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Chapter V 


CONCERNING THE PERFECT WOMAN, AND THEREFORE CONCERNING ALL FEMININE READERS

As I once more got under way, my thoughts slowly loitered back to the theme which had been occupying them before I dropped asleep. What was my working hypothesis of the Perfect Woman, towards whom I was thus leisurely strolling? She might be defined, I reflected, as The Woman Who Is Worthy Of Us; but the improbability which every healthily conceited young man must feel of ever finding such a one made the definition seem a little unserviceable. Or, if you prefer, since we seem to be dealing with impossibles, we might turn about and more truly define her as The Woman of Whom We are Worthy, for who dare say that she exists? If, again, she were defined as the Woman our More Fortunate Friend Marries, her unapproachableness would rob the definition of any practical value. Other generalisations proving equally unprofitable, I began scientifically to consider in detail the attributes of the supposititious paragon,--attributes of body and mind and heart. This was soon done; but again, as I thus conned all those virtues which I was to expect united in one unhappy woman, the result was still unsatisfying, for I began to perceive that it was really not perfection that I was in search of. As I added virtue after virtue to the female monster in my mind, and the result remained still inanimate and unalluring, I realised that the lack I was conscious of was not any new perfection, but just one or two honest human imperfections. And this, try as I would, was just what I could not imagine.

For, if you reflect a moment, you will see that, while it is easy to choose what virtues we would have our wife possess, it is all but impossible to imagine those faults we would desire in her, which I think most lovers would admit add piquancy to the loved one, that fascinating wayward imperfection which paradoxically makes her perfect.

Faults in the abstract are each and all so uninviting, not to say alarming, but, associated with certain eyes and hair and tender little gowns, it is curious how they lose their terrors; and, as with vice in the poet's image, we end by embracing what we began by dreading. You see the fault becomes a virtue when it is hers, the treason prospers; wherefore, no doubt, the impossibility of imagining it. What particular fault will suit a particular unknown girl is obviously as difficult to determine as in what colours she will look her best.

So, I say, I plied my brains in vain for that becoming fault. It was the same whether I considered her beauty, her heart, or her mind. A charming old Italian writer has laid down the canons of perfect feminine beauty with much nicety in a delicious discourse, which, as he delivered it in a sixteenth- century Florentine garden to an audience of beautiful and noble ladies, an audience not too large to be intimate and not too small to be embarrassing, it was his delightful good fortune and privilege to illustrate by pretty and sly references to the characteristic beauties of the several ladies seated like a ring of roses around him. Thus he would refer to the shape of Madonna Lampiada's sumptuous eyelids, and to her shell-like ears, to the correct length and shape of Madonna Amororrisca's nose, to the lily tower of Madonna Verdespina's throat; nor would the unabashed old Florentine shrink from calling attention to the unfairness of Madonna Selvaggia's covering up her dainty bosom, just as he was about to discourse upon "those two hills of snow and of roses with two little crowns of fine rubies on their peaks. "How could a man lecture if his diagrams were going to behave like that! Then, feigning a tiff, he would close his manuscript, and all the ladies with their birdlike voices would beseech him with "Oh, no, Messer Firenzuola, please go on again; it's SO charming!" while, as if by accident, Madonna Selvaggia's moonlike bosom would once more slip out its heavenly silver, perceiving which, Messer Firenzuola would open his manuscript again and proceed with his sweet learning.

Happy Firenzuola! Oh, days that are no more!

By selecting for his illustrations one feature from one lady and another from another, Messer Firenzuola builds up an ideal of the Beautiful Woman, which, were she to be possible, would probably be as faultily faultless as the Perfect Woman, were she possible.

Moreover, much about the same time as Firenzuola was writing, Botticelli's blonde, angular, retrousse women were breaking every one of that beauty- master's canons, perfect in beauty none the less; and lovers then, and perhaps particularly now, have found the perfect beauty in faces to which Messer Firenzuola would have denied the name of face at all, by virtue of a quality which indeed he has tabulated, but which is far too elusive and undefinable, too spiritual for him truly to have understood,--a quality which nowadays we are tardily recognising as the first and last of all beauty, either of nature or art,--the supreme, truly divine, because materialistically unaccountable, quality of Charm!

"Beauty that makes holy earth and heaven May have faults from head to feet."

O loveliest and best-loved face that ever hallowed the eyes that now seek for you in vain! Such was your strange lunar magic, such the light not even death could dim. And such may be the loveliest and best- loved face for you who are reading these pages,--faces little understood on earth because they belong to heaven.

There is indeed only one law of beauty on which we may rely,--that it invariably breaks all the laws laid down for it by the professors of aesthetics. All the beauty that has ever been in the world has broken the laws of all previous beauty, and unwillingly dictated laws to the beauty that succeeded it,--laws which that beauty has no less spiritedly broken, to prove in turn dictator to its successor.

The immortal sculptors, painters, and poets have always done exactly what their critics forbade them to do. The obedient in art are always the forgotten.

Likewise beautiful women have always been a law unto themselves. Who could have prophesied in what way any of these inspired law-breakers would break the law, what new type of perfect imperfection they would create?

So we return to the Perfect Woman, having gained this much knowledge of her,--that her perfection is nothing more or less than her unique, individual, charming imperfection, and that she is simply the woman we love and who is fool enough to love us.

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