Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Hidden Laughter of Women: An Aspect of Pater's Sensibility

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Hidden Laughter of Women: An Aspect of Pater's Sensibility

Article excerpt

Among the wide variety of female figures contemplated in Pater's work, there are a few who act as vehicles of a disturbing enlightenment, women whose detached amusement and range of knowledge challenge the onlooker. This essay explores three of the most important of these women: Mona Lisa, the Empress Faustina, and Marguerite of Navarre.

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At first sight, it may not seem profitable to explore the views of women entertained by a celibate Oxford lecturer, working in an all-male environment, who freely admitted his admiration for the beauty of young men. (1) Further acquaintance with Pater's work reveals a wide variety of female characters contemplated in painting, myth, history, and fiction. Apart from the obvious point that Pater found them significant in diverse ways, no generalization could embrace all the women he touches on or discusses at length: Nicolette, Shakespeare's Isabella, Feuillet's Aliette, Merimee's Colomba, Botticelli's Madonnas and Venus, David's Marie Antoinette, Demeter and Persephone, Antiope, Phaedra and Artemis in "Hippolytus Veiled," Faustina and Marguerite, Vittoria Colonna, Saint Catherine of Siena, Marie Marguerite Pater, Marius' mother, Cecilia, Gabrielle de Latour and numerous others. However, among these many female figures, there are a few who act as vehicles of disturbing enlightenment, women whose detached amusement challenges the onlooker and whose range of knowledge and experience are of an unexpected depth. They offer journeys into new ways of feeling and understanding.

Specific and relatively limited though this topic is, it still has the problems inherent in any thematic exploration encompassing work from different periods of a writer's career. There is a danger in juxtaposing figures produced in varied contexts and, perhaps, serving dissimilar purposes. Possibly the subject is too volatile and centrifugal to yield a coherent pattern. However, if such a pattern does emerge without forcing, it might illuminate the development of Pater's thought from a new angle. It may be useful to examine together three of Pater's female images; the mysterious face which is the object of the painter's quest in "Leonardo da Vinci" (1869), the figure of Faustina in Marius the Epicurean (1885-86), and that of Marguerite of Navarre from the unfinished section of Gaston de Latour. This portion of Pater's uncompleted novel is particularly interesting since he continued to work on it up to his death (1894). It remained unpublished until many years later.

In order to understand the full significance of the image of women in "Leonardo da Vinci" it is necessary to consider the structure of that essay as a whole. Both the structure and the tone of "Leonardo da Vinci" are shaped by a series of deliberate rejections. Pater denies the reader several possible explanations of Leonardo, closing avenues of enquiry that might have appeared both interesting and fruitful. Throughout the essay he offers a series of delicate yet palpable affronts to various recognized expectations and standards. "Leonardo da Vinci," for example, begins and ends with disparaging, even mildly mocking comments on minute scholarship ("Mere antiquarianism has in this direction little more to do" (2) and "Two questions remain after much busy antiquarianism.... They are of about equally little importance" [101]). From the first, Pater strikes a note of scepticism about the materials as well as the methods of scholarship. The two editions of Vasari's Lives of the Painters, the main source, present quite different pictures of Leonardo. In the first, he is a "bold speculator" (77), in the second "something fainter and more conventional." If that were not unsettling enough, later criticism has not left a single one of the anecdotes on which the popular image of Leonardo rests, "untouched" (78). The premises of what we have long taken as knowledge ("later writers merely copied it") are flawed and unreliable. …

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