Beauty is in the eye of the beholder… get it out with Optrex!

 

My elder sister went to art school. On one of her first visits home, she made us laugh with tales of the spectacular graffiti in the women’s toilettes. The one that has stuck with me through the years was “beauty is in the eye of the beholder, get it out with Optrex”. What a great observation! Still makes me smile. And wouldn’t it be great it were true?

If the imprint of beauty could be removed from the eye of the beholder with the simple application of a drop of Optrex how different the world might be? Imagine if Paris had bathed his eyes after his first sighting of Helen — he might never have abducted her and caused her husband Menelaus to launch the 10-year Trojan War to get her back. In that parallel universe, we might still be able to visit Troy. What about Mark Antony whose torrid liaison with Cleopatra ultimately handed ascendency in Rome post-Caesar to Octavian (or Agustus as he was to become) transitioning Rome from Republic to Empire? If Rome had stayed true to its republican virtues instead of dissolving into the lassitude of the late Empire that had no fight in it left when the Vandals came knocking at its gates. If the empire had not fallen, how different would the course of Western History have been? If an eye-drop could have prevented Henry VIII from falling in love with Anne Boleyn and out of love with the Catholic Church (which actually wouldn’t have existed in the earlier scenario if Rome had not fallen), there might not have been a Reformation and we might all still be living in the dark ages deprived of the flowering of the first Elizabethan era.

Optrex wasn’t introduced to the market until the 1930’s so even if it could wash beauty from the hapless beholder’s eye, it was too late to for Troy and Rome. It’s not all bad though, Henry’s VIII’s obsession with Anne Boleyn helped gave us the double whammy of the Reformation and Elizabeth’s amazing reign. In any case, it’s clear that Optrex actually can’t do any such thing, as people have continued to fall in love with the same frequency and occasionally shocking consequences as they did before it’s introduction in the thirties.

I like the idea of beauty being in the eye of the beholder because it allows for the possibility that every one of us can be beautiful to someone. Other than Helen, I’m not entirely clear that any of those spectacular women I’ve just mentioned would be described as classic beauties in the Venus de Milo tradition. Rather their attractiveness and power seems to have stemmed more from their beguiling personalities bringing together intelligence, vivacity, and elegance as well as alluring physical charms. However it’s defined, when we think about beauty, it’s more likely to be the drop-dead gorgeous variety which makes the hormones race rather than the inner type which has a slower burning fuse. Think about it, there’s Angelina Jolie and there’s Dame Judy Dench. While Dame Judy is undoubtedly a beautiful soul, she’s never been in La Jolie’s league physically. Even in her younger days, Dame Judy’s beauty was, like Intel, largely on the inside. I’m sure their mothers loved them equally (although, reading the gossip mags, that may not actually be true), but only one of them had the world (and for many years the divine Brad Pitt) at her feet because of her Helenesque loveliness. It has to be said that unlike the mythical Menelaus, Brad does not appear to have been so beguiled by Angelina that he set out with a flotilla of 1,000 ships to get her back when they broke up. Of course, the peerless Dame Judy also has long had a proportion of the world at her feet, but the adoration is more based on admiration of her art than her drop-dead gorgeousness. That’s not to say that la belle Jolie can’t act, clearly she can, and well. But that skill often gets lost in the hysteria surrounding her looks, eating habits and choices of mate.

Kids at school know the truth — generally before the 17 years it took Janis Ian to understand “that love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear skinned smiles”. Everyone in the playground knows who the cute, adorable ones are. Unfair though it is, beautiful children who grow into beautiful people get more attention, more opportunities and generally more of everything than others. Sifting through articles on the subject, other than the relative ease of finding top quality mates, it’s evident that BPs experience many other advantages. Attractive students get higher grades. Banks and other institutions loan more readily to the lookers (who apparently are less likely to default). In mock criminal trials physically attractive ‘defendants’ are less likely to be convicted and the ones that are get lighter sentences. The BP brigade earns more than their less attractive peers by as much as 10 percent. All of this is hardly news, more like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but in a world where at least a proportion of it’s global citizens are genuinely seeking social equity, this is just another example of the playing field not being even. There’s even is a word for it — lookism. Who knew?

I remember seeing a programme in the early 2000s presented by John Cleese – The Human Face —  which set out to show that there is a mathematical formula for why someone like Liz Hurley (who was Cleese’s muse through the narrative) is so incredibly gorgeous. They used computer technology to aggregate images of many faces into a composite that was considered to be the distillation of the human face at its most beautiful. As I recall, this mathematical grid arrived at heart-shaped face, which the wide range of beauties they then superimposed on the grid all conformed to including the more famous Liz (Taylor), Marilyn, Greta et al.

