild grape;—while minium, white lead and chalk, filled up their wrinkles, and effaced unseemly spots.

“Tabula,” said Martial, “is afraid of the rain; and Sabilla of the sun; the one alarmed for the solution of her complexion, the other lest the heat should evaporate the roses of her cheeks.”

Ovid has transmitted to us a recipe for a paste to secure whiteness of skin, consisting of barley flour and lentils, eggs, hartshorn, narcissus bulbs, gum, and honey.

Poppća invented a paste, which was moulded like a mask upon the face, to be worn in the house. This mask was called at Rome the husband’s face, because it was only taken off for the suitor. When Poppća travelled, she was followed by a troop of donkeys, whose milk she used for her toilet; and in the baths of the Roman palaces, the most unlimited luxury prevailed. The ladies were served by numerous slaves, each having particular attributions. One superintended the hair; another the eye-brows; another the hands, which were dyed with pink; another, the face; while the rest were devoted to the care of the wardrobe and jewels.

These customs, handed down both by historians and poets, had solely for their object the desire to please; among women, the most ungovernable of all desires, and exceeding even the love of command. To please, however, is a preliminary to authority.

In modern times, the cosmetic art has become a branch of the sciences, and forms a considerable source of industry and revenue. The walls of our towns are covered with announcements of miraculous discoveries, pastes and capillary oils, odoriferous waters,—all and each being efficacious and infallible. Red hair may be transformed into beautiful black tresses;—baldness may be made to give place to flowing locks; and all these oils, pastes, and masks, which periodically change their name, are in fact the same villanous cosmetics which never yet restored elasticity to a withered skin, converted black to white, or bestowed curls upon a bald pate. Art is great, but Time far greater; nor are the ravages of years to be concealed. In divers of these preparations of lead, bismuth and tin, the sulphurated and phosphoric properties produce the most injurious effects. In others, the calcareous and aluminous substances obstruct the pores of the skin, and by hardening it, annihilate its elasticity. Minium, coral, and vegetable powders, are not less pernicious; their corroding action augmenting, instead of diminishing the ailments of the teeth and gums.

These salutary observations were made long before our time; and it has been as often observed that for the preservation of the complexion, innocuous substances should be employed such as milk, honey, cucumber, or melon-juice, mallow-water, and above all, that best of cosmetics, fresh water, which is within the reach of all, and wants no alluring aid of Chinese engravings on gilded bottles to recommend its miraculous properties.

The increased use of baths has fortunately rendered this cosmetic a matter of universal adoption; and nothing is more likely to confer softness of skin.

Anne of Austria, the mother of Louis XIV., had so fine a skin, that no linen could be found sufficiently delicate for her use, which caused Cardinal Mazarin to observe that in another world, her eternal punishment would consist in sleeping in coarse sheets. All the cold cream in the world would not have effected a change in the susceptible epidermis of Anne of Austria; and we repeat that cosmetics are both useless and dangerous.

Not even the consummate art of Jezebel availed to repair the irretrievable ravages of time. Young girls of redundant health have been known to swallow acids to counteract corpulency; after succeeding in which, they die prematurely of pulmonary affections. An equally fatal result of the desire to please is produced by over-lacing. Ladies desirous to conceal their obesity had far better rely upon a well-chosen dress than upon this injurious expedient. On the other hand, a tight shoe only exhibits more prominently a foot of large dimensions. Nothing is more erroneous than the proverb, “that people must suffer in order to look well.” To be graceful, the movements of the body should be unrestrained.

We have already pointed out the distinction between the art of pleasing, and the desire of pleasing. The desire is common to all, the art limited to a few; and they who charm most are those who please naturally and without effort.