Category Archives: Literature

Lexicon of Beauty: the pen is mightier than the mascara

beauty pendant
Pendant by RiverwalkDesigns (www.etsy.com)

 

Etymology always makes me happy. It’s some of the best useless information around, and I’m stocked with trivia about the origins and histories of words. And then sometimes it turns out to be useful after all: here are some delightful facts about the words beauty, pretty, gorgeous and glamour, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

I thought about this while reading the medieval uses of the word beauty, as you do, and I noticed the word burde in this quote from 1375 by William of Palerne:

“A worschipful lady, þat burde was of beuaute briȝtest in erþe.”

(“A worshipful lady, that woman was, in her beauty, brightest on earth”. My translation, i.e. an educated guess)

The word burde for woman caught my eye because in British slang young women are often referred to as birds, although this has reduced in recent years thanks to the latest rise of feminist activity. Could it be that this mildly offensive bit of slang dates back to the Middle Ages? And could this, just maybe, be the origin of the American slang use of chick?

ermine
A hot chick. Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci 1489-90 (wikipedia.org)

So then I looked up pretty, and was surprised by the primary definition:

1. a. Originally: cunning, crafty. Subsequently: clever, skilful, able.
b. Cleverly or elegantly made or done; ingenious, artful, well-conceived.

It’s only the second definition with which we are now more familiar:

2. a. Of a person, esp. a woman or child: attractive and pleasing in appearance; good-looking, esp. in a delicate or diminutive way.

I also found that the derogatory use of “pretty little” – as in “don’t worry your pretty little head about it” – has been in use since the Middle Ages too:

c. In collocation with little. Freq. depreciative.

1450  (c1410) >Hist. Holy Grail xxvii. 228 (MED), The Ademawnt..hath no More strengthe Aȝens the Eyr..Thanne A lytel praty fownteyne Aȝens Al the grete See.

I think this means, “The adamant has no more strength against the air than a little pretty fountain against all the great sea”. Gotta love that Middle English.

But that’s a digression. The definition of pretty as something artfully made becomes even more interesting when you look up gorgeous:

Etymology: Old French gorgias; elegantly or finely dressed, fashionable, gay. Adorned with rich or brilliant colours; sumptuously gay or splendid; showy, magnificent: of persons (with reference to dress).

So both pretty and gorgeous – two of our most used words to describe an attractive person – originally referred to something artificially, cunningly, elegantly made. Could this be the origin of our centuries-old fear that human beauty is a cunning deception, or is it just a reflection of that fear? The conflict between artificial and natural beauty, wherever you decide to draw the line between them, has been responsible for condemning women as whores and elevating them as deities, and this still happens today. Just as wearing makeup was once the prostitute’s mark, people still say that someone looks slutty if they are wearing too much makeup (which is how much exactly??).

I find it a little disturbing that some of the central issues we have with beauty (especially feminine beauty) are actually inscribed in the very words we use to describe it. There’s no getting away from these tensions. But it is useful to recognise that sexism and misogyny (to name just two problems) are deeply embedded in our language, and if we want to sort them out we will have to go right back to the beginning. See you there.

 

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Findens’ Byron Beauties: Guest Post at the Modern Records Centre

As I am fortunate enough to work in a library, I get to look at all kinds of strange old books. The Modern Records Centre archive blog have kindly hosted my thoughts on this little beauty…

donna-inez

Donna Inez from Byron’s poem ‘Don Juan’, in Findens’ Byron Beauties

We know that archive materials offer a window to the past, giving us the materials of history free of interpretation: this odd little book takes us away from the academic books and seminars analysing Byron’s radical politics or innovations in poetic form, to show us how some of Byron’s contemporaries actually read his work.

The ‘Address’ that prefaces the book, written by the editors W. and E. Finden, explains that the book offers “drawings by the most eminent Artists [which] endeavour to rescue the Muse of Byron from those calumnious delineations which have heretofore deformed her creations.” A charming phrase, but one that might require translation.

What this means is that the Findens are not interested in Byron’s politics or poetic form, but they are interested in the beautiful ladies who populate his work – and they are sure that their audience are interested in them too. They go on to claim that the book’s imagined portraits of Byron’s female characters arise from “extraordinary expense and labour, combined with that discrimination which can alone result from a long and intimate study of the highest principles of art”. Sounds impressive, but what does such intimate study actually give us? It gives us “that which is most difficult of accomplishment – the impersonation of ideal beauty.”