Youth and beauty, both male and female, have been potent currency since us humans first walked the planet. However unfair, it’s simply a fact of life. But there is also a downside. BPs have to live with the knowledge that they are often not judged on the terms they wish to be. I knew a woman in London who was a Julie Christie look alike. She was truly ravishing — to the point that when she was talking to you, it was hard not to get mesmerised and lose track of what she was saying. It was almost like being under a spell and you just got lost in the glory of looking at her. She said very few people (men or women) looked below the surface to see who she really was as a person. Our circle expected her to marry some A Lister, financial whizz or other distinguished personage. How superficial of us! Eventually she married a really likeable, but pretty run-of-the-mill dude, because she said he actually saw her as a person, not just a beautiful façade and that was good enough for her. In addition to always being taken at face value, as St. Augustine observed, “beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked.” Presumably Moors Murderer Ian Bradley found Myra Hyndley (“the most evil woman in Britain”) drop dead gorgeous in the beginning.

Coming back to the opening, if beauty like that possessed by Helen of Troy, Angelina Jolie or Liz Hurley were the only currency for attraction, our species would have become extinct long-since. Imagine the slaughter in Trojan-type wars fought over the limited pool of available lovelies, leaving the rest of us withering on the vine of solitary childlessness and the species unable to reproduce itself. The upside would be that we would have perished sublimely unaware of ticking of The Doomsday Clock as it endlessly re-calibrates the current and very real threats — WMDs, climate change or Donald Trump — that could conspire to destroy us! Thankfully, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, allowing even self professed “ugly duckling girls” like Janis Ian to shine for someone and no amount of Optrex will ever make that different.

Where’s the ‘honour’ in killing?

A few years ago I wrote a novelette — shorter than a novella and longer than a short story — about Anne Boleyn’s last days. Recently I read something that caused me to dust off this minor opus and look at it through a slightly different lens; not just as the story of one wronged woman, but as a story that is part of a deeper context of all wronged women.

Anne Boleyn’s story has always moved me. The Anger of Princes is Death was an attempt to imagine how this extraordinary woman’s last days and hours might have unfolded. What on earth would go through your mind as you walk towards a scaffold where a swordsman is waiting to hack your head from your body? You are an anointed queen and you have sworn before God you are innocent of the charges against you. Your trial was a trumped up farce — you weren’t even allowed the right to defend yourself. Most of your friends and family have deserted you. In many cases they even testified against you. A man who once loved you with a passion that caused him to move heaven and earth to marry you signed your death warrant and is now waiting eagerly for the cannon fire that will tell him he’s free to marry his new love. Your adored brother and some of your dearest friends — cited as your lovers —have already been tried and killed.

It must surely have been a gruesome vigil waiting for your date with death. Then finally, the last short but seemingly interminable walk from The Queen’s Apartments in the Tower of London to the scaffold. A walk not of shame as your enemies saw it, but of turbulent emotions — a desperate wish to cling to life mixed with a profound longing for the ordeal to be over. And yet, witnesses say Anne Boleyn took those last few steps to her death with dignity and self-control, and without protest against the system that had condemned her.

Many contemporaries saw Anne’s execution as the cynical killing of a woman, who was ‘past her sell-by-date’ and who’d become an inconvenient nuisance to Henry VIII, a view point most historians now agree with. Every time I think about it, I’m disturbed all over again. It’s not as if I knew her or she were my friend or even a friend of a friend. It’s nearly five centuries since this drama unfolded, but her ghost haunts me because of the circumstances and the overwhelming feeling of injustice involved.

It has to be said that Royal Courts, such as that of Henry VIII were notoriously visceral. Power and wealth were there for the taking through service to the monarch, but much pride went before many falls for people who over-reached. Anne Boleyn’s dazzling rise and spectacular plummet is just one example. While the other beheading of a queen of Henry’s, Katherine Howard, his fourth wife and Anne’s first cousin, is still a repulsive act, there isn’t the same sense of injustice because the evidence of adultery is very compelling. Few at the time or since really questioned her guilt. She was a foolish girl and paid a very high price for her folly. While one can argue a whole bunch of things about the wrongness of any form of death penalty, by the norms of the day, she was likely guilty of a capital offence.

Anne Boleyn however, was anything but a foolish girl. She was a spirited woman of the Renaissance. Talented, well educated and intellectually curious, Anne is credited with playing a significant part in the Reformation of the Church in England through her friendship with and advocacy of some of its leading figures and her influence on Henry VIII. It is likely the worst she was actually guilty of was over-arching ambition, arrogance and the inability to produce a male heir for her mercurial and often cruel husband. It seems Henry did convince himself somewhat conveniently that the charges against her were true and while he expressed outrage at her betrayal, the reality seems to be that he had fallen out of love with her and Anne’s execution opened up the possibility of his marriage to someone else who could legitimately bear him heirs.

There are few monarchs or rulers in history that can match the beguiling awfulness of Henry VIII who cemented the House of Tudor on the English throne after the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487). His reign became notorious for his break with the Church of Rome in order to marry Anne Boleyn, after which he made himself head of the Church in England and dissolved the abbeys, significantly enriching his exchequer. Under his watch came the Reformation which caused deep religious divisions in the country and a growing pile of corpses belonging to the many people who didn’t agree with him, most famously Thomas More, his one time friend. And then there were his celebrated marital excesses. The sheer theatricality of the six wives, two of whom were careless enough to end up without their heads, retains a morbid fascination that often eclipses the much more significant events that were taking place.

My interest in history goes as far back as can remember. But as a kid, the concept of history was little more than a parade of kings, queens, princes and princesses and my friends and I fixated on the ‘gory’ bits. Henry VIII provided endless grist to our imaginative little mills. We used to recite the old “divorced (Catherine of Aragon) … beheaded (Anne Boleyn) … died (Jane Seymour) … divorced (Anne of Cleves) … beheaded (Katherine Howard) … survived (Catherine Parr)” mnemonic in primary school to remember their order. Technically of course, divorce is incorrect as the marriages were annulled, but that was too complicated for children playing Henry VIII and his wives in a school playground! Even as a child it was easy to feel that the last wife, Catherine Parr, had a lucky escape when Henry died and she could marry her true love, Thomas Seymour. But Anne Boleyn was always the romantic heroine of the piece and we all fought to be the one to play her.

But I digress. Through the ages, most royal and noble women have been considered and treated as little more than chattels. They moved from the domination of their father to that of their husband and often they had no or little say in whom that would be. Their principle duties were to be virgins at the time of the marriage, reproduce as often as possible, remaining faithful till death so there could be no question about the legitimacy of their children. For the wives of kings, adultery was treasonous and generally carried the death penalty. Very Game of Thrones! (George RR Martin apparently drew his inspiration from the Wars of The Roses.)

But looking at Anne Boleyn’s treatment through my different lens, I see shades of what we now call ‘honour killing’. This is defined as the killing of a family member by other members of the family, due to their belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family or has violated the principles of a community or religion. One of the most common ‘crimes against honour’ is of course adultery, although there are many others. In Anne’s case, mirroring that of so many other women before and since, alleged charges — if you exclude the testimony of a young musician gained under torture — were all that were needed to convict her.

The concept of killing adulterous wives and unchaste daughters has a long and inglorious history and is by no means limited to practitioners of fundamental religions. Some examples include The Lex Julia de Adulteris Coercendis enacted by Caesar Augustus which gave the Roman pater familias the right, as a point of honour, to kill his unmarried sexually active daughters or his adulterous wife. Aztec and Inca societies apparently punished adultery by death. In France, the Napoleonic Code of 1810 made it legal for husbands to murder unfaithful wives and partners, but wives did not have the same right in respect of adulterous husbands. Scarily, this law wasn’t formally repealed until 1975 although it’s hard to imagine any court by then condoning such murders! The Napoleonic Code inspired similar legislation in some of the Middle Eastern countries where France’s influence was strong. Throughout Mediterranean Europe the concept of familial and community honour was a way of life and defined the lives, customs and values of many peoples — the Sicilian Mafia being just one example.

What’s so insidious about honour killing is the whole vicious cycle: the killers often take pride or self-righteous justification in their actions, the community leaders protect the killers and the authorities connive the cover up. While it isn’t only women that are killed for honour, women are its main victims. Apparently, instances of this barbaric practice are on the rise. It’s unconscionable in this day and age that, all over the world, women from all walks of life, irrespective of class, ethnicity or religious background are treated as the property of the men with the power of life and death over them. You don’t even have to be a prince for your anger to mean death!

Clearly writing a short story about a long-dead queen does nothing to change this. But re-reading my story, reminded me of the on-going need to speak up against inequality wherever it occurs, particularly when it’s based on outdated and frankly ridiculous concepts of masculine honour and pride. Death is just the most extreme outcome for such women in a world where life is not fair and there is no justice to be had.

If you’d like to read my small, but perfectly formed novellette, The Anger of Princes is Death, it’s available as a kindle book on Amazon.