Read the rest here…


Cleopatra was a Redhead: A History of Hair

Thanks to a conversation with fellow blogger Vivienne of Bluestocking Blue (on this post), I have been doing some research. Vivienne asked about the beauty politics of hair: what is it about long hair that makes it central to our ideas of beauty, and what roles do gender and economics play in this? Good question.

Rapunzel

Artwork by Jamie Fales (noosed-kitty.blogspot.co.uk)

To start with, we could ask the Bible. I admit that I’m reluctant to do so, but I Corinthians says this:

“I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man praying or prophesying with anything down over his head dishonours his head, 5 but every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be shorn! But since it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 7 For indeed a man ought not to cover his head, being the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.”

So there’s that. Interestingly, the Quran does not say that women should cover their heads, only that they should dress modestly (7:26) and covers their chests (24:31). The Muslim veil was adopted from Christianity. In both religions we see the idea that a woman’s hair is her crowning glory, and that it is related to her sexuality and should therefore be covered. It’s astonishing how squeamish we still are – two thousand years later – about female hair, and how it is policed from head to toe.

So hair is related to sex. But what about money?

Vivienne raised the possibility that long hair is prized as beautiful partly because it is a status symbol: long hair is impractical, so having it implies that you are rich enough not to do physical work. Could this also be why is has been gendered feminine, since women have historically been kept in the house?

My first thought is that while there must be truth in this, it’s also true that women have always worked physically – just not all of them. Women of the forgotten working classes worked physically inside the house and outside, and just tied their hair up. It may not have been practical, but long hair was too tightly bound up with the idea of femininity to be given up: cropping a woman’s hair was a used as a punishment (albeit under the veil of practicality) in prisons and asylums, and also charity schools if Charlotte Brontë is to be believed in Jane Eyre.

Long hair was, however, very much a status symbol when it came to the trend for long powdered wigs (a.k.a. the peruke) in the mid-1600s. Wigs had not been fashionable, but at this time a syphilis epidemic swept Europe (those naughty Europeans!) and an awful lot of people were losing their hair to the disease. When the young French King Louis XIV started wearing a wig to cover his thinning hair, shortly followed by his cousin Charles II, King of England, wigs became a bit of a craze. They got bigger and more elaborate, and could cost more than the annual salary of most workers. And this, Vivienne, is where the term ‘bigwig’ came from. But the peruke was killed off along with the aristocrats in the French Revolution of 1789: the final blow in England came when Prime Minister William Pitt introduced a tax on hair powder in 1795. Trés amusant.

louis xiv

Louis XIV (www.newworldencyclopedia.org)

The relation of hair, sex and economics only got more complex as the centuries wore on, and hair colour became far more important than it deserved to be. Victorian novelists such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens used hair to symbolise their characters’ qualities: blonde hair was given to a “sweet, gentle and submissive” woman (Galia Ofek, p.103), while “dark hair signified fallen or dangerous female sexuality”. The golden hair of a virtuous woman is placed centre stage in Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem ‘Goblin Market’ (read it here), a surreal and sensual fairy tale in which sisters Laura and Lizzie are tempted with fruit by strange “goblin men”. For fruit read sex, obviously (the poem was later published in Playboy, that well-known bastion of poetry). Laura buys some fruit with a lock of her golden hair, but it doesn’t go well – only Lizzie’s strong virginal resistance can save her sister. Both blonde, the sexual and economic power of their golden curls is ambivalent: it can damn them or save them. I’m reminded of Rapunzel.

goblin market

Artwork by Arthur Rackham (rainbowresource.com)

However, in the 1860s sensation fiction – melodramatic, gothic tales of murder and sexual deviance (I know, brilliant. Start with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White) – challenged this norm by introducing the character of the “fair-haired demon” (Margaret Oliphant, quoted in Ofek p.103). She may look like the sweetest golden-haired angel, but this character is a ruthless manipulator with no morals at all. The public loved her.

Writing in Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre (2006), Galia Ofek analyses the association of blonde hair with “gold and sexuality” (p.106) further, arguing that it connects to the “Woman Question” which was in constant public discussion at the time. In 1857 two important legal battles were being fought: the Divorce Act was passed, which made divorce quicker and easier; and the Petition for Married Woman’s Property Bill took place. This petition was part of the process by which married women were eventually given the right, quite simply, to own anything. Before that, once a woman married everything she owned became her husband’s property, as did she. Married women had the same legal status as children, criminals and the insane. Once this began to change, women became more threatening to the social status quo as their economic and legal power increased.

Since a woman’s beauty was one of her only marketable assets, her seductive golden hair really could be the gateway to wealth and power, through marriage. And once her legal rights as a married woman allowed her to wield wealth and power herself, it suddenly felt more dangerous for a man to be tempted by that hair.

Then there were the redheads, like Cleopatra. Cleopatra? Yes, according to historian Joann Fletcher in Cleopatra the Great (2011). The evidence is not conclusive, but one particular portrait in the Herculaneum seems to show Cleopatra, identified by her royal diadem, with red hair. There were fair-haired Greeks in her family line, and red hair does show up in that part of the world, so it is possible. Maybe this explains her fiery and seductive disposition – oh wait, another cliché. Aren’t we humans simple-minded?

rita

Rita Hayworth (fansshare.com)

Although the association of blonde hair with virtue, dark hair with vice, and red hair with sex was constantly questioned throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, classic Hollywood was happy to make use of the old images. Mary Pickford and Doris Day were the blonde sweethearts, while Theda Bara and Hedy Lamarr turned things dark and Rita Hayworth tossed her flaming tresses. Then again, Mae West, Jean Harlow and later Marilyn Monroe shook things up as peroxide vamps – and just like the “fair-haired demon” of Victorian sensation fiction, the public liked it.

But Hollywood doesn’t stand still, and hair has a new starring role nowadays, in How to Win an Oscar. Just ask Anne Hathaway, and Natalie Portman (OK, she didn’t win an Oscar for V for Vendetta but it’s much more memorable than her winning role in Black Swan). A woman shaving her head is still seen as an incredible sacrifice of her crowning glory (oh hello, Bible). Hathaway and Portman are celebrated for shaving their heads because they managed the astonishing achievement of still being beautiful even without hair. Non-beautiful lady skinheads do not receive such adulation, unless I am much mistaken.

anne hathaway

(digitalspy.com)

Now, there is something notable about this whole history of hair – which of course is not exhaustive, but these points are the ones my library and internet research led me towards. Where’s the black hair? Sure, we’ve had dark hair and that had a bad enough rep, but we’re still missing a lot. The politics of the afro, hair relaxing and braids are weighty issues that are still in play – stories crop up about kids with cornrows being kicked out of school, and black models told that they won’t get work if they don’t have their hair relaxed. The best thing for me to do is direct you to bell hooks, and her famous 1988 essay “Straightening Our Hair” (scroll down a bit for the essay). There are also responses to hooks from Hannah Pool and Glenor Roberts in The Guardian, just for a start.

We each navigate our own personal hair politics all the time – should I go blonde, dare to get a fringe? – but the politics of hair are interwoven throughout social, sexual and economic history. Hair matters, far more than I’ve been able to describe here. How much do you think it should really matter – and have I missed any important hair stories?


The Beautiful Author over at FWSA

Zadie Smith

(www.inspirational-black-literature.com)

The kind folk over at the FWSA blog (Feminist and Women’s Studies Association) have published my piece on The Beautiful Author here. Whatever would the publishing industry have done without Zadie Smith?


Book Review: Nanny Knows Best over at FWSA

Nanny

(fwsablog.org)

Anything for a free book! I’ve written a review of Katherine Holden’s Nanny Knows Best: The History of the British Nanny for the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (UK and Ireland) blog, which you can find here

Considering how childcare has changed over the twentieth century, Nanny Knows Best is surprisingly topical and interesting – even for someone who has never watched Mary Poppins, let alone encountered a real nanny.

Shout out for the FWSA too: their website is always great and it’s well worth being on their mailing list for events and opportunities.


Women as Wives and Workers: Marking Fifty Years of The Feminine Mystique

#FemmysAt50

feminine mystique

(debate.org)

There are some books which make their mark even on people who have never read them, and Betty Friedan’s 1963 feminist work, The Feminine Mystique, is definitely one of them. On Saturday 30th November I went to a great conference at Royal Holloway University of London, marking fifty years of Friedan’s influence and questioning the place of her most famous book today.

And if I’m honest, I actually couldn’t remember if I’d read The Feminine Mystique. I knew what the ‘feminine mystique’ was, and had read masses of feminist work talking about Friedan’s book or drawing from it, but wasn’t sure if I had ever read the original. I didn’t admit this at the conference (imagine!), but it was a running joke that many people have ideas about the book without having read it. Its influence has spread far, but has often been distorted along the way, predictably placing Friedan in the Angry Feminist camp (you know, the one that doesn’t really exist).

So if you aren’t quite sure whether you’ve read it either, the feminine mystique is Friedan’s identification of ‘the problem that has no name’: the frustration and dissatisfaction of the 1950s housewife, trapped in the domestic with her identity disappearing into that of her husband and family, and unable to speak out because the role of wife and mother has been so idolised and mystified that it is the only acceptable role for a woman to play. 1950s adverts for household products provide the best illustration of this, painting a picture of the beautiful, demure and capable housewife finding the deepest satisfaction in a new vacuum cleaner.

vacuum

(copenhagenize.com)

I won’t attempt a full review of the Royal Holloway conference because I couldn’t do justice to all the insightful papers and discussions, so instead I’ll talk a bit about the reception of The Feminine Mystique, and beauty, since that’s my particular hobby horse.

For decades now, Friedan’s book has been criticised for failing to address anyone but the American middle classes – after all, working class women tend not to have the luxury of getting bored at home. Alice Lilly’s conference paper highlighted how working-class US mothers in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Programme have been forced, throughout the 20th century, from a financially unfeasible housewife role to an equally impossible working mother role, their income dependent on changing ideals and political machinations. From a different perspective, Caitríona Beaumont fleshed out the 1950s housewife image by detailing the range of community and political work done by women in organisations like the Women’s Institute. Gwen Jordan discussed how even Friedan’s friends and contemporaries in the upper-class neighbourhoods of her hometown Peoria didn’t identify with the housewife Friedan described – an image that Friedan herself didn’t fit either, active as she was in all kinds of work beyond the home.

I think it’s generally accepted that Friedan’s concept of the feminine mystique was important in articulating gender issues that simply didn’t get airtime, and that it would have been difficult to include the huge range of women’s experiences under one banner. What The Feminine Mystique did make clear was that women needed to be able to work, for the sake of themselves and their families, and that the traditional structure of paid work just didn’t accommodate people who might take time off to have children and then have to look after them. We still have that problem.

Another problem we still have is the mystification of certain ideals of womanhood. Household products are still advertised to women, and the perfect wife and mother who can raise kids, keep her home exquisite, please her husband and now have a career too, is still an ideal whose pressure is felt everywhere. And that perfect woman is very much expected to be slim, sexy and fully made-up even after all the kids and the work. Naomi Wolf’s 1991 book The Beauty Myth made an instant impact with its updated understanding of feminine ideals, and the way that women can be kept under control and fleeced of their cash by the pressure to be beautiful, and I won’t be surprised if there is a conference marking the 50th anniversary of that book. I suspect it will remain as controversial and influential, even among those who haven’t read it, as The Feminine Mystique.

beauty myth

(en.wikipedia.org)

What these two books have in common is the idea of mystification, and how one of the main pressures on women is the fact that they are supposed to live up to an ideal at all. The presence of any ideal is a problem when it becomes a requirement rather than an aspiration. Beauty is central to the feminine ideal we have, similar to the way in which strength is central to ideals of masculinity, but men are not nailed to the cross of their ideal image in quite the same way as women. I don’t think ‘the masculine mystique’ would strike such a chord. Or would it?

The feminine mystique has a slightly different face in 2013 – though not as different as many of us would like – and it is now a problem with many names and few solutions. Discussion at the conference shot out in all kinds of directions, taking in generational conflict in feminism, pink toys, husbands’ surnames and gender segregation in religion. And that is precisely the value of The Feminine Mystique: for all the things it doesn’t address, it still opens up discussion of many problems that need to be named and challenged.

With thanks to the conference organisers, speakers and fellow feminists.


The Beautiful Author

When talking about the beauty of people, we tend to discuss those people as passive objects to be looked at. Of course, this issue of objectification is at the heart of many feminist critiques of (usually feminine) beauty. That’s why it’s interesting to think about the beauty of people who are actively working in a sphere that has nothing to do with beauty, and how those people are affected by being judged beautiful. And how beauty is affected by its connection with them.

The beautiful author is a good example of this, and Zadie Smith is a good example in particular.

Zadie Smith

(www.inspirational-black-literature.com)

Writing is not a very public activity, except in the Monty Python sketch in which a running commentary is given on Thomas Hardy writing his new novel in front of a West Country crowd – it’s funny because it’s absurd, and also because watching someone write is incredibly boring.

However, watching someone beautiful write seems to be a different matter. Zadie Smith was heralded as the voice of her generation when her first novel, White Teeth, was published in 2000. Her good looks did not go unnoticed: some said her beauty helped publicise her novel, and some said it prevented her being taken seriously as a writer. I guess that both are true. The point is that her beauty mattered.

In this interview with Christopher Bollen at Interview Magazine, Smith is (of course) asked about the huge success and attention garnered by her first novel, though Bollen stops short of asking her directly about her looks (the Daily Mail, however, is more than happy to focus on this, and the comments below the line do not inspire much faith in humanity). Smith has some interesting answers that suggest a need to separate her public, visible self and her self on the page:

“I just can’t get used to the idea of being somebody unreal in people’s minds. I can’t live my life like that. And it’s just anathema to being a writer. But in another way, what it’s about for me is being good on the page.”

The problem for Smith is that being famous and beautiful creates an image that captures people’s attention, but ultimately has nothing behind it (see ‘Kim Kardashian’), and that is a real problem for a writer – or anyone trying to actually do something. Zadie Smith is transformed by her beauty and a horde of photographers and journalists into an exciting picture (that happens to be holding a book that she wrote). It must be difficult when that book sells millions: is it the words or the body that sold it?

Probably the words, I reckon. Because – and I think this is a good thing – the image of Beautiful Zadie is so empty and irrelevant that no one would bother to actually buy and read a book based on that alone. Beauty might get in the way of sensible discussion of a writer and their work, but I’m not sure it gets in the way of the work itself, or not so much. But it remains a problem that human beauty is seen as so superficial and vacuous that those qualities are imposed on the beautiful person. However, if they keep writing, or whatever it is that they are actively doing, then hopefully we will all get bored of looking at them. The moral of this is obvious: models are not, er, role models. There is no reason why beauty can’t have substance, but this still needs proving in the world of Instagram and Britain’s Next Top Model.

Companion piece: a previous post on the Ugly Philosopher.


Beautiful Money

Jane Austen

Bridgeman Art Library at guardian.co.uk

Please no. Not Jane. I am sad to report (or re-report from the Guardian) that despite the victory of getting Jane Austen on the £10 note, as the only woman to grace our filthy lucre, she has been retouched. Predictably, perhaps.

I can’t really say it better than Tanya Gold at the Guardian, who succinctly voices how utterly terrible and ridiculous this is. Do we have to have another Twitter campaign? I don’t know if I could stand it.


“Beauty Terror”: Thoughts on ‘Bodies’ by Susie Orbach

“Beauty terror” is an evocative phrase. Troubling and mysterious, but I think that everyone will immediately have a good idea of what it means. We have probably all felt it.

Bodies

The idea of beauty terror comes from Susie Orbach’s 2009 book, Bodies, which I have recently been reading and would highly recommend. Orbach is a practising psychoanalyst, and she knows what she is talking about. Her work draws on the real cases of her patients as well as feminist and cultural theory, but it is readable, sensible and kind of rocks.

So what is beauty terror? Is it a terror of beauty itself, beautiful people, or of not being beautiful? I think the last suggestion carries the most weight, but that they are all connected. According to Orbach, beauty terror is created by:

  • The 2000-5000 Photoshopped and enhanced images of bodies that we see every week
  • The ideal of beauty that these bodies show – a kind of beauty that is becoming ever more narrow, with less room for variation
  • The beauty industry which produces these images, and then offers products to ‘fix’ our faulty bodies and solve our insecurities
  • The insecurities that they created in the first place, you mean?
  • Yes, those ones. What a genius money-spinner.

BACKSTAGE_2052829a

“Our bodies are and have become a form of work.” Fun! (Orbach, p.16). fashion.telegraph.co.uk

People defend beauty practices (or beauty work, as feminists rightly call it) by saying that we have always used makeup and transformed our bodies. Cleopatra’s eyeliner and the African tribes who stretch their necks with bangles are often given as justification. Orbach has an excellent response to this, which hinges on the fact that those kinds of beauty practices were done for very different reasons:

“What is new today, however, is the way in which bodily transformation is no longer linked to social ritual within the family but is part of the individual’s response to wanting to produce what is an acceptable body.” (p.98)

An elongated neck may be regarded as a feature of attractiveness, but that is strongly bound up with its role as a feature of belonging to that community. As for Cleopatra and pals, apparently kohl eyeliner helps stop you having to squint against the sun.

The bodily transformation we chase today is a feature of a different kind of belonging: the ideal body is presented as the only acceptable body, and anything less is less than human. A fat body is called a whale, a cow, a lump. An animal, an object, a failure. Never a person, just trying to get on with their life.

Photoshopped-dog-or-a-woman

lolzbook.com. Yeah. Lolz.

So of course we keep going back to the beauty and diet products, and the advice of the beauty magazines, because we keep failing to become acceptable. And of course we fail: the ideal, acceptable human body is not a human body at all, but a digital image, a set of pixels that have been shifted, brightened and deleted by Photoshop whizzes into an eerie shiny symmetry. A symmetry which flesh can only achieve when sliced up and sewn back together. As Orbach says, “the body has become a series of individual images and a labour process in itself” (p.90).

And we sort of know this, we do. “We reject the idea of being under ‘assault’ by the beauty industry as offensive to our intelligence. We believe that we can be critical of the negative practices of this persuasive industry and simply enjoy fashion and beauty, and yet the constant exhortation to change gets under our skin” (Orbach, p.108-9).

Simple resistance is really too much to expect of anyone who has been surrounded by these images, adverts and beauty talk – fat talk, transformation talk, makeup talk – since, well, birth. It’s too much to expect that anyone could ignore the clamour and feel like their body is just a vehicle that they live in, and it doesn’t really matter how it looks. We no longer have that idea of the body made available to us. Instead, that vehicle needs pimpin’.

We can try though. Reading books like Bodies and talking about them is a pretty good start. Adding to our beauty talk some discussion of Photoshop, capitalist profit-making and the problems in the dream we are sold.

Making a noise. Being more than a picture.

word hug

vyperlook.com


Alchemy

Alchemy

http://www.levity.com

I am currently writing an article on beauty and alchemy, and in the meeting of these two subjects I keep encountering the idea of transformation. In particular, transformation of the self. Alchemy, which has been around as an art, a science and a philosophy since at least the second century B.C., was not just about turning base metals into gold. The serious alchemists, who were not just trying to get rich, were more concerned with transforming their own souls, and even the outside world, into a metaphorical ‘gold’ – i.e. beautiful perfection.

This desire for perfecting oneself is still very much around today, and amusingly enough the alchemical idea of transformation produces some serious gold – for the cosmetics companies.

It seems that the gold we’re seeking to make out of ordinary materials is now beauty, a process we can see on countless makeover programmes. But beauty represents a more general transformation: as Cinderella shows us, becoming beautiful entails a further transformation into prosperity, happiness and love. Happy ever after. This is precisely what most of the adverts that bombard us every day are trading on.

images

vibemistress.blogspot.com

The difference in alchemy is that beauty is not the ultimate transformation. It is a subordinate metaphor, that represents the ultimate transformation of the soul. However, that is a life’s work – I mean, how much easier is it to find a ‘new you’ just by losing ten pounds and buying a new lipstick?

I think this is partly why alchemy has had a bit of a revival in the last few decades. Self-help books by Jay Ramsay (Alchemy: The Art of Transformation), self-help novels by Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist) and novels like Lindsay Clarke’s The Chymical Wedding, Patrick Harpur’s Mercurius: The Marriage of Heaven and Earth and Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee – these all use alchemy as a framework for freeing the soul (or perhaps the mind, nowadays) from the pettiness and corruption of Western capitalist culture. Fiction recently has started to explore and advocate a return to the more serious work of self-transformation, involving a fuller understanding of human beauty – our desire for it and its effect on us. And although I’m not sure about combining sulphur and mercury in a hermetically sealed vessel, I still think these reworkings of alchemy have more to offer than lipstick.